As 2014 came to an end, three significant Vatican documents captured Church and world attention:
1) The Relatio Synodi for the upcoming Synod of Bishops which is dedicated to “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”;
2) The Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States;
3) Pope Francis’ Christmas Address to the Curia.
An October, 2014, meeting of a select number of bishops and laity discussed issues surrounding family problems in today’s world in the light of the Church’s mission to reflect Gospel values.
This extraordinary synod produced a document known as a relatio synodi, a summary of the issues and theology proposed and debated by the participants. In his closing remarks Pope Francis described the meeting as a journey with moments of enthusiasm and ardor, moments of fatigue, moments of consolation and grace, moments of desolation, tension and temptation.
The summary or outline (aka lineamenta) will be discussed by Bishops worldwide in preparation for an October, 2015, synod, which is expected to draw conclusions and encourage a plan of action.
Prior to the meeting the bishops are asked to consult with Catholics at all levels to surface observations, insights and recommendations about how to respond to family life problems around the globe.
The Vatican (read: Pope Francis) encourages responses that are compassionate and pastoral. The document recognizes that there are no easy answers to the multiplicity of problems threatening family life: violence against women, sexual exploitation of children, divorce and broken families, hard economic times, rising numbers of “street-children,” pornography, etc. The Church’s response must be merciful, truthful, and consistent with the will of Christ.
Bishops will be provided with more than 40 questions to pass on to their people in this worldwide consultation in preparation for the three-week synod in October of 2015.
Basing our expectations on the relatio, we can conclude that the results of the synod will not overturn the constant teaching of the Church that marriage is between a man and a woman, nor will there be a change regarding the indissolubility of marriage.
But it is quite possible that a great deal more attention will be given on the diocesan and parochial levels to people in hurting marriage, to the divorced, to the divorced-and-remarried, to accompanying newly married couples in the first years of their conjugal life, to simplification of the Church’s process for declaration of marriage nullity, to welcoming people with homosexual orientation, etc.
The Review of the Sisters
In December of 2008 Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, announced an “apostolic visitation” (a Vatican investigation) of religious sisters in the United States. Religious congregations of women were caught by surprise, even though “visitations” of one or more religious orders are not uncommon. That this visitation was directed to all the religious sisters in the US raised red flags and resentment.
Pressed for an explanation, Rodé admitted that he had decided to act because of complaints his office had received, charging some of the religious orders with having a secularist mentality, “perhaps even a ‘feminist’ spirit.” Rodé intimated that someone on a high level in the US Church had been critical of sisters and their attitudes.
An American sister, Mother Mary Claire Millea, was appointed to conduct the visitation, part of which would be done by mail and part by personal, on-site meetings with certain religious orders. Over a period of two years, at an estimated cost of one million dollars, the data was collected and preparations for a report were begun.
The final review is dated December 12, 2014. Cardinal Rodé is no longer head of the congregation on religious, His Holiness Benedict XVI is no longer pope. While couched in Church language and Vaticanese, the conclusion does not address with any specificity the charges which prompted the visitation and is more hortatory in tone than directive.
The report is probably more telling in what it does not say than in what it does. The sisters may well suspect that something of the “Francis effect” is present in the final analysis of the institutions of women religious in the United States. Some Catholics think the investigation and its report to be “much ado about nothing.”
Although there may have been a collective sigh of relief from the sisters when the report was first generated, the conflict between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not resolved.
On December 22, 2014, Pope Francis held an annual pre-Christmas meeting with the Roman Curia and its staff. (The Curia is the collection of departments that are formed to help the pope lead the Church; it is the Church’s main bureaucracy.)
The Holy Father offered his Christmas and New Year greetings, thanked them for their service, and read to them an examination of conscience to encourage their improvement!
His address listed 15 weaknesses, temptations, or “diseases” which Curia members must strive to overcome and avoid.
He encouraged them to be self-critical and to avoid the temptation to think of themselves as beyond updating; he also said that the disease of thinking oneself to be indispensable stems from a pathology of power and narcissism.
He urged them to avoid “Marthaism” (excessive busy-ness) and to spend quality time with family and to enjoy the holidays.
He cautioned them not to become hard-hearted but to recall the feelings and mindset of Christ.
He suggested that they be cooperative and to work as a team. He warned them about “spiritual Alzheimer’s” which forgets the history of salvation. He listed other “diseases” which need attention: the disease of rivalry and vainglory (as in excessive concern about appearance and robes and honors); the disease of schizophrenia (as in hypocrisy and losing touch with reality); the disease of gossip and grumbling; the disease of courting superiors in the interest of advancing careers.
He warned about indifference, about wearing what he called “a funeral face,” about accumulating more things than needed, about forming cliques, and about turning service or ministry into worldly power.
Pope Francis ended the examination of conscience by encouraging healing, noting that “these diseases and such temptations are of course a danger to every Christian and every curia, community, congregation, parish, and church movement.”
Most observers of Papa Francesco’s papacy agree that he has taken seriously the call from brother bishops to effect a reform of the Curia. Dissatisfaction with the Curia was obvious at the Second Vatican Council, but the power of the Curia waylaid most proposals for reform.
Fifty years later the conclave of cardinals who elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio discussed again the need for curial reform. In fact one may conclude that reform of the Curia was a kind of mandate given to the man the electors selected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. By establishing his Group of Nine to study and advise such reform, Pope Francis has shown his willingness to pursue that reform. The reform of the Vatican Bank is well underway.
It was said by some at Vatican II that the Curia was impervious to efforts of reform. Even though the bureaucracy exists to assist the pope in the worldwide governance of the Church, the Curia has established policies, procedures, and protections to ensure its “supremacy.”
It was said: “Popes die, Councils come to an end, but the Curia goes on!”
At the very least Pope Francis has demonstrated his willingness to climb the walls of the citadel and confront the temptations which undermine the health of this important Church body.
Three documents (a report, a review and an address) shine light on the unfolding of a new year in the Church and its mission and ministry. Let one with eyes, see. Let one with ears, hear. Pray for the safety of Pope Francis.