21 December 2017, The Tablet

Reforming Vatican like 'cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush', says Pope

The curia's mission, the Pope stressed, is to assist his universal ministry as the Bishop of Rome and to serve the wider Church.

Reforming Vatican like 'cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush', says Pope

Pope Francis has said reforming the Vatican is like cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush.

In his annual Christmas speech to the Roman Curia, the Pope criticised those entrusted with making reforms but instead allow themselves to be “corrupted by ambition" and betray the "Church's motherhood." When this group are sidelined, Francis explained, they then declare themselves martyr of the system, complain the “old guard” is back in charge or say “Pope kept in dark.” 

The 81-year-old Jesuit Pope has made it a tradition of his annual address to criticise the Church’s most senior officials . His first speech to them famously diagnosed them with a list of “spiritual illnesses” while last year he handed each one a book titled “Tips to Cure the Ills of the Soul.”

This year he once again proceeded with an honest diagnosis of difficulties in reforming the Vatican, a process that he and a small group of cardinal advisers - the majority of whom live outside Rome - have been engaged in for almost five years.  As is usual they gathered in the Sala Clementina, a 16th century hall in the Vatican’s apostolic palace covered in renaissance frescoes. 

“Speaking of reform, I think of the amusing yet pointed remark of Archbishop Frédéric-François-Xavier de Mérode [19th century Belgian diplomat]: ‘Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Egyptian Sphinx with a toothbrush’,” he said in a remark that received no laughter from his audience. 

“This points to the patience, tenacity and sensitivity needed to attain that goal. For the Curia is an ancient, complex and venerable institution made up of people of different cultures, languages and mindsets.”

Their mission, the Pope stressed, is to assist his universal ministry as the Bishop of Rome and to serve the wider Church. 

But some are betraying their mission and trying to “profiteer form the Church’s motherhood.” 

He said: “I am speaking of persons carefully selected to give a greater vigour to the body and to the reform, but – failing 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, of a “Pope kept in the dark”, of the “old guard”…, rather than reciting a mea culpa.”

Some of the Pope’s reforms have struggled to get off the ground. His overhaul of finances have come under pressure following the departure of economy chief Cardinal George Pell and the Vatican’s first auditor-general, Libero Milone. 

Meanwhile, a papal child protection commission found itself thwarted by a lack of internal co-operation and is now waiting for new members to be appointed so it can continue its work. 

Francis’ major changes are, however, aimed at making the Church more missionary, outward looking and pastorally focussed. To shift the focus away from the centre and out to the peripheries by highlighting the work of priests, religious and laity on the ground. 

This morning he gave the curia four areas to focus on: building relations with countries through Vatican diplomacy; supporting local churches; building the relationship between Rome and oriental churches; ecumenical dialogue and relations with other faiths in particular Judaism and Islam. 

“The universal nature of the Curia’s service thus wells up and flows out from the catholicity of the Petrine ministry,” the Pope explained. “A curia closed in on itself would betray its own raison d’être and plunge into self-referentiality and ultimately destroy itself. The Church, is by her very nature projected ad extra, and only to the extent that she remains linked to the Petrine ministry, the service of God’s word and the preaching of the Gospel.”

Francis pointed out that one of the titles of the Pope is “servant of the servants of God,” and that he recently described his role as being about “diaconal primacy” meaning that serving is his top priority. 

He called on the curia to adopt a “diaconal attitude” pointing out that deacons are meant to be “the eyes of the bishop” and in their case their work is to act in the name and authority of the Pope for the good of the wider Church. This helps rise above a “debased mindset of plots and cliques” that can make all ecclesiastical bodies self-centred . 

“The eye sees in order to transmit images to the mind, helping it to take decisions and to give direction for the good of the whole body,” he said

 “The relationship that these images suggest is that of communion in filial obedience for the service of God’s holy people.  There can be doubt, then, that such must be also the relationship that exists between all those who work in the Roman Curia.  From the dicastery heads and superiors to the officials and all others.  Communion with Peter reinforces and reinvigorates communion between all the members.”

He also pointed out that the "vast majority" of Curia workers are working with "praiseworthy commitment, fidelity, competence, dedication and great sanctity."

PICTURE: The Great Pyramid and Sphinx of Giza the oldest and largest of the three pyramids and the in the Giza Necropolis bordering what is now El Giza, Egypt ©PA 

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