ROME – For what he defined as the “Christmas of the pandemic,” Pope Francis gave the Vatican power structure a unique present Monday: A meditation on the difference between “crisis,” which he said can be life-giving, and “conflict,” including ideological struggles of left v. right, which the pope said is destructive.
Without naming them, Francis also acknowledged the impact of church scandals over the past year, but insisted they’re not the whole story.
“Problems immediately end up in the newspapers,” the pontiff said, “while signs of hope only make the news much later, if at all.”
The core of his message was an invitation to see the difficulties facing both the broader society and the Church as a crisis, which can lead to renewal, rather than an occasion of conflict.
“When the Church is viewed in terms of conflict – right versus left, progressive versus traditionalist – she becomes fragmented and polarized, distorting and betraying her true nature,” the pope said during his annual speech to members of the Roman Curia.
The Church is “a body in continual crisis, precisely because she is alive,” he said, but stressed that it “must never become a body in conflict, with winners and losers, for in this way she would spread apprehension, become more rigid and less synodal, and impose a uniformity far removed from the richness and plurality that the Spirit has bestowed on his Church.”
Francis’s speech to the Roman Curia, this year given Dec. 21, is one of his most important addresses of the year, as he typically uses the occasion to outline his thinking and vision for church governance and his ongoing curial reform.
In the past, he has used the speech not only to read curia officials the riot act, identifying 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 Monday’s address, Pope Francis stressed that in a season of a global pandemic and ecclesiastical scandals far and wide, the Church ought to see the situation as a constructive crisis, rather than leading to paralyzing conflict.
“This is the Christmas of the pandemic, of the health, economic, social and even ecclesial crisis that has indiscriminately struck the whole world,” Francis said. “The crisis is no longer a commonplace of conversations and of the intellectual establishment; it has become a reality experienced by everyone.”
Faced with the social and economic challenges posed by COVID-19, he offered a lengthy reflection on the meaning of a crisis, calling it a “necessary moment in the history of individuals and society.”
He highlighted the various crises faced by biblical figures such as Abraham, Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, Saint Paul, and Jesus himself, who began his ministry with temptation in the desert after 40 days of fasting, and ended it on the cross feeling alone and betrayed by his disciples.
“This reflection on crisis warns us against judging the Church hastily on the basis of the crises caused by scandals past and present,” he said, noting that while often the assessment of ecclesial life from the inside might leave one feeling hopeless, this view “cannot be termed realistic,” since it does not take into consideration the many people, including those in the Curia, who are “quiet witnesses” to the Gospel.
“Those who fail to view a crisis in the light of the Gospel simply perform an autopsy on a cadaver,” the pope said, adding, “If we can recover the courage and humility to admit that a time of crisis is a time of the Spirit, whenever we are faced with the experience of darkness, weakness, vulnerability, contradiction and loss, we will no longer feel overwhelmed.”
When a crisis arises, Pope Francis said, the fresh perspective it brings is never opposed what came before, but it is a newness “that springs from the old and makes it continually fruitful.”
Just as a seed dies in order for the flower to blossom, in a crisis “We see an end, while at the same time, in that end a new beginning is taking shape,” he said.
“In this sense, our unwillingness to enter into crisis and to let ourselves be led by the Spirit at times of trial condemns us to remaining forlorn and fruitless,” he said, adding, “If a certain realism leads us to see our recent history only as a series of mishaps, scandals and failings, sins and contradictions, short-circuits and setbacks in our witness, we should not fear. Nor should we deny everything in ourselves and in our communities that is evidently tainted by death and calls for conversion.”
“Everything evil, wrong, weak and unhealthy that comes to light serves as a forceful reminder of our need to die to a way of living, thinking and acting that does not reflect the Gospel,” he said, insisting that it is only by dying “to a certain mentality” that the Church will be able to “make room for the newness that the Spirit constantly awakens in the heart of the Church.”
The sense of renewal that a crisis brings with it is also applicable to reform efforts, he said, stressing that as a Church, “We need to stop seeing the reform of the Church as putting a patch on an old garment, or simply drafting a new Apostolic Constitution.”
True reform, he said, “cannot be a matter of putting a patch here or there, for the Church is not just an item of Christ’s clothing, but rather his Body, which embraces the whole of history.”
Comparing the Church to a ceramic pot, Francis said the events of recent days and months can make it seem like “the clay of which we are made is chipped, damaged and cracked.”
“We have to strive all the more, lest our frailty become an obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel,” he said.
Reflecting on the right and wrong way to handle a crisis, Francis, continuing the image of the Church as a garment, said the wrong way is to try and tear pieces of new cloth to patch onto an old one, or to fill old wineskins with new wine.
A right approach, he said, is to imitate the work of a scribe, who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
In this analogy, the treasure, he said, is tradition – what is “old” is the truth and grace the Church already possesses, whereas the “new” are the different aspects of truth “we gradually come to understand.”
“No historical form of living the Gospel can exhaust its full comprehension,” he said, adding, “If we let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, we will daily draw closer to all the truth. Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, we can even start to imagine a ‘synodal’ Church that, rather than being inspired by communion, ends up being seen as just another democratic assembly made up of majorities and minorities.”
Closing his speech, Francis urged curial officials to adopt a mindset of peace and serenity, saying “it would be good for us to stop living in conflict and feel once more that we are journeying together.”
“A crisis is itself movement, a part of our journey. Conflict, on the other hand, is a false trail leading us astray, aimless, directionless, and trapped in a labyrinth; it is a waste of energy and an occasion for evil,” he said, calling gossip the “first evil” produced by conflict.
Pope Francis then exhorted curial officials to give him the “Christmas gift” of paying special attention to the poor, saying, “We cannot see God’s face, but we can experience it in his turning towards us whenever we show respect for our neighbors, for others who cry out to us in their need.”
“Let no one willfully hinder the work that the Lord is accomplishing at this moment and let us ask for the gift to serve in humility, so that he can increase, and we decrease,” he said.
After closing his speech, the pope gave each of those present two books: one on the life of Charles de Foucauld, whom he called “a master of the crisis,” which had been given to him by a priest named Father Bernard Ardura, and a second titled, Holotropy: The Verbs of Christian Familiarity, by Italian author Gabriele Corini.
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