ROME – From the beginning, Pope Francis has been a maverick leader, running against “the system” and making it clear he’s got no special loyalty to the Roman Curia, meaning the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in the Vatican. As a result, his annual Christmas speech to the curia has become an anxiety-inducing event for many, wondering what new ways the boss might find this time to excoriate and cajole them.

This year, however, Francis didn’t seem to have the curia tout court in his sights, so much as elements within it that he seems to believe are creating obstacles to his desired reforms.

As he characteristically does in these settings, Francis came out firing on Thursday, quoting a famed 19th century Belgian papal statesman named Frédéric-François-Xavier De Mérode: “Implementing reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush.” (The line did not, for the record, draw a laugh from the pontiff’s audience Thursday morning.)

It was a back-handed way for the pontiff to concede that his much-vaunted clean-up operation in the Vatican has been uneven, perhaps never more so than in the past year, which saw promised reforms stalled and key personnel depart under mysterious circumstances. At the moment, two of the three key agencies created by Francis in 2014 to lead his financial reform, the Secretariat for the Economy and the independent Auditor General’s office, are without their senior leadership, while real power had steadily re-accumulated in the Secretariat of State.

On those departures of Vatican officials, Francis was even more blunt than usual in denouncing former employees who’ve been ousted and who’ve gone on to charge that they fell victim to an anti-reform “old guard.”

Speaking of people who allow themselves to be corrupted, Francis then said with some evident bitterness: “When they are delicately removed, they erroneously declare themselves martyrs of the system, of a ‘non-informed Pope,’ of the ‘old guard’ … instead of reciting the mea culpa.”

Though the pontiff didn’t name names, during the past year both Libero Milone, formerly the pope’s Auditor General, and Giulio Mattietti, an adjunct director at the Vatican bank, were removed from their positions, and both later told reporters they were given no explanation and suspected backroom maneuvers.

Where does Francis put the blame for the slow-down in reform? Apparently, “small circles” within the system seeking patronage and influence.

Last year, Francis also defended his reform efforts, offering a blow-by-blow catalog of measures that had been taken or were in progress. This year, he focused more on attitudes and mindsets that he seems to believe are getting in the way.

After urging curia personnel to be focused on service to others rather than themselves, he added, “This is very important for overcoming that unbalanced and degenerate logic of plots or small circles, which in reality represent – their good intentions or justifications notwithstanding – a cancer that leads to self-absorption, which also infiltrates itself into ecclesiastical organisms, and, in particular, in the people who work in them.”

Francis decried the “betrayers of trust, or those who profit from the maternity of the Church,” meaning, he said, people who “don’t understand the lofty nature of their responsibility.” He also said the process of reform requires “patience, dedication and delicacy.”

Francis called members of the curia to avoid “pride, falsehood, envy and deceit,” urging them instead to embrace “the essential, the true, the good and the authentic,” at another point urging them to a “diaconal” mentality, meaning one focused on service to others. He then praised all those, he said, who work in the Vatican “with laudable commitment, fidelity, competence, dedication and also great holiness.”

Francis organized his remarks to the curia this year in terms of its ad extra mission, meaning to the outside world, rather than its ad intra dimension, meaning its internal dynamics. He spoke in Italian, and certainly can’t be accused of phoning it in – the speech ran to 4,300 words, with 28 footnotes.

In terms of that ad extra mission, Francis highlighted five aspects:

  • Papal diplomacy and relations with nations
  • Relations with local churches
  • Relations with Eastern churches
  • Ecumenism
  • Dialogue with Judaism, Islam, and other religions

Francis has been an unusually active pope in terms of politics and diplomacy, on issues ranging from immigration and climate change to world peace. He stressed on Thursday that he takes this dimension of the curia so seriously that he’s created a “Third Section” in the Secretariat of State, precisely to coordinate the efforts of all those who serve in papal embassies and other missions around the world.

On the local churches, Francis several times has called for a “healthy decentralization” in the Church, and in 2017 he walked his own talk, issuing a decree to return control over most matters of liturgical translation to local bishops and away from Rome.

In his speech on Thursday, he urged curial officials to see themselves as in service not just to the pope but to the local churches. He noted that he’s overhauled the process for ad limina visits, when local bishops come to Rome to visit the pope and curial offices, to make them more informal and consultative.

“The bishops have confided in me that they were well received and listened to [this year] by all the offices,” Francis told his lieutenants, “which makes me very happy.”

As regards the Eastern churches, meaning the 21 Eastern churches such as the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine and the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt that are in full communion with Rome, Francis stressed their importance to the universality of the Church.

“In reality, the Church of Rome would not be truly catholic without the inestimable richness of the Oriental Churches, and without the heroic witness of so many of our oriental brothers and sisters who purify the Church by accepting martyrdom and offering their lives rather than denying Christ,” he said.

In part, Francis was likely referring to the situation of Eastern Christians in Iraq and Syria, who have been recognized as genocide victims by both the United Nations and the U.S. government. Thousands have been killed and tens of thousands driven from their homes since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014.

In terms of both ecumenical dialogue with other Christians and inter-faith dialogue with other religions, Francis cast them as essential activities of the Church, urging curial officials to make them priorities.

In the end, while passing along the usual Christmas good wishes, Francis gave little comfort to Vatican movers and shakers who may be hoping he dials down the surprises and shake-ups in 2018.

“A faith that doesn’t place us in crisis, is a faith that’s itself in crisis,” he said. “A faith that doesn’t upset us, is a faith that needs to be upset.”

Pope’s busy holiday calendar

Thursday’s curia speech, which was followed by annual Christmas greetings delivered by the pontiff for employees of the Vatican City State, marked the beginning of another busy Christmas season for Francis. (The Vatican announced in advance that the talk with employees would not have a prepared text, but rather would be entirely spontaneous and informal.)

On Sunday, Francis will deliver his usual noontime Angelus address, and later that night will celebrate Mass for Christmas Eve. (Traditionally known as the “Midnight Mass,” in recent years the liturgy has been celebrated at 9:30 p.m. Rome time.) On Christmas Day, Francis will offer the traditional Urbi et Orbi benediction, meaning “to the city and the world,” at noon Rome time.

Christmas Day is one of two regular occasions during the year when popes offer an Urbi et Orbi address, the other being Easter.

On Tuesday, Dec. 26, Francis will deliver a noontime Angelus address marking the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, often referred to as the “proto-martyr.” The next day, the pontiff will hold his usual Wednesday General Audience, his reflections for which in this period are being dedicated to the elements of the Mass.

On New Year’s Eve, Francis will offer another noontime Angelus address, and late that afternoon will preside over the traditional vespers service in thanksgiving for the year closing that night. On New Year’s Day, Francis will celebrate a Mass honoring Mary as the Mother of God, followed by yet another Angelus.

Traditionally, the Vatican’s holiday season is said to wrap up on Jan. 6 with the feast of the Epiphany, when Francis will once again lead a Mass in the morning followed by an Angelus. Informally, however, it’s usually considered to extend through the pope’s annual speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican, in which the pontiff lays out his foreign policy priorities for the year to come.

This year, that speech to diplomats will be held on Monday, Jan. 8.