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Cleaning The Sphinx

Cleaning The Sphinx

“Speaking of reform, I think of the amusing yet pointed remark of Archbishop Frédéric-François-Xavier de Mérode: ‘Making reforms in Rome is like cleaning the Sphinx with a toothbrush’.” Words, which are so characteristic of Pope Francis- unequivocal, yet tinged with a particular brand of humour. The words would surely not have been lost on the august audience who were listening to him intensely but perhaps with a certain degree of unease. The irony was that Pope Francis was once again on a ‘cleaning’ spree at the ‘Christmas Greetings’ for the Roman Curia on  21 December 2017 and those in the audience were some of the most powerful men of the Church today!

The Holy Father traditionally meets the Roman Curia for the ‘Christmas Greetings’ meeting a few days  before Christmas. In the past, this annual ‘do’ was on expected lines: the Pope saying a few ‘nice’ words of appreciation and gratitude to all; pleasantries and greetings exchanged and then a Christmas ‘gift’ – which was very welcome indeed! The Christmas gathering of 2013 was already slightly different. It was the first one for Pope Francis; his address was rather brief and focused on the two hallmarks of a Curia official namely professionalism and service. Though that message was fairly tempered – it still sent a very strong message home.

Then came the one of 2014, which was a veritable bombshell! Pope Francis listed fifteen spiritual ‘ailments’ which he felt were present in the Vatican bureaucracy. He urged all present to introspect deeply, to be aware of these ailments and to enter into the process of healing during the Christmas Season. The ones of 2015 and 2016, focused on different topics, though they followed a similar pattern. He speaks of the inter-connectedness of his addresses in his opening remarks, “ My reflections are based of course on the fundamental canonical principles of the Curia and on its own history, but also on the personal vision that I have sought to share with you in my addresses of recent years, within the context of the reform currently under way”.

The address of Pope Francis this year, focused on the curia's relationship with the wider world, especially with other nations, Christian denominations and other religions, particularly Judaism and Islam. His thirty-minute address  was laced with references to three different analogies for how he thinks the curia should work: as a deacon, with the primary and constant  aim of being of service to others ( diaconal primacy); as  faithful antennae, that transmit and receive signals; and as parts of a body, feeling and relaying sensations ( institutional senses). Pope Francis explains this saying “ my appeal to the senses of the human body helps us have a sense of extroversion, of attention to what is outside. In the human body, the senses are our first connection to the world ad extra; they are like a bridge towards that world; they enable us to relate to it. The senses help us to grasp reality and at the same time to situate ourselves in reality. Not by chance did Saint Ignatius appeal to the senses for the contemplation of the mysteries of Christ and truth”

Before he enters the crux of his address, Pope Francis has some strong words, “ This is very important for rising above that unbalanced and debased mindset of plots and small cliques that in fact represent – for all their self-justification and good intentions – a cancer leading to a self-centeredness that also seeps into ecclesiastical bodies, and in particular those working in them. When this happens, we lose the joy of the Gospel, the joy of sharing Christ and of fellowship with him; we lose the generous spirit of our consecration (cf. Acts 20:35 and 2 Cor 9:7).

St Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises refers to the ‘Three Classes of Men’; perhaps Pope Francis took a cue from this important meditation when he referred to three categories of persons within the curia today. An analogy, which perhaps would not have been Christmas music to the ears of his listeners. In the first category, Pope Francis referred to “those who betray the trust put in them and profiteer from the Church’s motherhood. 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.” He goes on to the second category saying, “ Alongside these, there are others who are still working there, to whom all the time in the world is given to get back on the right track, in the hope that they find in the Church’s patience an opportunity for conversion and not for personal advantage”.

That he has had to refer to these two groups mean that Pope Francis is deeply pained at what is happening around him; however, he  does not fail to say that the above two categories are just a minority . Further, he does not shy from acknowledging and praising the vast majority (the third category) with a clear emphasis, “ Of course, this is in no way to overlook the vast majority of faithful persons working there with praiseworthy commitment, fidelity, competence, dedication and great sanctity”.

The reform of the Curia has been a key element in the vision of Pope Francis.  In his address he asserted that the reform which is underway requires “much patience, dedication and delicacy” to reach the goal because the Curia is “an ancient, complex, venerable institution composed of people from different cultures, languages and mental constructs and which, bound to the primatial function of the Bishop of Rome in the church, that is to the ‘sacred’ office willed by Christ the Lord for the good of the entire body of the church.”. It is a herculean task, which he has undertaken with passion, vigour and much prayer.

In highlighting the role the Church, plays in today’s world Pope Francis reiterated that, “a fundamental role is played by Vatican diplomacy, as the sincere and constant effort to make the Holy See a builder of bridges, peace and dialogue between nations. As it is a diplomacy at the service of humanity and the human person, of outstretched hand and open door, it seeks to listen, to understand, to help, to support and to intervene quickly and respectfully in any situation, for the sake of narrowing distances and building trust. Its only interest is to remain free of all worldly or material self-interest”. Here he once again reminded those who are at the helm of affairs not to be ensnared by the materiality of this world.

There is much more that Pope Francis said in his incisive Christmas Greetings. Though listening to him were the members of the Roman Curia (including his Nuncios to most countries of the world) and some other high-ranking prelates, his address is in fact meant for the entire Church and particularly for Bishops and priests everywhere. The world media too, like in the past years, closely followed his address. The 2017 message of Pope Francis  can  perhaps be summed up in his opening greeting, “May this Christmas open our eyes so that we can abandon what is superfluous, false, malicious and sham, and to see what is essential, true, good and authentic”. A challenge to all for renewal!

Pope Francis is certainly using more than a toothbrush to clean the Sphinx! He needs the prayers, support and substantial action from all, in order to fulfil this mission!

11 January 2017

* ( Fr Cedric Prakash sj is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact:             

(Published on 15th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 03)