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.

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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.