Pope Francis raised many eyebrows a few days before Christmas when he met with the cardinals and superiors of the Roman Curia for his annual Christmas message. USA Today, in its reporting of the event, went so far as to headline its coverage: “Merry Christmas, you power-hungry hypocrites.” It’s true that Pope Francis’ words for those who work in the highest ranks of the Vatican were not full of what you might call traditional Christmas cheer.
During his Dec. 22 talk, the pontiff outlined 15 “probable illnesses” that are afflicting the curial body, including those of feeling “indispensable;” of excessive work habits and not enough time to rest and recharge before the Lord; of a spiritual hardening of hearts; of over-planning and not leaving room for the Holy Spirit to function; of a lack of collaboration; of living autonomously while forgetting salvation history; of vanity; of living a double life; of the “terrorism of gossip”; of egotistic opportunism; of indifference; of pessimism; of materialism; of cliquishness; and of the allures of power.
Pope Francis’ frank talk to the Curia — which he called an ‘examination of conscience’ — could be considered the greatest of Christmas gifts
If you’re thinking some of these phrases sound familiar, you’d be correct. Pope Francis has become known for his frankness of expression — and often outright criticism — when it comes to leadership in the Church. And it’s no secret that he is in the process of an extensive reorganization of the entire curial body — a task he was elected to perform. But even for this candid pope, his Christmas greeting may seem, at first glance, more in the vein of “Ebenezer Scrooge” than “Successor to Peter.”
When looked at in another light, however, Pope Francis’ talk — which he called an “examination of conscience” — could be considered the greatest of Christmas gifts, not only for those who work in the Curia but for each of us as we attempt to travel the path of holiness.
As Pope Francis told his fellow priests: “These sicknesses and these temptations are, naturally, a danger for every Christian and for every Curia, community, congregation, parish, ecclesial movement, etc., and they can strike at the individual as much as at the communal level.” The pope’s candid words provide an opportunity for each of us to honestly and thoughtfully identify and name our own failings, confess our own sins and pledge anew to live a life of holiness. It is only through this awareness and decision to seek a cure, the pope added, that we can find the “fruit” of healing.
Still, dangers remain. It could be easy, when reading Pope Francis’ words, to smugly applaud him for “lambasting” those in power who may have succumbed to weakness and deserve a solid “telling off.” It also could be easy to staunchly defend those in the hierarchy, positioning them as faultless and above any necessary examination of conscience. To truly benefit from the pope’s words, we — each of us — must lay aside our own pride and let them speak directly to our hearts.
Perhaps Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston and a member of the pope’s council of cardinals, put it best when, a few days later, he told members of the media that the pope’s address was similar to that of a teacher. “He wants all of us priests and bishops to be the very best version of ourselves ...” Cardinal O’Malley said. “I think all of us have to look into our hearts and see how we can be better disciples, and live the challenge of the Gospel with renewed generosity, and not be a church that’s turned in on ourselves.”
May each of us embrace that same challenge in this new year.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor