By Cian Molloy - 25 December, 2017
Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush
When a boss sends Christmas greetings to his employees, you don’t usually expect him to include criticisms but this is exactly what Pope Francis did in his greeting to members of the Curia, the Vatican’s civil service.
Acknowledging that that ‘the vast majority’ of bishops, priests and lay people in the Curia were ‘faithful persons working with praiseworthy commitment, fidelity, competence, dedication and great sanctity, Francis said there are those within the Vatican’s ranks who ‘betray the trust put in them and profiteer from the Church’s motherhood’.
Strong words indeed, especially targeted towards some of those people appointed by Pope Francis himself to make the Curia more accountable, transparent and efficient. “I am speaking of persons carefully selected to give a greater vigour to the body and to the reform, but – failing to understand the lofty nature of their responsibility – let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vain glory. 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.”
Right from the start of his address to the assembly in the Clementine Hall, next to St Peter’s Basilica, the Pope was frank in his comments and in his opening prayer: “Today is once again a moment for exchanging Christmas greetings and for wishing a holy and joyful Christmas and a happy New Year to you and your co-workers, to the Papal Representatives, to all those persons who serve in the Curia, and to all your dear ones. May this Christmas open our eyes so that we can abandon what is superfluous, false, malicious and sham, and to see what is essential, true, good and authentic. My best wishes indeed!”
The Pope acknowledged the difficulty of making changes to an organisation as ancient as the Roman Curia by citing an ‘amusing yet pointed remark’ made by Archbishop Frédéric-François-Xavier de Mérode, ‘Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush’. This bon mot, said Francis, points to the patience, tenacity and sensitivity needed, as the Curia is an ancient, complex and venerable institution made up of people of different cultures, languages and mindsets, bound, intrinsically to the primatial office of the Bishop of Rome’.
Ostensibly, the Pope’s address was about how the Curia conducts its relations with the outside world, with other Churches and with other faiths. In essence, he says the Curia must be outward looking (ad extra) so that it can work for the good of the entire Church. He said: “A Curia closed in on itself would betray its own raison d’être and plunge into self-referentiality and ultimately destroy itself. The Church, is by her very nature projected ad extra.”
The Pope concluded his address with a meditation on the nature of faith, as Christmas is, he said, ‘a Feast of Faith’. He said: “I began our meeting by speaking of Christmas as the Feast of Faith. I would like to conclude though, by pointing out that Christmas reminds us that a faith that does not trouble us is a troubled faith. A faith that does not make us grow is a faith that needs to grow. A faith that does not raise questions is a faith that has to be questioned. A faith that does not rouse us is a faith that needs to be roused. A faith that does not shake us is a faith that needs to be shaken.
“Indeed, a faith which is only intellectual or lukewarm is only a notion of faith. It can become real once it touches our heart, our soul, our spirit and our whole being. Once it allows God to be born and reborn in the manger of our heart. Once we let the star of Bethlehem guide us to the place where the Son of God lies, not among Kings and riches, but among the poor and humble.”