Just as there is a shock in finding that the same Jesus who welcomed children and fed the five thousand, not long afterwards chased the money-changers from the Temple, it is easy to be startled by the side of Pope Francis on display in yesterday’s curial address.
There is a desert-father ferocity in the way he confronts what he spots as the bad spirit — the ‘enemy of human nature,’ as St. Ignatius describes it in the Spiritual Exercises — seeking to frustrate the Church’s mission on earth.
Indeed, his Jesuit spirituality starts from the assumption that precisely because the Church’s mission is holy, it is a ‘tempted’ body; and that the way in which it is tempted is often subtle, even ingenious.
Hence, as Francis said recently, you shouldn’t try to argue with the Devil, or reason with him. “He’ll turn you upside down, he’ll make your head spin,” he told the Italian Catholic broadcaster TV2000, adding that the best response was to tell it to “go away.”
The Spiritual Exercises show how to do that. St. Ignatius’s rules for discernment of spirits are a means of detecting the presence of the bad spirit, countering its stratagems by exposing it, refusing its blandishments, and refocusing on the mission entrusted by Christ.
Francis, a master of discernment, did that yesterday with the Curia, even using his annual address to portray Christmas as an eye-opening opportunity to distinguish between good and bad. The crib, he said, allows people to “abandon what is superfluous, false, malignant and deceitful, to see what is essential, true, good and authentic.”
The whole speech — the latest in his series of annual addresses driving Vatican reform — was a refocusing on what the Curia is for, and a denunciation of where it has been distracted from that end. He even suggested at one point that officials consider the names of their dicasteries, which always include the pronoun pro, to remind themselves of what they are there to do.
He acknowledged that the Vatican was an ancient, complex, multifaceted body, which required “patience, dedication, and great care” to reform, but there was no getting away from its categoric sacred purpose: to serve the Church and the world.
Using two Latin phrases in the same sentence, he said the Curia was ex natura (intrinsically) ad extra (outward-focused), and that “a Curia closed in on itself would betray the object for which it exists, and fall into self-referentiality, which would condemn it to self-destruction.”
In other words, if the Vatican does not fulfil the purpose for which Christ, in establishing the Church, created it to do — be an instrument of salvation and service — it will be destroyed by serving the enemy’s purpose.
Even in his pre-conclave address to the cardinals in 2013, Francis identified ’self-referentiality’ as the core challenge facing Rome, evident in many signs of ‘spiritual worldliness,’ meaning using the goods of faith and of the Church for interests other than those of the Gospel.
Once it is attached to “riches, honour and pride” — the devil’s entry points identified by St. Ignatius — the Church becomes focused on itself rather than on service of humanity. Rather than being an instrument of Christ’s mission, it instrumentalizes that mission for its own purposes.
In the same way, an “attached” person is ego-fixated: puffed up, querulous, self-righteous, comfort-loving — and naturally inclined to use and dominate others, rather than serve them.
As an antidote to that self-focus, Francis yesterday proposed that the Curia see itself as performing a service similar to that of an early-church deacon to a bishop, acting as his eyes and ears, and attending to the needs of others.
He then invoked St. Ignatius’s proposal in the Spiritual Exercises that the five senses be used to contemplate Christ. Theologians call this a “hermeneutical shift”: we are changed by what we focus on.
In the Exercises, this refocusing — outwards on Christ and on reality, away from self and illusion — is the path out of the desolation of self-obsession. To the Curia, Francis suggests it as a way out of “the unbalanced and degenerate logic of intrigues and of the little groups they in reality represent,” in order to combat “a cancer which leads to self-referentiality, which infiltrates church bodies and especially those who work in them.”
Using a classic Ignatian by-its-fruits criterion of discernment, he added that once this happens “the joy of the Gospel is lost.” You can spot the spiritually-worldly self-referential curiali by their grim demeanour and humorlessness.
Ramping up the desert-father ferocity, Francis then critiqued the way that some of those he had appointed to further his reform had been corrupted by ambition or vainglory.
When he had to let them go, they portrayed themselves as victims. Rather than issuing a ‘mea culpa,’ they had blamed their departure on the pope being misinformed, or the Vatican ‘old guard.’ They remained, in short, self-focused, unconverted, and in desolation.
There are a number of people who might fit that description: the ex-doctrine chief, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, or Libero Milone, the former auditor-general, are two recent examples of officials who have departed under contested circumstances.
But whoever they are, he made clear that such attitudes are exceptional. The “vast majority” of curiali work, he says, with admirable commitment, fidelity, dedication and even holiness.
But for that minority, the pope’s words carried a clear call to conversion. He warned bluntly that there were others who continue to work in the Curia who “have been given the time to return to the right path, with the hope that they find in the Church’s patience an occasion to convert and not to take advantage.”
Seen in worldly terms — a boss speaking at a company’s annual shareholders’ meeting, for example — such language would be menacing and authoritarian, and there are quite a few in the Curia who have this view of Francis. A cobbled-together take-down book about the pope, written under a pseudonym, is being currently promoted under the title ‘The Dictator Pope.’
But seen from a spiritual perspective, Francis is doing exactly what a pope must: detach the Church (in this case, the Curia) from worldliness and re-attach it to service of Christ’s mission. In this sense, it is the believer who needs constantly to be called to conversion.
The remainder of the speech offers a vision of what a ‘converted’ Curia looks like, one that is faithful to its core purpose. In that vision, officials are like antennae, both broadcasting the pope’s mission and at the same time receiving and passing back to him the joys and pains of the worldwide Church.
The Vatican builds bridges, promotes peace, serves the local Church, works to overcome hostility and misunderstanding between Churches and other faiths while turning rivalry into collaboration and seeking to protect humanity from the destructive effects of egotism.
Francis’s Curia, in short, models a global servant Church, as opposed to a monarchic overlord or a corporate headquarters. He expresses particular satisfaction that, for example, the bishops report that they are now welcomed and listened to by Vatican departments on their regular ad limina visits.
(This is in stark contrast, he did not need to add, to a few years ago, when bishops complained they were treated as if they were franchisees called to account for themselves to the bosses in Rome.)
But even in his compelling vision, Francis does not hesitate to warn against the temptations. “The only interest of Vatican diplomacy,” he says at one point, “is to be free of any mundane or material interest.”
He might as well have quoted St. Ignatius’s ‘Principle and Foundation,’ inviting the follower of Christ to be “indifferent to all created things … desiring and choosing only what conduces more to the end for which we are created.”
Or, as the Jesuits used to say, age quod agis, which means something like: “Do what you’re missioned to do, and don’t get distracted by other things, however apparently good, because that’s how the Devil gets you to blow it.”