Francis exhorts Vatican prelates to be more mature, recognize 'smallness' of work

Pope Francis speaks to the Roman Curia in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Dec. 21. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Pope Francis speaks to the Roman Curia in the Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Dec. 21. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Pope Francis has strongly urged the bishops and cardinals who head the various Vatican offices to act with more respect, honesty and maturity -- and has told them that reform of the church's central bureaucracy will go forward "with determination, clarity, and firm resolve."

In an annual pre-Christmas meeting with the leaders of what is called the Roman Curia, the pontiff also quoted a prayer long associated with slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to emphasize the "smallness" of their work in the context of "God's great project of salvation."

Referencing a similar speech he gave at this time last year -- when the pope outlined 15 diseases he said were affecting the Vatican's work -- Francis said some of those diseases had manifested themselves in 2015, "causing not a little pain to the entire body [of the church] and wounding many souls."

"It seems necessary to affirm what has been -- and what will always be -- the subject of sincere reflection and decisive actions," the pope told the Curia. "The reform will go ahead with determination, clarity and firm resolve, because Ecclesia semper reformanda," he said, using the Latin phrase for "the church is always to be reformed."*

"Resistance, exertion, and failures of people and ministers are also lessons and occasions of growth, never discouragement," said the pontiff. "They are an opportunity to return to the essentials, which means being ever more conscious of ourselves, of God and our neighbors, of the sensus Ecclesiae and the sensus fidei."

Francis then offered the bishops and cardinals what he called a "practical aid" for their work: Twelve pairs of "necessary virtues" they should exhibit -- organized as an acrostic for the Latin word for mercy, misericordia.

Among the virtues the pontiff exhorted the Vatican leaders to show: Pastorality, shrewdness, humanity, fidelity, honesty, maturity, respect, humility, fearlessness and sobriety.

Pairing fidelity with being a good example, the pope said setting such an example means "avoiding scandals that harm souls and threaten the credibility of our witness" -- referencing Jesus' words in Matthew's Gospel about having a millstone hung around your neck should you lead someone to sin.

Pairing charity and truth, Francis said those are "inseparable virtues of the Christian existence."

"Charity without truth becomes ideology of destructive do-gooding and truth without charity becomes blind 'judicialism,'" said the pope.

Calling for honesty and maturity, the pontiff said honest people "do not act correctly only when they're being watched by their supervisor.

"The honest person does not have fear of being surprised because they do not ever deceive someone who has trusted them," he said, adding: "Honesty is the base on which all other qualities rest."

"Maturity is the search to reach harmony between our physical, psychological and spiritual abilities," said Francis. "It is the goal and outcome of a never-ending process of growth at does not depend on our age."

The pope also asked his coworkers to be fearless, and always in a state of readiness.

"To be fearless means never letting yourself be afraid in the face of difficulty -- like Daniel in the den of lions, or David before Goliath, it means acting with audacity and determination and without luke-warmness 'as a good soldier,'" he said.

"It means knowing to take the first step without hesitating, like Abraham and Mary," he continued.

"Readiness is knowing to act with freedom and agility without attaching yourself to things that pass," said Francis.

"To be ready means to say being always on the journey, without ever being burdened by the accumulation of needless things and getting caught up in our own projects and without becoming dominated by ambition," he said.

Francis' last two virtues were reliability and sobriety.

"The reliable person knows to maintain their commitments with seriousness and responsibility when they are being observed, but above all when they find themselves alone," said the pontiff. "They radiate a sense of tranquility because they never betray a trust that is given to them."

"Sobriety ... is the capability to renounce the superfluous and to resist the dominant consumerist logic," he continued.

"Sobriety is to look at the world with the eyes of God and with the gaze of the poor and on the part of the poor," said the pope. "Sobriety is a style of life which points to the primacy of others as a hierarchical principle and is shown in a life of concern and service towards others."

Closing his speech, Francis told the curia that mercy is not merely a "passing sentiment" but "the synthesis of the Good News."

Mercy, he said, is "the choice of whoever wants to have the sentiments of the heart of Jesus, whoever wants to seriously follow the Lord who asks us: 'Be merciful as your father is merciful.'"

Quoting the Italian theologian and Fr. Ermes Ronchi, the pope continued: "Mercy is a scandal for justice, a folly for intelligence, consolation for us debtors. The debt for being alive, the debt for being loved is only paid with mercy."

"May mercy guide our steps, inspire our reforms, illuminate our decisions," asked Francis. "May it be the supporting column of our works. May it teach us when we must go forward and when we must make a step backwards."

"May it make us able to understand the smallness of our actions in God's great project of salvation and in the majesty and mystery of his work," he continued.

Ending his talk, the pope quoted from a prayer-poem long associated with Romero -- the Salvadoran archbishop who was shot dead in 1980 -- but said to be written by the late U.S. Cardinal John Dearden.**

"We plant the seeds that one day will grow," Francis quoted the prayer. 
"We water seeds already planted, 
knowing that they hold future promise. 
We lay foundations that will need further development."

"We are laborers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs," he continued. 
"We are prophets of a future not our own."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

*The translation of this phrase has been adjusted from the original publication of this article.

**Many readers have noted that the prayer was originally written by the late Saginaw, Mich. Bishop Kenneth Untener.

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