The Pope’s end of year speech to the Roman Curia has become something of an event, thanks to two things.
First of all, this is the Pope who is supposedly reforming the Curia, and that has aroused interest. Secondly, this is the Pope who made that speech back in 2014 which lambasted his audience for their fifteen spiritual ills including “spiritual Alzheimer’s”. So when the Pope gets up to speak on what had once been a rather dull routine occasion, people now tend to tune in rather than out.
Then there is a matter of the presents. In the old days each member of the Curia got a bottle of prosecco and a panettone from the Holy Father. The Pope has cut out such fripperies. On one occasion each was given a CD of the Pope’s speeches. This year it was a book, recommended by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who, funnily enough, is one of the Four Cardinals who sent the Pope the famous dubia which remain still unanswered. The book is entitled “Measures to treat diseases of the soul” (Industriae ad curandos animae morbos), by the Italian Jesuit Fr Claudio Acquaviva. No doubt it will make cheery Christmas reading.
But to the speech. This was, to put it mildly, cryptic, at least to English ears.
“The 12 principles for reform, translated by Vatican Radio, are: individual responsibility (personal conversion), pastoral concern (pastoral conversion), missionary spirit (Christocentrism), clear organisation, improved functioning, modernisation (updating), sobriety, subsidiarity, synodality, Catholicity, professionalism, gradualism (discernment).”
None of us are against things like sobriety (well, within reason), but what does this mean in practice? It is all rather reminiscent of Theresa May saying “Brexit means Brexit”; it may well do, but it doesn’t answer the question “What exactly is it that you are planning to do?” Nearly four years into the reign of Pope Francis, we still do not really have a clear picture of what his reformed Roman Curia might look like. Which leads one to ask: does he know himself? And if so, why doesn’t he tell us?
Ideas about reform have been floated in the past.The idea of merging various dicasteries has been suggested, and this has happened, in that we now have two new super-dicasteries, one dealing with the Family, the Laity and Life, the other with Integral Human Flourishing; but at the same time new departments have appeared, so the Roman Curia does not seem to be slimming down. More radical proposals – such as sending some of the dicasteries out of Rome, employing more lay people in responsible positions, or a change in the way personnel are hired and fired – remain just that, proposals.
Some of these proposals have merit. For example, it might be a good thing to relocate Propaganda Fidei, the agency which deals with the Church’s missionary work, to somewhere like Nairobi. It would surely make sense for the Curia to recruit its new members via a competitive examination, as is the custom with most civil services, as opposed to the time-honoured way of “raccommandazione”. It would be good too if offices didn’t shut for lunch, and if they used email, as opposed to fax, which was the case when I lived in Rome, over a decade ago now. But whatever the Pope’s speech was about, it didn’t seem to touch on these sorts of practical concerns.
The Pope, as we all know, is a Jesuit. Jesuit superiors, drawing on the heritage of St Ignatius of Loyola, are given to haranguing their inferiors every now and then with what are called “exhortations”. (This is common in other religious orders, and I have some experience of this.) These harangues are not meant to be congratulatory, but rather meant to instil humility and a sense that the members of the order must try harder, much harder. They never ever carry any admission that the superiors themselves are capable of making mistakes. (I may be doing him an injustice, but such admissions do not seem to be part of the Loyola vision; hence his talk of the subject being like a stick in an old man’s hand, and the voice of the superior being the voice of God.) This may well have worked once, but whether it is good for the present age, let the reader decide.
The Pope’s admonition that those who oppose reform may well be doing the Devil’s work needs to be seen in this context. Actually, those who oppose reforms may well think “not these reforms”: they may oppose them as counter-productive or misguided, rather than opposing reform per se. And yet, how can anyone oppose the Pope’s reforms, when none of us know what these reforms really are?