In praise of the Vatican’s Sir Humphreys
While in Rome recently I had my first encounter with the might of the Roman Curia. Like all bureaucracies, it gets a bad press. This must, in part, be due to the perception prevalent in most cultures that civil servants are self-serving; procedural norms create their own necessity and administration is the enemy of real work.
There is the oft-quoted riposte of John XXIII, who when asked “How many people actually work in the Vatican?”, is said to have replied: “About half.” In recent years the image of the Curia as an institution mired in corruption, a refuge for lazy careerists who are somehow bent on frustrating the mission of the Church by controlling everything that happens in dioceses, has been too cynically displayed as a portrait when it is, in fact, a caricature.
The Curia, like any other institution in the Church, is a microcosm of it, and as such could be said to demonstrate her health rather than bearing responsibility for creating it. Before we belabour institutions like the Curia, or the seminary, or the Catholic university for their defects, we might perhaps reflect that they will be as healthy as the men whom bishops are willing to release to work there.
My visit to the Congregation for the Clergy, as part of a group of English-speaking seminary spiritual directors, was a helpful and positive experience. It is located in one of the buildings opposite St Peter’s at the end of the Via della Conciliazione. Many Vatican dicasteries are housed in these 1930s buildings, with their brutalist architecture and faceless rows of identical doors marked with little nameplates. The ambiente leaves you in no doubt that you are quite literally in the corridors of power. We were shown into a conference room with a large oval boardroom table and places, each set with a blotter and a microphone. Through the window was a stunning view across the square to St Peter’s. There we were soon joined first by the cardinal in charge of the dicastery, Cardinal Beniamino Stella.
The cardinal began by explaining that one of the last acts of Benedict XVI’s pontificate was to transfer competence for the oversight of seminaries from the Congregation for Education to the Congregation for Clergy, so that it might exercise a kind of seamless care for the priesthood from formation onwards.
He spoke passionately about the importance of the role of spiritual director in the seminary and of helping men to discern correctly whether they are called to priesthood. He stressed that this was as much for the individual’s good as for preserving the Church from harm. A man who has issues or defects which make him unsuitable for ordination will never be happy as a priest, he said. All too often, he felt, there was an expectation that ordination would somehow iron out any problems experienced in formation. In the light of his work at the congregation, he knew this to be an unrealistic expectation.
The Congregation deals with several hundred requests a year from priests seeking laicisation. Most of these are because of what he described as “affective difficulties”. In more than 80 per cent of the cases, these difficulties had already been identified in the priest’s seminary formation.
He spoke touchingly about the importance of praying for priests who were laicised, and even for those who had been laicised because they were abusers. “They are still our brothers,” he said, simply. It was apparent that he did not deal with such cases with the detachment of a bureaucrat, but with a heart which felt compassion both for the Church and for the individual in such a situation.
He left us with the recently appointed secretary for seminaries, Archbishop Jorge Patrón Wong, who is Mexican, though of Chinese ethnicity. After introducing himself he said quite simply: “I am here to listen to you” – which he proceeded to do as people raised different concerns with him about seminary formation and he responded helpfully, often citing his own experience as a seminary rector. He has undertaken extensive travels, including to England, visiting seminaries, where his approach is similarly sympathetic and open.
These, then, are the men from the clerical ministry, the Sir Humphreys of the Vatican, who as we left them, continued to fail to be true to type by asking us to pray for them.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London