The Christmas greeting that Pope Francis delivered to members of the Roman Curia was anything but “have yourself a merry little Christmas.” Described in the press as a “blistering attack”, a “public rebuke”, and a “scathing critique” of the Curia, Francis called his brother bishops to account for 15 “curial diseases”.
While the Curia was the target audience for the pontiff’s address, the rest of us might think twice before we applaud this public dressing down of the “princes of the church” and shake our fingers at them; the Pope’s message is applicable to all.
Using the image of the Church as the mystical body of Christ, Francis warned that the Curia, like any body, is exposed to diseases. “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,” the pontiff said in describing “the disease of thinking we are immortal, immune or downright indispensable”. This was the first in the pontiff’s list of “the more common diseases” that affect the life of the Curia, which, he said is constantly called to “improve and grow in communion, holiness and wisdom”.
Francis named another 14 sinful attitudes and behaviours. Other “curial diseases” include “the Martha complex of excessive busyness”, “mental and spiritual petrification”, “excessive planning and functionalism”, “poor coordination”, “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “rivalry and vainglory”, “existential schizophrenia”, “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting”, “idolizing superiors”, “indifference to others”, “a funereal face”, “hoarding”, “closed circles” and “worldly profit (and) forms of self-exhibition”.
While the pontiff’s frank and unflattering appraisal of the state of the Curia will not endear him to his detractors, Francis remains committed to reforming the culture of the Vatican. He has been leading by example, chipping away at clericalism, with its culture of superiority and privilege. With his catalogue of “curial diseases”, Francis continues to challenge the members of the Curia to reform their hearts and minds, saying that his reflections were to be “for all of us a help and a stimulus to a true examination of conscience” in preparation for the holy feast of the nativity.
While many see this as an attack that will draw the battle lines between the Pope and his opponents, it is also an invitation to conversion coming from a man who takes the need for his own conversion seriously and who, despite the title of “his holiness”, refers to himself as “chief of sinners”. Francis is not asking any more of these cardinals than he asks of himself. Individually and as a body, these men are to be exemplary servant-leaders.
After addressing the Curia, Francis met with the employees of the Vatican and their families. He is, incidentally, the first pope to do so. In his remarks to them, he referred to his speech to the Curia; he encouraged them to use it as a starting point for their own examination of conscience in preparation for Christmas and the New Year.
In my view, through the public nature of these two events held on the same day, Francis invites all of us to reflect upon his comments in light of our own lives, our communities of worship, and our places of work. While the Curia was the primary audience for the Pope’s rather unusual Christmas greeting, the significance of his comments should not be restricted to criticism of the Curia or to a commentary on the politics of the Vatican. The Pope’s message has implications for human conduct everywhere.
The “curial diseases” that Francis describes are linked to self-absorption and to a preoccupation with advancing one’s self in the eyes of the world, frequently at the expense of others. They are linked to a false sense of autonomy, to forgetting that we live, move and have our being in the context of our relationships with others and with God. None of us are immune to these diseases. I know that I recognized myself in some of them.
With a new year upon us, we might think about the ways these “curial diseases” find a home in us, and formulate our New Year’s resolutions accordingly. We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and exposed along with the members of the Roman Curia.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.