ROME — At the end of a tumultuous year for the Vatican, in which divisions among senior leadership over the direction being set by Pope Francis were at times glaringly apparent, the pontiff today led senior aides in a check-up for what he described as a series of dangerous “spiritual diseases.”
In a thinly veiled critique, the pope didn’t name any potentates whom he regards as infected by those diseases, but his words left no doubt that he doesn’t regard them as merely theoretical.
Speaking in a traditional Christmas address to the cardinals and archbishops who make up the Vatican’s upper echelon, Francis spoke of the disease of division and “poor coordination,” saying he doesn’t want “an orchestra that produces only chaotic noise.” He also called officials to reject the “pathology of power” and the temptation of “narcissism.”
He said Church officials should never become “bureaucratic machines”, and pointedly urged them to reject gossip, division, and the building of personal empires.
The pontiff warned his top aides of the danger of becoming sealed off in “closed circles,” in which membership in a specific camp or movement is more important than belonging to the whole Church.
The pope’s audience were members of the Roman Curia, the administrative arm of the Holy See and the central governing body through which the pontiff conducts Church business.
Francis, who is the first Latin American pope and never worked in the Italian-dominated Curia before he was elected, has not shied from complaining about the gossiping, careerism, and bureaucratic power intrigues that afflict the Holy See. But as his reform agenda has gathered steam, he seemed even more emboldened to highlight what ails the institution.
The cardinals were not amused. The speech was met with tepid applause, and few were smiling as Francis listed one by one the 15 “Ailments of the Curia” that he had drawn up, complete with footnotes and Biblical references.
The annual Christmas greeting comes at a tense time for the Curia. Francis and his nine key cardinal advisers are drawing up plans to revamp the whole bureaucratic structure, merging offices to make them more efficient and responsive.
In his address, Francis said it’s also a kind of sickness to “divinize” one’s bosses, seeking favor through flattery and submission.
“Such people think only about what they can obtain,” the pope said, “and never about what they can give.”
Also on his catalogue of 15 spiritual illnesses, the pontiff cautioned against:
- “Excessive planning;” trying to “domesticate the Holy Spirit” rather than leaving room for spontaneity and surprise
- What he called “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” meaning “a progressive decline in spiritual faculties” that leads people to build walls around themselves and make “idols” of their personal habits
- “Existential schizophrenia,” inducing people to “hypocrisy” and leading a “double life”
Such schizophrenia, Francis said, is an illness that “often strikes those who, abandoning pastoral service, limit themselves to bureaucratic activity, thereby losing contact with reality and with concrete persons.”
“They create a parallel world,” he said, “where they ignore what they teach with great severity to others and live a hidden and often dissolute life.”
Also on the pope’s list of spiritual diseases was an excessive “melancholy,” producing a “theatrical severity and pessimism” which the pope said are often “symptoms of fear and insecurity.”
Officials should never forget, he said, “how much good is done by a healthy sense of humor.”
On that note, Francis also joked that “priests are like airplanes … they only make news when they fall,” adding that “there are actually so many who fly.”
Traditionally, popes have used the year-end address to the Roman Curia as a sort of “State of the Union” speech, looking back over the year that’s ended and projecting forward to the one to come.
Francis, however, struck a more spiritual tone on Monday, perhaps reflecting the impact of what has been an eventful and sometimes divisive 12 months.
During last October’s Synod of Bishops on the family, for instance, senior members of the Vatican bureaucracy were among the most outspoken figures at that summit, which treated hot-button issues such as the role of gays and lesbians in the Church and whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion.
Especially in that context, Francis’ call to unity seemed especially pointed, as did his injunction against spreading “gossip.”
The pontiff sharply denounced those who “kill their colleagues’ reputation in cold blood,” saying, “they don’t have the courage to speak to people directly so they do it behind their backs.”
Francis called such behavior “reprehensible.”
This year Francis added a vintage personal touch to the holiday tradition, opting to get together not just with the cardinals and archbishops who form the Vatican’s upper echelons for a holiday meet-and-greet, but also the blue-collar employees of the Vatican and their families in a festive session in a large audience hall.
The meeting with the Curia is the beginning of a busy holiday stretch for the pope.
On Wednesday night, Francis will preside over the usual midnight Mass service for Christmas Eve, while on Thursday he will deliver the usual Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi blessing — “to the city and the world.” On Friday, the pontiff will offer a noontime Angelus address for the feast of St. Stephen.
Next Wednesday, the pope will lead a vespers service on New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day, will celebrate a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Shortly after the holidays, Francis will hold his annual encounter with members of the diplomatic corps on Jan. 12, and later that day will leave for a week-long trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines. It’s the second trip to Asia of his papacy, after an outing in August to South Korea, and will be Francis’ seventh foreign trip overall.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.