ROME – In an extraordinary rebuke, Pope Francis assailed the Vatican bureaucracy in his traditional Christmas address on Monday, saying that some of the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Roman Catholic Church suffer from a “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
In his annual speech, Francis warned against what he called a lust for power, hypocritical double lives and the lack of spiritual empathy among some men of God. He listed the 15 “ailments and temptations” that weaken their service to the Lord, inviting them to a “true self-examination” ahead of Christmas.
In strong yet colorful language, Francis criticized the Curia, the administration that runs the Holy See, for a narcissistic “pathology of power” and “existential schizophrenia.”
He suggested that his prelates pay an “ordinary visit to the cemeteries,” and encouraged them to examine and improve themselves.
“Brothers, let’s guard ourselves from the terrorism of gossip,” Francis told the rows of bishops and cardinals seated in a 16th-century reception hall in the Apostolic Palace, some looking ahead attentively, others meditatively keeping their heads down.
The “ailment of close circles,” he added, “enslaves their members and becomes a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body.”
Including himself among the sinners, Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, stressed once more his idea of a church at the service of the poor and the peripheries, a religious institution able to move away from scandals, infighting and lavish behaviors.
“This is the ideological and religious manifesto of a radical reform of the Curia,” Carlo Marroni, a Vatican expert with the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore, said. “He doesn’t describe the details of the reform that we will most likely see next year, but he indicated the principles according to which the Church has to change, at least in the pope’s intentions.”
The list of diseases included “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” “spiritual petrification,” a feeling of being “immortal” and “funeral face,” a concept Francis referred to earlier this month to prepare for Christmas with “joy,” instead of dourness or anxiety.
The pope also blasted gossiping among officials as a form of “satanic assassination.” He said: “Sometimes, [officials of the Curia] feel themselves ‘lords of the manor’ – superior to everyone and everything.”
In his Christmas speeches, Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, had often issued programmatic statements for the year to come, and talked about controversial issues like same-sex marriage. However, he had not used such a stern tone.
Last year, in his first Christmas speech to the Curia as pope, Francis warned his prelates against drifting “downwards towards mediocrity,” and urged them to be “conscientious objectors” to gossip.
Andrea Tornielli, who covers the Vatican for the Italian daily La Stampa and its website, Vatican Insider, said that Francis “is not starting a witch hunt, he is asking everyone – himself included – for an evangelical mea culpa.”
In a meeting with the Vatican’s employees soon after his speech to the Curia, Francis repeated his plea for forgiveness, asking the laypeople who work for the Vatican to pardon his shortcomings and those of his collaborators, as well as some scandals that have hurt the church.
Tornielli explained that the pope was playing the role of the tough guy.
“He is trying to reform hearts and behaviors,” he said. “It’s something deeper than a structural reform of the Curia.”
Since his election in March 2013, Francis has created various bodies to improve the Holy See’s management and has appointed nine cardinals to advise him on the reform of the Curia.
In February 2015, the cardinals are due to meet again, just ahead of another consistory to elect new cardinals.