ROME – In his annual end-of-year speech to the Roman Curia, Pope Francis Saturday outlined his top priorities for its reform, highlighting evangelization, communication and use of new media as well as the Church’s social agenda, and insisted that necessary changes not be bogged down by what he described as “rigidity” and a desire for “self-preservation.”
The agenda the pontiff sketched likely indicates the structure and mindset behind a looming apostolic constitution on the role and function of the Roman Curia, which Francis confirmed will be titled “Praedicate evangelium,” or “Preach the Gospel.”
The pope again took the opportunity to strike back against what he said is the temptation to an “attitude of rigidity” on the reform, saying this rigidity “comes from fear of change [and] ends up scattering fences and obstacles on the terrain of the common good, making it a minefield of incommunicability and hatred.”
“We should always remember that behind every rigidity lies some kind of imbalance. Stiffness and imbalance feed off each other in a vicious circle,” he said, explaining that reform is a matter of “great challenges and necessary balances” which are often not easy to achieve.
He defended how long the reform, which began with his election in 2013, has taken, saying “There are people who legitimately need time to mature.”
“There are historical circumstances that have to be handled every day, because during the reform, the world and events don’t stop,” he said, adding that “there are juridical and institutional questions that have to be resolved gradually, without magic formula or shortcuts.”
“There’s always the temptation to fall back on the past, even while using new formulations,” he said, “because it’s more reassuring, better known, and certainly, less conflictual. This too, however, is part of the process and of the risks of making significant changes.”
Francis cited an interview given by the late Jesus Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, a longtime hero of the Church’s progressive wing, shortly before his death, in which Martini asserted that Catholicism is “200 years behind the times.”
“Why isn’t it moving?” Francis asked. “Are we afraid? Is it fear instead of courage? Anyway, the faith is the foundation of the Church. Faith, trust, courage … only love defeats exhaustion.”
Francis’s speech to the Roman Curia, this year given on Dec. 21, is one of his most important addresses of the year, as he typically uses the occasion to offer his thinking and vision for governance and ongoing curial reform.
In the past he’s used the address not only to identify 15 “spiritual illnesses” he said get in the way of true conversion and, therefore, true reform, but also to outline progress made and key themes that define the methodology of his intended reform.
In Saturday’s speech, Francis spoke of the love Christ has for humanity in becoming a small, vulnerable child, insisting that “Jesus doesn’t ask us to love him as a response to his love for us; he asks us, rather, to love one another with the same love.”
Quoting St. John Henry Newman, whom he beatified in October, the pope said Christmas is a time when Christians should find themselves “simpler, humbler, holier, more saint-like, more charitable, more accepting, milder, and fuller of God.”
He also recalled a famous Newman line, which coincided with his entrance into the Church: “Here on earth to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Reform, Francis said, is not simply seeking change for its own sake or to follow the latest fashion, “but to have conviction that development and growth are characteristic of earthly and human life, while, in the perspective of the believer, at the heart of it all is the stability of God.”
A healthy attitude, he said, is “allowing ourselves to be interrogated by the challenges of the present time, to receive them with the virtue of discernment, parresia (boldness) and hypomoné (endurance).”
Referring to the changes he’s made to the Roman Curia since taking office, the pope insisted that “reform never had the presumption of acting as if nothing existed before; on the contrary, it’s designed to give value to the good accomplished in the complex history of the Curia.”
Outlining his structural changes to various Vatican offices that he’s made so far, Francis pointed specifically to four departments: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican communications department, and the department for Integral Human Development.
When the CDF and the Vatican’s evangelization offices were established, it was an age when “it was simpler to distinguish” between the Christian-based culture and those who had yet to be evangelized.
However, those who still haven’t heard the Gospel are no longer outside of Western countries, but everywhere, he said, noting that this is why in 2010 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Promotion of the New Evangelization was established.
“Today we’re no longer the only ones who produce culture, we’re neither the most important nor most heard,” he said, adding that Christians “therefore need change of pastoral mentality, which doesn’t mean relativism.”
“We’re no longer in a Christian regime, because the faith – especially in Europe, but in a great part of the West – no longer constitutes an obvious presupposition of common life, and indeed it’s often denied, derided, marginalized and ridiculed,” he said.
Speaking of the Church itself, the pope insisted that “The habits, styles, schedule, language and every ecclesial structure should become an adequate channel for evangelization of the world today, more than for self-preservation.”
“Reform of structures, which demands pastoral conversion, can be understood only in this sense: To do it in a way that these structures become more missionary.”
Francis said this is not a new idea, and quoted John Paul II, saying the Church today “must face other challenges, projecting herself toward new frontiers both in the first mission ad gentes and in the new evangelization of peoples who have already received the announcement of Christ.”
“There is a need for a new evangelization, or re-evangelization,” he said.
Francis’s emphasis on evangelization and the Church’s missionary outreach is in step with rumors that floated earlier this year saying that under Francis’s reform, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, typically the most important, will take a back seat and a new mega-department for evangelization will become the frontrunner among the Vatican’s various offices.
He also underlined the importance of staying on top of communications in the fast-paced and rapidly changing digital era.
“Today, rather than diversified services, multi-media forms [of communication] prevail, and this effects the way to conceive them, think about them and implement them,” he said.
Francis also highlighted the Church’s social agenda, promoted through the office for Integral Human Development, tasked with working for greater peace and justice, as well as care for creation.
To do this, he said, “involves the weakest and most marginalized,” including forced migrants, who currently represent “a cry in the desert of our humanity.”
The Church, he said, “is called to remind everyone that it’s not just a matter of social and migratory questions, but of human beings, of brothers and sisters who today are symbols of all those tossed aside by a globalized society. The Church is called to witness that for God, no one is a ‘stranger’ or ‘excluded.’”
“It’s called to awaken dormant consciences from indifference about the reality of the Mediterranean Sea, which has become for many, too many, a cemetery,” the pope said.
In a brief greeting to Vatican employees after the address to the Curia, the pope urged his team to smile.
“Here too, in the Vatican and the various offices of the Holy See, we always need to let ourselves be renewed by the smile of the Baby Jesus,” he said.
“It’s true, work is work, and there are other places and moments when everybody expresses in a fuller and richer manner,” he said. “However, it’s also true that we pass a good part of our days at work, and we’re convinced that the quality of work goes hand-in-hand with the quality of human relationships, of styles of life.”
Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.