Pope Francis and the Christmas
I remember the afternoon that Josef Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. It was a Tuesday afternoon—almost, one could say, in the declining April sun, early evening. The white smoke had plumed out of the Sistine Chapel about 4:45 pm and I had taken my place on the roof of the Jesuit Curia on the Borgo Santo Spirito where RTE, the Irish National Broadcasting Network, had set up their cameras and microphones to cover the news in Saint Peter’s Square below. I was doing some consulting for RTE and other networks and it was all very thrilling. We knew a Pope had been elected but we didn’t yet know whom. We had presumed it would be Cardinal Ratzinger but as the first day and a half of the conclave had passed with (presumably) 10 ballots and no quick conclusion, we weren’t sure the frontrunner was going to emerge after all. It would, of course, be Ratzinger/Benedict but, at this point, we were waiting anxiously for the announcement. We had Cardinal Dulles all lined up to speak once the announcement was made, but as they tried to fill to awkward time between the smoke and the announcement, one of the commentators suddenly had a camera put on me and asked “Who do you think the new Pope will be?” I had no idea, of course, and said so, adding “I can’t tell you who we will get, but I can tell you what we need. We need someone who get in there and clean out that rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignori that calls itself the Curia Romana.” My friends have long known that I lack that part of the brain that filters what one says, and anyone who knows me would never put me live in front of a microphone, much less on camera. What I didn’t know until Irish friends called and told me later that day, is that in the Dublin studio was Bishop John Magee, then Bishop of Cloyne, who had served long in Vatican administration and had been private secretary to three popes (Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II). Magee is the only person in Vatican history to have served as private secretary to three popes. Magee was obviously displeased at my remarks about “that rats’ nest of pezzi grossi monsignors” and even more so when the Dublin commentator asked him if he had been one of those pezzi grossi monsignors. He had, of course, and it served him well over the years; he “resigned” under Benedict because of his duplicity in covering up sex abuse charges in his diocese—the orders for which had come from that very same “rats’ nest,” the Curia Romana.
Well, one Conclave later it looks like we got the Pope we need to clean up the rats’ nest. One of his first actions as Pope was for Francis to appoint a commission of eight cardinals to look closely at the Curia and see how it might be reformed. While this seems to be primarily a matter of reorganization and streamlining of the bureaucracy, Francis has not overlooked the issue of moral reform as well. He has moved and removed people who appeared to him to be more career than service oriented or who have been suspect of using their positions for financial gain. He has ordered drastic reforms of the Vatican Bank and its practices. But the greatest surprise—and most heartening sign of his determination—came in the Christmas message to the Curia just three days before Christmas. Beginning with a pro forma pious reflection on the feast and the usual congratulations and thanks to those who work in the Curia, he soon swung into the most unexpected, indeed revolutionary, set of reflections that a pope has given in the recorded history of the Church.
Pope Francis named fifteen “diseases” that are eating away at the health of the Church and located these diseases right in the middle of what some of us have long seen as the Excretory System of the Mystical Body, the Curia Romana.
To quote the Pope, the first of these ailments is:
The disease of thinking we are “immortal”, “immune” or downright “indispensable”, neglecting the need for regular check-ups. A Curia which is not self-critical, which does not keep up with things, which does not seek to be more fit, is a sick body. A simple visit to the cemetery might help us see the names of many people who thought they were immortal, immune and indispensable! It is the disease of the rich fool in the Gospel, who thought he would live forever (cf. Lk 12:13-21), but also of those who turn into lords and masters, and think of themselves as above others and not at their service. It is often an effect of the pathology of power, from a superiority complex, from a narcissism which passionately gazes at its own image and does not see the image of God on the face of others, especially the weakest and those most in need. The antidote to this plague is the grace of realizing that we are sinners and able to say heartily: “We are unworthy servants. We have only done what was our duty” (Lk 17:10).
Anyone who has lived in Rome knows precisely what the Holy Father is addressing here. It is a profound challenge to dress in red silk and Brussels lace with a large amethyst on your pinkie and silver buckles on your shoes and be led to your little gilt chair by two uniformed Swiss Guards and a white-tie and tailed Gentleman of His Holiness and remember you are a mere mortal. All the bowing and scraping and Eminenza this and Eccelenza that throws all but the most holy into a parallel universe where, to say in genteel terms what I would like to say in street talk, their feces doesn’t reek and they have an august importance beyond mere mortals. In the Curia of John Paul II and Benedict, those aforementioned pezzi grossi monsignors sitting enthroned behind their desks in some Vatican palazzo or other, could make Archbishops tremble with knocked knees by their imperious irreverence as they paged through dossiers making wild accusations and refusing to name their sources. And as for arrogance: “We do not speak to the help” was one memo sent to a visiting priest from the Emirates who had dared to speak to an elevator operator in the presence of a Cardinal Secretary of a Congregation. So thank you, Pope Francis, for calling out the pride of men who claim to be the disciples of the one who came to serve and not to be served. Hopefully your mission of Reform will be accomplished but it certainly will be remembered.
Thank you even more for the antidote: the grace of realizing that we are sinners. This fits all of us. We need to see that while the Church is the spotless bride of the Lamb, we ourselves, as individual members of that Church each carry our own burden of sin. As we realize this, truly realize it, we are not so anxious to cast the first stone at someone else. The “Who am I to judge” spirituality of Francis begins to make profound sense as I become not ready to condemn or even offer my own opinion about another, but only anxious for others and myself to together find the tender and accepting mercy of God and some desire down in our deepest being to turn away from sin and be the person this loving God has created me to be. I am no longer anxious to keep others from Grace, and especially from the Eucharist, as I know that every Holy Communion, even for the best of us, is to some degree “sacrilegious”; and every Holy Communion, even for the most sinful, is an Encounter with the immeasurable Love of God. But it is only when we have looked squarely at our own moral fractures that we can understand this. So perhaps if some of those tired old souls would take off their red dresses and look hard and honestly at themselves for whom they truly are, the tone that Pope Francis is trying to set would catch on and we could get the wagons rolling again towards the Kingdom of God.