Pope Francis’ annual Christmas speeches to the Roman Curia have become famous for their honest – some would say brutal – critiques of infighting, careerism and selfishness found in the top tier of the Vatican’s bureaucracy leadership.
This year, the pope set his sights on in-house critics and “those who betray the trust put in them,” in particular Vatican officials who, when they find themselves sidelined from power, go around complaining of a “pope kept in the dark.”
He urged the Roman Curia members to rise above the “unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques,” saying it represents a “cancer” inside the church and undermines the Curia’s role of service to the universal church.
The pope also hinted that internal opposition was slowing down his ambitious plans to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, and he quoted a 19th-century Belgian archbishop, who once said: “Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush.”
The pope’s comments came at the end of a year in which several cardinals challenged him publicly on the issue of Communion for divorced Catholics; in which the Vatican’s top liturgy official tried to dismiss a papal shift on liturgical translations; and in which the Vatican’s departing doctrinal head slammed the door on his way out, complaining about the way he was dismissed.
The most recently published book on Francis, “The Dictator Pope,” picks up on the unusually open level of tension between the pontiff and the traditional power centers of the Roman Curia.
Pope Francis sometimes likes to give the impression that criticism rolls off his back. His talk to Curia officials Dec. 21, however, left no doubt that the pope is extremely sensitive to the fault-finding and second-guessing, and wants his team members rowing in sync.
One key passage seemed to single out cardinals who, having been let go from their Vatican jobs, have continued to carp from the sidelines:
Here let me allude to another danger: those who betray the trust put in them and profiteer from the Church’s motherhood. I am speaking of persons carefully selected to give a greater vigor to the body and to the reform, but – failing to understand the lofty nature of their responsibility – let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory. Then, when they are quietly sidelined, they wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system, of a “Pope kept in the dark”, of the “old guard”…, rather than reciting a mea culpa. Alongside these, there are others who are still working there, to whom all the time in the world is given to get back on the right track, in the hope that they find in the Church’s patience an opportunity for conversion and not for personal advantage.
In another passage, the pope emphasized that the role of Vatican offices was above all service to the whole church. “A Curia closed in on itself would betray its own raison d’être and plunge into self-referentiality and ultimately destroy itself,” he said. That implies unity with the pope, he said:
The relationship that these images suggest is that of communion in filial obedience for the service of God’s holy people. There can be no doubt, then, that such must be also the relationship that exists between all those who work in the Roman Curia. From the dicastery heads and superiors to the officials and all others. Communion with Peter reinforces and reinvigorates communion between all the members.