Speaking to the powerful Italian bishops’ conference Monday, Pope Francis tagged three “preoccupations” in the only country in the world where he rules as Primate: a “hemorrhage” of vocations, “evangelical poverty and transparency,” and the need for a “consolidation” of Italy’s sprawling number of dioceses.
Francis told the bishops he wasn’t sharing these concerns to “beat you up,” but rather as points for further “dialogue and reflection.” He also said he wanted to hear their questions, even their criticisms, because “it’s not bad to criticize the pope, it’s useful.”
On vocations, the pontiff didn’t mince words.
“How many churches and convents have been closed in recent years for a lack of vocations, only God knows,” he said.
Francis blamed the crisis in vocations on many factors, including “a culture of the provisional,” a “culture of relativism,” the “dictatorship of money”, a “demographic inversion” in which families are having fewer children, the impact of Church scandals, and the “tepid witness” given by some priests and bishops.
In any event, the pontiff said frankly, “we’re not succeeding” at generating a sufficient number of new vocations.
In response, Francis suggested one “practical” step, which is a “more generous sharing” among Italian dioceses.
“What we need is a fidei donum [system] from one diocese to the other,” he said.
The term fidei donum comes from a 1957 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, which encouraged dioceses with substantial numbers of priests to release some of them for service in mission countries which didn’t have enough priests. Today, it’s most often employed in a reverse sense, as countries in the developing world are sending some of their priests to the West to compensate for priest shortages.
“I think of some dioceses in the Piedmont, with its grand tradition [which today lacks priests],” Francis said, referring to a region of northern Italy. “Yet in Puglia there’s an over-abundance,” he said, referring to a region of the comparatively under-developed Italian south.
“A fidei donum system in Italy … some of you may laugh, but let’s see,” he said.
On poverty, Francis quoted to the Italian prelates an idea he said he picked up in his Jesuit formation: Poverty is the “mother” and the “wall” of the apostolic life, because it “helps us grow” and it “protects” us.
“You can’t speak of poverty and live like a pharaoh,” the pope said, calling a “life of luxury” a “counter-example.”
“It’s very scandalous to deal with money without transparency, or to handle Church money as if they’re your personal funds,” he said.
“I think of one of you, who never pays for lunch and dinner from diocesan funds, but always out of his own pocket,” Francis said, calling that a “small gesture” but nonetheless important.
“We must have clear and common rules” for money management, Francis said, “because one day we will have to render account.”
Francis made a brief mention to “scandals in some dioceses,” without going into detail.
He might have cited, among other cases, the situation in Terni, where a special administrator had to be appointed in 2013 to cope with more than $23 million in debt left behind by the former bishop, Vincenzo Paglia, who today heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, and who at one point was the target of an embezzlement probe.
Francis did not mention the state of his own financial reform of the Vatican, which many observers consider moribund with two of the three new agencies created by the pope leaderless at the moment.
Instead, the pope restricted himself to repeating, “We have the duty to handle money well according to clear and common rules.”
“I know that CEI has done much in recent years to promote poverty and transparency,” he said, using the initials of the Italian bishops’ conference, “but we still have more to do.”
Finally, Francis urged a serious examination of the possibility of consolidation among Italy’s 217 archdioceses and dioceses, along with one military ordinariate.
“A reduction in the number of dioceses is a pastoral exigency,” he said, noting that as long ago as 1964, Blessed Pope Paul VI had called for it. The test, Francis said, is whether all current jurisdictions have the personnel and resources “to sustain a truly functional diocesan organization.”
“There are some dioceses we can group together,” the pope said. “It’s not easy to do, but we can do it.”
Opening the session that took place inside the Vatican’s hall for the Synod of Bishops, Francis joked that the bishops should feel at home because, “This hall is the Vatican when the pope is here, but it’s also Italian territory.”
After the pope’s brief remarks, he stayed with the bishops for a behind-closed-doors exchange.
Prior to the pope’s address, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, the pope’s own choice as president of the bishops’ conference, told Francis that he wanted to share a story from his own life.
“1969, Cardinal Benelli called me to name me rector of the major seminary of Florence, which was way beyond my small capacities,” Bassetti said, referring to Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, a longtime aide to Pope Paul VI who was appointed to Florence in 1977.
“I asked what I should do,” Bassetti recalled. “He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Look, for me there’s only one thing: every time I come to the seminary, I should feel at home.’”
“Tonight, we’re in your house, the Vatican, and we feel at home,” Bassetti said, addressing Francis, “above all, because we feel you’re our father, our brother, and our friend, and thus your presence fills us with joy and gratitude.”
Bassetti went on to thank Francis for naming three Italian bishops as new cardinals on Sunday: Angelo De Donatis, the Vicar of Rome; Giuseppe Petrocchi of L’Aquila; and Angelo Becciu, currently the “substitute,” or number two official, in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
“Not to be partisan about it, but we’re proud of our cardinals,” Bassetti said.
CEI, the Italian bishops’ conference, is the largest in the world with over 700 members. Because of Italy’s tax system, it receives substantial funding from the state which allows the bishops to maintain a massive infrastructure, including an influential daily newspaper and TV channel.