Once again, Pope Francis delivered his annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia. In the first several years of his papacy, particularly in response to his 2014, 2017, and 2018 addresses, the media widely interpreted the annual speech as a “scathing critique” or “a litany of condemnations,” and whether you thought the curial employees deserved it typically mirrored your opinion of Pope Francis and his style.
In 2014, Francis sketched out a list of “curial diseases”—spiritual maladies that can negatively affect the members of the curia and impact their work. Anyone who has worked in Church bureaucracy (and I have) knows what happens when we and our colleagues lose sight of our mission to serve the Church. We become nothing more than functionaries. Our job becomes more about getting the work done (and as doing as little of it as possible) than building up the kingdom. When administrators in the Church lose sight of their mission to proclaim the Gospel, inefficiency and ineffectiveness abound. Catholic leaders sometimes think throwing money at a problem will solve it, but no amount of money can save the Church or its institutions when it loses sight of its evangelizing mission. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the pope who keeps saying Let Us Dream wants our faith to inspire us and open our imaginations to new possibilities and creative ways to spread the Gospel.
It shouldn’t have shocked anyone to hear that message directed towards the members of the curia, then. Most of us are familiar with Pope St. John XXIII’s famous quip when someone asked him how many people worked in the Vatican (“About half,” he said). But for those disinclined to like anything Pope Francis says, it became one more thing to complain about. In 2017, he appeared to call out some former curial employees who had been sidelined or dismissed.
In that address, Francis spoke of some unnamed former employees who had abused the trust of the Church, saying that they failed “to understand the lofty nature of their responsibility—let themselves be corrupted by ambition or vainglory. Then, when they are quietly sidelined, they wrongly declare themselves martyrs of the system.” This appeared to refer, at least in part, to Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Muller’s 5-year contract was not renewed in July of that year.
While Francis’s critics widely painted the dismissal as having an ideological basis, Michael Sean Winters revealed something that was widely observed by many who were much closer to the situation, explaining that Muller, “though very gifted intellectually, could not organize a one man parade. He couldn’t run the office.” Muller, however, clearly stung by his forced departure, soon went on a media tour defending his reputation and even claiming that Pope Emeritus Benedict agreed that his dismissal was unjust.
2018 was a year of scandals. It was the year of the McCarrick revelations, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and the Viganò testimony. In his Christmas address to the curia that year he condemned two scourges, or afflictions: abuse and infidelity. He described three distinct and overlapping forms of abuse: “sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience,” and used the example of King David to describe this “triple sin.” He explained that even though David was king and the Lord’s anointed, he abused this power, gave in to lust, and damaged the consciences of others. This is a temptation for anyone who wields power, and is especially scandalous when clergy succumb to this temptation.
Regarding abuse—using words that sounded very much like a description of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick—Francis explained, “Today too, there are many Davids who, without batting an eye, enter into the web of corruption and betray God, his commandments, their own vocation, the Church, the people of God and the trust of little ones and their families. Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls.”
Likewise, infidelity—because it is the betrayal of their vocation—is much more scandalous and damaging when it is done by clergy. Francis described infidelity with the example of Judas. Like David, Judas was anointed by God but betrayed his call. But they are not the same. Francis explained, “United in the gravity of their sin, they nonetheless differ when it comes to conversion. David repented, trusting in God’s mercy; Judas hanged himself.” Some have seen this comparison to Judas as a veiled reference to Archbishop Viganò. Indeed, time has shown that given plenty of “rope,” Viganò did, in a way, hang himself.
The year 2019 was perhaps one of the most challenging years for Francis’s papacy. The assault on his character and his teaching was in full swing. And I think he also sensed the fatigue of the embattled members of the curia, because his Christmas message to them was one of hope, renewal, and gratitude. He expressed that their work did not go unappreciated, but that reform would build upon the good they had already accomplished. Regarding the upcoming reforms, he told them, “An effort was made to enhance the good elements deriving from the complex history of the Curia. There is a need to respect history in order to build a future that has solid roots and can thus prove fruitful.” He does describe a shift in emphasis, towards mission and evangelization (tossing in a cursory condemnation of rigid mindsets, saying, “behind every form of rigidity lies some kind of imbalance”), and gave some details about the upcoming reforms. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this address didn’t receive the same attention as those of previous years.
Yesterday’s speech seemed altogether unique (at least to me), compared to his previous Christmas addresses to the curia. Obviously this entire year has been unique, for reasons I don’t need to explain. The topic of the pope’s address this year was crisis, and how crisis is vital to the life of the Church. At first blush, to speak favorably of crisis is extremely counterintuitive. Indeed, commentators on the Church and world affairs (myself included) have been defining, diagnosing, and decrying the crisis in the Church for as long as any of us can remember. And indeed, the pope acknowledges this, but recognizes that this year is different because, “The crisis is no longer a commonplace of conversations and of the intellectual establishment; it has become a reality experienced by everyone.”
The democratization of the awareness that we are undergoing a crisis is something most of us have not felt in our lifetimes. At least not on a global scale. Many of the effects felt in our current crisis reverberate throughout society and are experienced worldwide. Pope Francis explained what he means by “crisis”:
“A crisis is something that affects everyone and everything. Crises are present everywhere and in every age of history, involving ideologies, politics, the economy, technology, ecology and religion. A crisis is a necessary moment in the history of individuals and society. It appears as an extraordinary event that always creates a sense of trepidation, anxiety, upset and uncertainty in the face of decisions to be made.”
While all of us experience the crisis in some way, our responses as individuals, families, and cultures can vary widely. Yet as Catholics and as Christians, the truth is that our Church was born in crisis. For example, Francis described the crisis of temptation that Jesus experienced after 40 days of fasting in the desert. Next he explained how on the night before he died, Jesus faced “an indescribable crisis in Gethsemane: solitude, fear, anguish, the betrayal of Judas and abandonment by his Apostles.” The next day, he suffered “the extreme crisis on the cross: an experience of solidarity with sinners even to the point of feeling abandoned by the Father.”
After walking us through some of the many crises experienced throughout Sacred Scripture and specifically in the life of Jesus Christ, Francis explained that reflecting on the regular presence of crisis in our salvation history “warns us against judging the Church hastily on the basis of the crises caused by scandals past and present.” Our approach to crisis is critical. He mentions how those who do not view “a crisis in the light of the Gospel simply perform an autopsy on a cadaver. They see the crisis, but not the hope and the light brought by the Gospel.”
Indeed, says Pope Francis, the Church is “a body in continual crisis, precisely because she is alive.” To be alive is to be in crisis. The crisis of the crucifixion and the death of our Lord set the stage for new life in the Resurrection. It was in the crisis of fear and uncertainty experienced by the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus’ Ascension that the Holy Spirit breathed life into them, awakening the Church on Pentecost.
And just as Francis reassured the curia in 2019 that their good work would not be forgotten or swept away by the spirit of reform, he reiterated, “The newness born of crisis and willed by the Spirit is never a newness opposed to the old, but one that springs from the old and makes it continually fruitful.” We can’t deny the crisis, we must enter into it and discover the movement of the Holy Spirit. This requires us to expose our vulnerability and openness, and it’s why rigidity is incompatible with conversion.
The renewal that comes from a crisis is never a return to what preceded it. That is impossible. Renewal requires a step forward. And that step forward requires us to embrace some uncertainty. We must be open to the new while accepting that at times we may have to lose some of the old. Of course what is essential (Tradition, the Gospel) remains, but we are setting ourselves up for disappointment when we become determined to restore a particular vision of the past. Pope Francis explains, “The ‘old’ is the truth and grace we already possess. The ‘new’ are those different aspects of the truth that we gradually come to understand. No historical form of living the Gospel can exhaust its full comprehension.”
How must we proceed then, in the face of crisis and uncertainty?
Francis offers some advice. The first thing, naturally, is to pray always. He reminds us, “It is essential not to interrupt our dialogue with God, however difficult this may prove. Praying is not easy. We must not tire of praying constantly.” He also advises us to turn away from a spirit of conflict, returning to one of his favorite images, that of “walking together.” He says:
“It would be good for us to stop living in conflict and feel once more that we are journeying together, open to crisis. Journeys always involve verbs of movement. 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… Each of us, whatever our place in the Church, should ask whether we want to follow Jesus with the docility of the shepherds or with the defensiveness of Herod, to follow him amid crisis or to keep him at bay in conflict.”
This last bit of advice, admittedly, stung me a bit. In recent weeks, I have brought attention to the words and actions of several people in the Church who I believe are causing great harm to the Body of Christ. One of them publicly bore false witness against me, and I admit that it angered me a great deal. Likewise, I have engaged in some mockery in my responses to my brothers and sisters in Christ who have fallen prey to conspiracy theories and false ideologies. While I think I have been firm in upholding my commitment to Truth, I don’t know how well I’ve been doing at remaining charitable and rejecting a spirit of conflict.
I ask for your prayers for me, that I exercise better discernment and have more charity towards those with whom I disagree. The Church is suffering a crisis of division, and the path to true reform is the path to unity, together in Christ with Pope Francis.
God Bless you and keep you this Christmas. Stay safe! You’ll be in my prayers.
Image: Vatican News