Seasonal checkup: Pope prescribes spiritual virtues to fight curial ills

IMAGE: CNS photo/Alberto Pizzoli, pool via Reuters

By Carol Glatz

Francis sees the church as a field hospital after battle, then his annual
Christmas address to the Roman Curia often looks like the triage tent, with him
holding the charts.

Instead of a typical gathering to
exchange just thanks and best wishes, Pope Francis uses this year-end moment
with cardinals and top officials to offer “fraternal correction,” spiritual
direction and his clear expectation of their role as servants, not masters, of
the church.

After diagnosing last year what
was ailing the Vatican, this year he prescribed a strong dose of medicine — a
long list of “antibiotics” or virtues — to fight the disease of bad

In Pope Francis’ first Christmas
speech in 2013 to cardinals in Rome and heads of Vatican offices, he extolled
the qualities they should possess, pointing to the figure of St. Joseph as the
model to live up to. Holiness, quiet professionalism and a spirit of humble service
were the main job requirements, he said.

In 2014 — and well into the
start of the reform of church governance — the pope took it up a notch, going
from good role models to red-flag warnings.

Choosing clarity and color over
vague politeness, that year the pope listed 15 “illnesses” the curia is
often prone to, such as “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” “existential
schizophrenia,” “hypocrisy typical of the mediocre,” the “terrorism
of gossip” and even a poor sense of humor.

The pope showed his own sense of
humor this year when presenting his new verbiose list of virtues, like “innocuity”
and a rare Italian term for “plethora.”

“My vice is neologisms,”
he admitted.

Diseases need “prevention,
vigilance, care, and sadly, in some cases, painful and prolonged interventions,”
he said in this year’s talk Dec. 21.

The spiritual problems he
highlighted last year are still lingering, he said, and were “evident in
the course of the past year, causing no small pain” to the whole body of
the church and “harming many souls, with scandal, too,” he said in
his 30-minute talk.

Treatment is necessary and the
regimen entails getting back to basics, he said, for which he offered a “catalogue
of needed virtues.”

This constant examination of
what Christ demands of his disciples always will be necessary, he said. “The
reform will move forward with determination, clarity and firm resolve,”
since the church is always to be reformed, he said.

The papal catalogue was actually
an acrostic, a list in which the first letter of each word spells out another
word. In this case the word was “misericordia,” Italian for mercy. In
an aside explaining his poetic format, he told his learned audience that Jesuit
Father Matteo Ricci used to do acrostics when he evangelized in China.

Mercy, the pope explained, isn’t
some “fleeting sentiment.” It’s the core teaching of the Gospel, the
living “heart of Jesus” and, therefore, the light that needs to guide
one’s life, reforms and decisions.

“May it be the basis of all
our efforts. May it teach us when to move forward and when to step back. May it
also enable us to understand the littleness of all that we do in God’s greater
plan of salvation and majestic and mysterious working,” the pope said.

The list of 24 virtues, listed
as one dozen pairs, reiterate the pope’s approach since the start of his
pontificate: honesty, humility, open doors, trust in God and others as well as
his Jesuit focus on mission, community and discipline.

The “practical guide”
of essential virtues to cultivate, the pope said, includes being or having:

— Missionary and pastoral
spirit: Show the joy and your belief in the Gospel with your lives and work.

— Appropriate and wise: Work
hard, be creative and smart to get good at what you do; don’t rely on “connections”
and “bribes” to get ahead or face situations.

— Spiritual and human: Let the
Spirit protect you from human frailty, but don’t become a “robot.” If
you can no longer laugh or cry with sincerity, “we have begun our decline.”
Show tenderness, kindness and courtesy to everyone.

— A good model and faithful:
Avoid scandals that harm souls and hurt the church’s credibility. “Woe to
the world because of things that cause sin.”

— Reasonable and gentle: Avoid being
too bureaucratic or too lenient. Find balance between rationality and kindness.

— Harmless and determined: Don’t
be hasty or impulsive; be cautious in your judgments; act carefully, but with
determination, clear vision, obedience to God and for the spiritual welfare of
the faithful.

— Charitable and truthful: Speak
the truth with charity and practice charity in truth, otherwise charity without
truth is “a destructive ideology” of do-goodism and “truth
without charity becomes blind legalism.”

— Open, honest and mature: Don’t
be good only when you know people are watching. Don’t lord over people, never
deceive. “Honesty is the foundation on which all other qualities rest.”

— Respectful and humble: Show
respect to everyone as well as for documents, dossiers, confidentiality and
privacy. Listen carefully, speak politely. You are and can do nothing without
God and his grace.

— Generous and stand guard:
What good is it to open all the Holy Doors around the world if our hearts,
homes and hands are closed to others? Do your best and never let your guard
down with vices and weaknesses.

— Fearless and ready: Be
proactive; face troubles boldly with determination and resolve. Don’t get
bogged down by ambition and material things; be ready and free to pick up and
go where God calls.

— Accountable, trustworthy and
sober: Honor your commitments, renounce the superfluous. Practice prudence,
simplicity, balance, temperance, live the essentials. Put God and others first;
cut back, salvage, “recycle, repair, and live a life of moderation.”

The pope ended his call with a
prayer recited by the late-U.S. Cardinal John Dearden, who was influential in
drawing up and implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The long prayer seeks to console
and encourage the perhaps lonely and tired laborer in the Lord’s enormous
vineyard, planting “seeds that one day will grow.”

“We cannot do everything,
yet it is liberating to begin,” the pope read. “It may remain
incomplete,” he said, but it is a step along the way — another sign the
pope, the doctor of souls, knows the journey of reform has another checkup scheduled
next year.

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Editors: An English translation
of the pope’s talk can be found at:

In Spanish:

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