ROME – Let’s face it: In some ways, 2015 has been a rough year for Pope Francis.
Despite continuing to bask in wide popularity, the pope presided over a tumultuous Synod of Bishops in October that exposed deep internal fractures over issues such as divorce and homosexuality, and which began with a Vatican official doing a round of sensational media interviews in which he acknowledged being in a committed gay relationship.
He’s watched a burgeoning Vatican leaks scandal that’s led to three former insiders and two journalists facing criminal charges, and he’s seen his own press office forced to release details of the autopsy of a former papal diplomat accused of sexual abuse, who died in August, because of persistent rumors he may have been killed to avoid the embarrassment of a trial.
Recently there have been indications of resentment from some of the pontiff’s own aides, including publication in a German newsmagazine of a stinging letter to the pope from a former Vatican official accusing him of weakness on doctrine, “authoritarianism,” and “wrath” toward critics.
Francis also took five successful but extremely demanding foreign trips during the past year. He recently celebrated his 79th birthday, and is poised to spend much of the next 12 months presiding over a grueling calendar linked to his special jubilee Year of Mercy.
Some might naturally wonder if all that has worn Francis down, perhaps lessening his resolve about the direction and pace of his reform agenda. In response, the pontiff on Monday effectively delivered a very clear, and very simple, answer: “Nope.”
“Reform will move forward with determination, clarity, and firm resolve,” he said, citing the Latin phrase Ecclesia semper reformanda, meaning “the Church is always in need of reform.”
Whatever new problems erupt, the pope said, will be met with “sincere reflection” as well as “decisive provisions.”
Perhaps in a case of form reinforcing the message of determination, the pope actually showed up in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina a half-hour early on Monday and finished his speech around the time it was originally scheduled to begin.
“Cases of resistance, difficulties, and failures on the part of individuals and ministers are so many lessons and opportunities for growth, and never for discouragement,” Francis said.
The pontiff’s words came in his annual Christmas time speech to the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.
It was a keenly anticipated speech, since this was the same group Francis took to the woodshed last year, delivering a blistering indictment of the Vatican’s internal culture. He accused it of being infected with 15 “spiritual illnesses,” including what he described as a lust for power and wealth, “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and the “terrorism of gossip.”
At the time, some insiders wondered if Francis risked demoralizing the very staff he would need to implement his objectives.
In late November, an unnamed former official of the Roman Curia published an open letter to the pope with the German magazine Focus. Saying he found the pontiff’s admonition last year “unjust against so many in the Vatican whom I know personally,” the writer ticked off 10 faults he ascribed to Francis, including “authoritarianism” and an “exaggerated display of the simplicity of your own way of life.”
Perhaps with such reactions in mind, Francis was careful to accent the positive in his 2015 edition of the Curia speech.
“Diseases and even scandals cannot obscure the efficiency of the services rendered to the pope and to the entire Church by the Roman Curia, with great effort, responsibility, commitment, and dedication,” he said.
“It would be a grave injustice not to express heartfelt gratitude and needed encouragement to all those good and honest men and women in the Curia who work with dedication, devotion, fidelity, and professionalism,” the pope told his aides, “offering to the Church and the Successor of Peter the assurance of their solidarity and obedience, as well as their constant prayers.”
At noon, Francis was scheduled to hold a brief audience with other Vatican employees and their families to show gratitude for their efforts during the year.
The bulk of Monday’s speech was devoted to reflections on the theme of mercy, which Francis packaged as an acrostic list of virtues based on the letters of the Latin word for mercy, Misericordia.
Those virtues to which the pontiff called the Curia include:
- A Missionary and pastoral spirit
- Idoneity, meaning suitability or aptness, and sagacity
- Spirituality and humanity
- Example and fidelity
- Reasonableness and gentleness
- Innocuousness and determination
- Charity and truth
- Openness and maturity
- Respectfulness and humility
- Diligence and attentiveness
- Intrepidness and alertness
- Accountability and sobriety
Under the heading of idoneity, for instance, the pontiff counseled Vatican officials to avoid looking for “recommendations and payoffs,” focusing instead simply on doing their jobs. Under “humanity,” he warned them against acting like “machines and robots which feel nothing and are never moved.”
“Once we find it hard to weep seriously or to laugh heartily, we have begun our decline and the process of turning from ‘humans’ into something else,” the pope said.
He called Vatican officials to set a good example by avoiding scandals, “which harm souls and impair the credibility of our witness,” and also to avoid what he called “an excess of bureaucracy, programs, and planning.”
In a vintage Francis touch, the pope endorsed sobriety as a virtue that helps “resist the dominant consumerist mentality.”
“Sobriety is seeing the world through God’s eyes and from the side of the poor,” he said.
Overall, the thrust from the pontiff on Monday seemed to be a spirit of calm resolve to press ahead. He cited the founder of his own Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
“St. Ignatius taught that it is typical of the evil spirit to instill remorse, sadness, and difficulties, and to cause needless worry so as to prevent us from going forward,” the pope said. “Instead, it is typical of the good spirit to instill courage and energy, consolations and tears, inspirations and serenity, and to lessen and remove every difficulty so as to make us advance on the path of goodness.”
“Advance,” in fact, seemed to be the key word, signaling a pontiff determined to press on.