Hearing the Pope’s (Real) Christmas Message

I have been hearing that Francis was harsh, even gauche, in his Christmas message to his Curia, when he apparently announced fifteen things that he expected to be corrected in the curial behavior. He did certainly list such things – and they are pretty blunt.

I emphasize “apparently,” however, because I haven’t seen any report or commentator who explained the first four paragraphs of the message, the ones that preceded the “notorious” list or the paragraphs that followed it. Together they created the context for the Chief Pastor’s address to his personal staff. After all, the Curia is only there to serve his ministry to the world and it only serves at his pleasure.

Francis began by explaining the wonder of Christmas when we experience “the mystery of God who takes upon himself our human condition and our sins to reveal to us his divine life, his immense grace and his generous pardon.” (My translation.) Next he says that: “God was born in poverty in the grotto in Bethlehem to teach us the power of humility.”

With these points, he starts to develop the theme of the overall address, which is further fleshed out where he speaks about the light “that is not received by the elect but rather by the poor and the simple who awaited the salvation of the Lord.” Working from the meaning of the Christmas feast, he was offering a pastoral exhortation to the Curia, rooted in the mystery of Christmas itself.

Contrary to many reports, he offered his good wishes to everyone and cordially thanked them “for their daily work at the service of the Holy See, of the Catholic Church of the particular churches and off the successor of Peter.” In line with his principal theme, he reminds his listeners why they were there, recalls those who have retired or gone on to other posts, and in the process notes that “we are persons and not simply numbers or denominations.”

He noted that the Curia helps the Church to develop, in fact: “It is attractive to think of the Roman Curia as a small-scale model of the Church, in other words, as a ‘body’ which strives seriously every day to be more alive, more healthy, more harmonious and more united in itself and with Christ.” Consequently, the Curia, in which he includes himself, needed to do an examination of conscience – his phrase – in the final days before the great feast of Christmas.


It was to help this examination that Pope Francis listed some of “the more common diseases in our life in the Curia.” His explanation: “The Curia is called constantly to improve and to grow in communion, holiness and wisdom, in order to carry out fully its mission.” It was only then that he noted the fifteen points that have been splattered across every newspaper, TV channel and blog.

After his list, he commented: “Brothers, these diseases and these temptations are naturally a danger for each Christian and for every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesial movement; and they can strike at the individual and the community levels.” His point being all the way through that the Church is a communion – a strong Vatican II term – and consequently, the fifteen things that he has listed should be noted most particularly for the way in which they destroy a communion, the communion of the Body of Christ.

“We need to be clear that it is only the Holy Spirit who can heal all our infirmities.” With this, he begins a subtle argument, namely, that it is precisely by one’s participation in the communion of the Body of Christ, that one can share in the Spirit of God and become ever more deeply involved in the communion of the Church. This is an invaluable lesson for anyone in the Church regardless of station.

Francis concluded this particular foray with a pointed reference: “Saint Augustine tells us that ‘as long as a member is still part of the body, its healing can be hoped for. But once it is removed, it can be neither cured nor healed.’”

Overall, Francis was deeply concerned with repairing and developing the communion of colleagues within the Curia. In fact, quoting St. Paul: “in truth and love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15–16)

In conclusion, he addressed his “brothers,” reminding each of them of “the importance and the frailty of our priestly service, and how much evil a single priest who ‘crashes’ can do to the whole body of the Church.”

And following tradition, he invoked Mary, so that everyone might “have the courage to acknowledge that we are sinners in need of his mercy, and not to fear surrendering our hands into her maternal hands.”

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini, and, most recently, John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesiae: The Gift of Catholic Universities to the World.

  • Dave

    This writing is admirable as an exemplar of the sort of filial piety we ought to have toward the Holy Father. And yet it leaves me unsettled. The first four paragraphs do all the things you say they do, Father. Then the Holy Father goes about bashing the Curia. He accuses them of “spiritual Alzheimer’s” — and there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, a terrible, wasting disease that is as least as hard on the caretakers and the loved ones as the one who suffers from it. Why say something so heartless at Christmas? Why accuse the Curia of a disease for which there is no cure? If the Pope is going to list out the problems, in a sort of State of the Curia kind of way, why not spend more time on the solutions? Why not indicate within the body of the ills, including, inter alia, “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” that there is a spiritual cure? Why wait until the very end, when no one is listening any longer?

    Some have wondered why the Holy Father didn’t follow his famous three-point approach. It seems to me that he did: 1. The Curia is wonderful when it works right. 2. You guys stink, and here are 15 reasons why. 3. The Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary will help, if you let them. The problem is that after beating the Curia over the head, in what was undeniably the heart of the audience, the references to the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin Mary can be read as gratuitous, sort of like being pointed to the medicine after being beat up. After having been read the Riot Act, who wants to hear, “but God and Mary love you anyway, and here’s the cure.” I’m sure there were many in that audience who were stunned and tuned out.

    I don’t know what to make of this Holy Father. I entered into full communion with the Church because of St. John Paul II’s witness of joy, strength, and love: I thought, this is what a Christian should look like! I loved Benedict deeply because of his graciousness and his deep learning. I see in Pope Francis something of a wrecker, someone determined to shake things up — except for the modernist agenda which throws everything into question and which disheartens everyone not in favor of the wrecking ball: that, he seems to like. So much damage can be done in a few short words or sentences to undo centuries of slow, laborious spiritual effort and that requires centuries more to rebuild and refashion, the helps of the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Virgin notwithstanding. The only real joy Francis seems to take is in upsetting the apple cart and then accusing the dismayed of lack of humility and of worldliness. Really? Those of us, inside and outside the Church, who look to the Church and to the Petrine Ministry as the antidote to the modernism, post-modernism, nihilism, and plain willfulness masquerading as liberty that characterizes our age are increasing dismayed.

    Finally, I cannot find an official translation into English of this audience. My Spanish is strong enough that I can cross-read through the Italian. I’ve searched through the entire Vatican website for an English text and the only bits in English are news briefs and press releases. What i notice is that the website itself has changed dramatically. It used to be that you could pick one of several languages right off the front page in order to make your way through the content. You can find the languages in the upper-right-hand corner of the website if you use the drop-down. My point is that the website is a lot harder to navigate than it used to be, and it seems less transparent: kind of like Francis’ entire ministry.

    May God bless him, and may He bless us. This is going to be a long haul.

    • GetSmarty

      This Pope could very well be the most offensive member of the entire Curia.

      He’s certainly the most self-righteous.

      We must pray to the Holy Spirit to keep the church from straying.

    • fredx2

      The Pope has realized that the Curia has some problems. Some of these problems are that they exist in italy where corruption is a usual way of doing business and the mafia likes to take advantage of the soft hearted. His speech was not about dressing down the curia. It was an attempt to say “Watch out for this…watch out for that”. Notice that when he was giving his fifteen points, he always said “We” can be tempted with this failing. Never did he say “you” are tempted with this.

      So the answer to much of the corruption that exists around the Vatican is simply to strengthen their spiritual strength. The Pope was laying a foundation for the renewal of the spiritual strength of the curia. The media went nuts and twisted it into a sharp reprimand,which it was not.

  • Fr. Bevil Bramwell

    Hi Dave, thank you. You can find the complete English translation at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/december/documents/papa-francesco_20141222_curia-romana.html
    When you get there you will see that it is listed under Speeches December 2014.

    From a pastoral point of view, the examination of conscience is well structured especially when one considers that it was being proposed as a way of preparing for Christmas. No comments on the over literal reading of “Alzheimers”! The Pope was elected and told to deal with the Curia. He is going about it his way after decades of notables such as John Paul II simply going round the Curia. Francis is onto something when he says that the Curia is the Church in miniature. Speaking in Advent, during a penitential time, he was certainly relevant.

    • GetSmarty

      FATHER, you are clearly out of your mind if you think this was the proper time and place for such a discussion.

      Most folks, including Catholics, have no idea who the Vatican Curia is.

      This was a Christmas Mass being broadcast throughout the world.

      Topics such as persecution of Christians, conflict between Muslims and Christians, respect for human life–oh, that’s right, we shouldn’t discuss the evils of abortion and euthanasia–would have been much more appropriate.

  • Eddie

    The full text is on the Vatican website in the Speeches/December section.

    Not to be flippant, but there have been many throughout the ages who seemed “determined to shake things up.” Several of them are now saints. Let’s listen to and read carefully what the Pope is saying. If the past 20 years has shown us anything, it is that there is much in the Church that needs shaking up. Cardinal Ratzinger said it much more strongly than anyone else, on his way into the Conclave that elected him Pope.

    • GetSmarty

      Is he shaking things up or radically changing the sacred teachings of scripture?

      It appears to be the latter.

  • Sherry

    Pope Francis’ talk could be seen as a “trickle down” critique of the “high and the mighty” – from the curia to everyone else. However, why not chastise the curia privately instead of on the public stage? And why a few days before Christmas?

    As to why the press jumped on the 15 points that listed some of “the more common diseases in our life in the Curia” – that was where “the news” was. The Pope’s other words may have been beautiful but many are just not interested and just “cut to the chase” from their perspective and that of many of their readers.

    From the first days of this papacy, the media has been pretty consistent – taking what they want to hear from the Pope’s talks. That is probably not going to change. Perception becomes the “new reality”. And many of his talks leave themselves open to multiple interpretations.

    One thing that makes me very sad is that children and parents in Catholic schools are using the Pope’s words (maybe out of context but to them they are direct quotes of his phrases) to justify why they believe some current Church teachings are outdated and prejudicial – and their teachers are wrong.

    Maybe after the February meeting about women, and the Family meeting in Philadelphia, and the Synod are over, there will be a better understanding of Pope Francis’ agenda.

    • GetSmarty

      I think you’re being too kind.

      The Pope appears to be the puppet master in setting a new, post modern agenda for the church.

      No need to apologize for his remarks.

      He means exactly what he says.

      We must pray to the Holy Spirit to save our beloved church.

  • Howard Kainz

    Pope Francis comes off as strictly a “Vatican II” pope. One is reminded of the movement of the “progressives” at V2 to lessen the grip of the “encrusted” Roman Curia, to “open the window” to new breezes, as John XXIII put it.

    • GetSmarty

      Francis seems to be a reincarnation of John XXXIII.

      Did not like the way he elevated John to sainthood–as only one miracle had been attributed to him.

      Two are necessary for canonization.

      The Pope did it to appease leftists who were critical of conservative John Paul II.

      It’s clear this Pope has chosen to be popular and politically correct rather than a humble and faithful servant of the Lord.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    I think it was a shameful act for the Holy Father to castigate the entire curia in public.

    • What do you think Jesus would have done given the present circumstances? There is that little matter of the report received just a day or two into his papacy. He is not dealing with ladies in a finishing school. Some of those guys are downright scary … Sodano comes to mind.

      • GetSmarty

        Sadly, this Pope’s remarks are scary. So are his actions and the bishops he chooses to promote and demote.

    • Esperanzaypaz

      Hm, Jesus went into the temple and threw tables around…

      • GetSmarty

        This Pope is no Jesus and the Curia is not comparable to the Rabbis in the Temple.

        • Captain Obvious: a curia rife with homosexuals is worse than those. I doubt there were homosexuals among the Pharisees.

        • Esperanzaypaz

          How do you know?

    • fredx2

      And in fact he did no such thing. He gave them a list of things to watch out for. He did the same thing to the regular people who work at the Vatican on the same day – he gave them a list of ten things to watch out for. Working at the Vatican makes you a target for bad people. He wants everyone there to live by high standards to reduce the potential for scandal.

      He is doing the right thing. The media twisted it beyond all recognition.

  • Dave

    Fr. Bramwell, thanks for the link to the address in English. That was very helpful — and I’ll remember that link to the “back door,” so to speak. I do see your point. I see Sherry’s too. I appreciate your article, and your comment in the combox. It isn’t clear to me what the Pope is trying to do except (1) give maximum leeway to progressives and (2) box everyone else in. It is worrisome to see a Pope so politicized and so adored by people who otherwise detest the Church, like the secular media. Anything else I’d say would be redundant so I’ll desist now and wish everyone a very happy feast of the Holy Famly. Jesus, Mary, and Jesus: be our shield, be our refuge, lead the Church to the Father.

  • ericdenman

    As a former philosophy adjunct, I hold to the contention that those who articulate well do so because they think clearly. Pope Francis, needing his apologists, demonstrate the lack of clarity in this pope’s comments as opposed to the master of Occam’s’ razor, Jesus…a man of few but power- packed and clear words. At a time when the world, not just Catholics, needs lucid pedagogy regarding matters of faith and morality, to me, Pope Francis is a master of muddying Christ’s message in word and deed. The pope’s penchant for drama and confusion is hurting us and leads me to conclude that he really does not know what he is doing. What has he accomplished but profound disarray and further division within the faithful as well as the clergy?
    As forceful as Jesus could be when discontent, I cannot fathom Jesus shaming his followers publicly, especially and during a sacred season dedicated to joy and spiritual renewal. Seems to me Pope Francis missed the point regarding forgiveness and re-commitment. It is done with gracious love and regret, not shame and humiliation.

    • Fr. Bevil Bramwell

      Eric the phrase “get behind me Satan” comes to mind. Public – recorded for all time!

      • ericdenman

        Fr. Bramwell…I do not argue that chastening is never in order…we stray and stray boldly at times but this public performance was more of flamboyance and glitz that seems neither heartfelt nor productive…I say this as a former teacher myself… little positive comes from humiliation but bitterness…this was flamboyance on Pope Francis’ part and this very much is the stuff of men and pride…and with trepidation, speaking of Satan, I find myself reluctantly wondering has Satan indeed blown his smoke on God’s altar….Having much to correct in myself, I have found our God the gentlest and most patient of teachers and most understanding and compassionate of confessors. That’s His great appeal as our great Lord and Master.

        • Esperanzaypaz

          Always a Pharisee everywhere in this forum… Sad.

          • ericdenman

            I do not follow…I am in earnest with my comments…Experience as an adjunct professor and with politics instructs me that public humiliation, no matter how well deserved, is often not fruitful and often feeds the urge for retaliation…and the beat goes on. Kinder and gentler ways are far more humble and often more effective. We might feel gratified to see those whom we deem deserving of a dressing down getting their just desserts but in this case in particular, begging for Christian example, I differ…magnifying God’s soul is paramount. In this instance, I see Pope Francis magnifying his own soul… In my six decades, I have never seen our world more harsh…and I shudder for my young grandchildren. What will they face in the next decade if this trend is not reversed? If ever we have needed kinder and gentler ways in dealing with one another, it is now. It is not unreasonable to hope the pope would lead.

          • Esperanzaypaz

            I know you are in earnest. So were the Pharisees – so to speak “holier than the Pope”. You may not realize this but you publicly castigate and denigrate Pope Francis consistently in this forum. How about trying to see Christ in everyone? And, oh by the way, what if he is right and you are wrong, in God’s eyes???

    • GetSmarty

      Couldn’t agree with you more!

      Why was the Pope discussing the Roman Curia during a world-wide telecast of the Vatican Christmas Mass?

      This Pope, always in need of clarifiers and apologists, seems to lack any common sense or wisdom–and that is being kind.

    • fredx2

      And it appears you missed the point of this article. The Pope was not publicly shaming anyone. He was calling attention to the temptations that arise when people are in power. The media twisted this fatherly speech of care and concern into a public humiliation of the curia, which it was not.

      In trying to figure out what Pope Francis is all about, there are two rules: 1) Never trust what the media says he said. Always read his own words. and 2) Austen Ivereigh in his book says that Francis excelled as a spiritual director. He is not a theologian or a philosopher. He is about nuts and bolts attempts to reach people and live the Christian life.

      • ericdenman

        fredx2..I missed nothing of the sort…Pope Francis publicly chastened his “staff”, as Fr. .Bramwell advises. He was not giving touching, gentle fatherly advice. You know what happened and so do I because the critique was done in public. Such a pointed critique being done in public, deliberately before the media, is in itself… shaming. If you publicly shame anyone, what do you think will be the end result? Do you really believe everyone will live happily ever after?

        No one can govern/rule singlehandedly. Those who put him in power, if as politically corrupted and powerful as is believed, may have the wits to minimize his power as well.

        From the growing backlash to this papacy, I am very concerned that this pope is alienating many, many who want to embrace him.

        Of course he is a theologian He’s a Jesuit and has had more training in theology than any religious order with which I am familiar. The basic tenets of Catholicism have previously been defined for him. We should not have to figure out what he is doing. He should be clear and clearly uphold those basic tenets in the changing world. That’s what it means to be Catholic…staying true to Catholic beliefs in the face of growing vice and rejection of God.

        Here’s the rub…It is reconciling being a South American, liberationist Jesuit and the upholder of the one, true Catholic faith. As best as I can discern, that inner conflict is the source of his conflicted and troublesome pronouncements.

  • Fr. Bevil Bramwell

    There is such a thing as a pastor’s relationship to his flock. Sometimes tough words are called for. This was not a gathering of diplomats.

    • GetSmarty

      It was the wrong time and place to deliver such remarks.

      The Christmad audience was the world and the messase was inside the Vatican beltway.

      This Pope seems out of touch with the everyone except
      committed leftists.

      A very strange man and Papacy.

  • Paul Vander Voort

    Interesting he used the term “crashes” when referring to the evil a single priest can do to the whole body of the Church. “Crashes” are very unfortunate but a greater problem is “lack of maintenance” IMO.

    • fredx2

      He used the word crashes because just before that he said that you hear about the one plane that crashes, but every day tens of thousands fly successfully.

      • Paul Vander Voort


        How the RCC reacted to some of those crashes tells me volumes. Lack of maintenance has not only caused serious problems for those directly involved in the crash but sent a shock wave throughout the Church causing wide spread damage.

  • Fr. Bevil Bramwell

    It is informative to read just one of the criticisms, to show the Holy Father’s approach, the fact that he has dealt with this repeatedly in other forums, and maybe to inform ourselves where we might be lacking: “9. The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting. I have already
    spoken many times about this disease, but never enough. It is a grave
    illness which begins simply, perhaps even in small talk, and takes over a
    person, making him become a “sower of weeds” (like Satan) and in
    many cases, a cold-blooded killer of the good name of our colleagues
    and confrères. It is the disease of cowardly persons who lack the
    courage to speak out directly, but instead speak behind other people’s
    backs. Saint Paul admonishes us to do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent” (Phil 2:14-15). Brothers, let us be on our guard against the terrorism of gossip!” Division is not what we are about.

  • E.B.B. Frago

    I do not presume to know what the situation with the curia is, but I am glad that the Pope did make this list public. He says, “Brothers, these diseases and these temptations are naturally a danger for each Christian and for every curia, community, congregation, parish and ecclesial movement; and they can strike at the individual and the community levels.” So I believe that this public “chastisement” is meant just for the curia. I for one appreciate the list and I know I can apply the list in my own life. I also appreciate St. Thomas More’s prayer.

    • E.B.B. Frago

      I meant the chastisement was NOT just for the curia.

  • GetSmarty

    Why is it that every time Pope Francis speaks, a catholic prelate or lay person must clarify his remarks or offer apologies.

    I do not recall this need everytime the previous two pontiffs spoke.

    Could it be that Pope Francis has a very bad habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time?

    Why, during a Christmas Mass televised around the world, would Pope Francis address inside the Vatican beltway issues dealing with the Roman Curia?

    It was neither the time nor the place. His audience was the world and he should have addressed issues affecting humanity such as Christian persecution, the ongoing conflict between Muslims and Christians,
    and/or the lack of respect for human life.

    Christmas is not the time for the church to be airing dirty laundry.

  • GetSmarty

    I posted several civil comments and they appear to have been removed.

    Am I being silenced on this page because I disagree with the author?

    I pray that’s not the case.

  • Fr. Bevil Bramwell

    Lots of good comments however the vision of the curia that some have is as some kind of group of independent nobles. In Canon Law the Curia is merely there to serve the Pope. This is not the situation of a King having to negotiate with the noble landowners to get anything done, this is simply a number of officeworkers needed to get the pastoral work of the Pope done. The ranks and the power and money and the prestige and the fancy residences (for some) are medieval hangovers that have nothing to do with their jobs.