ROME – Over the centuries, papal rhetoric became a global standard-setter in indirection. Popes rarely acknowledged problems head-on – the Vatican could be burning down, but in public the most they’d ever concede would be oblique references to “difficult situations” and “sensitive matters.”
From the beginning, Pope Francis has been a break with this tradition, often using blunt speech more associated with country pastors than Successors of Peter. Yet in his two centerpiece messages for Christmas, Francis practiced a bit of indirection himself, indirectly sketching a parallel strategy for both ecclesiastical and social reform without ever quite saying so out loud.
In effect, Francis’s suggestion was this: Yes, by all means, let’s work for structural changes to deliver greater justice, peace and protection of human dignity, both in the Church and the world. But let’s not pretend we can change structures without first changing ourselves.
In his homily for the Christmas Eve Mass, Francis did not ever directly make reference to the financial or clerical sexual abuse scandals that have recently engulfed the Vatican and the wider Church, although many people heard echoes of those tempests when the pope enjoined those gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica “not to wait … for the Church to be perfect before we love her.”
(As a footnote, media outlets continued to refer to the liturgy as “midnight Mass,” even though it’s been celebrated well before midnight since the late Pope John Paul II years.)
In that sense, Francis urged Christians to imitate the freely offered love of God, whose love, the pope said, is unconditional.
“You may have mistaken ideas, you may have made a complete mess of things, but the Lord continues to love you,” he said.
Then came the payoff: “It is the best way to change the world – we change, the Church changes, history changes, once we stop trying to change others but try to change ourselves and to make of our life a gift.”
The pontiff’s Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message was more ad extra in nature, focused on the situation outside the Church, and Francis was certainly not oblique in naming problem situations from Syria and Iraq to Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine.
They were comments with obvious political reference, especially against the backdrop of a new campaign by the Syrian military, backed by Russia, to retake the region of Idlib from rebel forces, which has caused at least 30,000 people to flee in recent days and killed at least eight people on Christmas eve alone, including civilians seeking shelter in a school.
As he has so many times before, this son and grandson of immigrants once again issued a plea for justice for migrants and refugees.
“It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries,” the pope said. “It is injustice that forces them to ensure unspeakable forms of abuse, enslavement of every kind and torture in inhumane detention camps. It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”
Francis certainly engaged the structural level of those situations, urging both individual nations and the international community to redouble their efforts to promote peace, security and human dignity.
Yet here too, it seemed the pope’s real agenda wasn’t so much to go once more into the breach of trying to rouse political and diplomatic action, as essential as he no doubt believes it to be. Instead, he seemed more concerned with the individual, personal dimension of responding to such agonies.
“May Emmanuel … soften our often stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love,” Francis said.
“May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick.”
“Through our friendship, such as it is,” the pope said, “may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized.”
In other words, as it was the night before on the Church’s woes, Francis’s Christmas day message on the sufferings of the world was: If you want to do something about it, first change yourself, and that may just make all the difference.
Perhaps the personal dimension of reform has been on the pontiff’s mind lately because, after beginning his papacy more than six years ago with bold promises of change and the creation of a myriad of new laws and institutions, structural change has proven stubbornly difficult to achieve.
Over the last few months, the Vatican has been gripped by a series of financial embarrassments and departures of key personnel, while around the world clerical abuse scandals continue to bedevil Catholicism despite several important reform moves, most recently Francis’s decision to abolish pontifical secrecy in abuse cases.
Perhaps this Christmas finds the pontiff reflecting in a deeper way on the time-honored truth that structures and policies are only as good as the people charged with making them work, and that unless reform reaches into the individual heart, it’s destined to be a charade. As he himself said in his Christmastime address to the Roman Curia three years ago, “Reform will be effective only if it is carried out with men and women who are renewed and not simply new.”
In any event, Francis’s appeal this Christmas seemed addressed more to the individual conscience than to the U.S. Congress or the General Assembly of the UN – or, to put it more accurately, it was addressed to the flesh-and-blood people who make up such institutions, including those of the Church he leads.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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