Pope Francis’ way of reform

Last December, Pope Francis dedicated his annual talk to members of the Roman Curia (RC) right before Christmas to the theme of reform, and today I wish to highlight to you some of the key elements of that speech.

Jul 14, 2017

By Archbishop Joseph Marino
Last December, Pope Francis dedicated his annual talk to members of the Roman Curia (RC) right before Christmas to the theme of reform, and today I wish to highlight to you some of the key elements of that speech.

Foundation of reform

In the first part of his talk, the Holy Father placed his reflection of reform within the context of the celebration of Christmas, recalling that Christmas is the “feast of the loving humility of God, of the God who upsets our logical expectations” (RC). The logic of God at Christmas arises from the fact that he came to us in the smallest, the frailest and the weakest, “so that we would not be ashamed to approach him, so that no one would be afraid, so that all would feel close to him and draw near to him, so that there would be no distance between us and him.”

Pope Francis stated that this logic has been the theological basis or foundation for the reform of the Roman Curia, that is, to assure that no one, as a result of the institution or its organisms, would feel removed, distant or, even worse, unable or impeded to approach the Lord himself.

Therefore, reform must be understood in two ways. First, the Holy Father says, it should be interpreted as “con-forming” itself to the Good News, the Gospel, which must be proclaimed joyously and courageously to all, especially to the poor, the least and the outcast” (RC). Moreover, the Curia, and by extension, all institutions of the Church must conform to the signs of the times and to all human achievements, so that, as His Holiness says, we can “better meet the needs of the men and women we are called to serve.” Also, it means to conform the Curia, and again, all our institutions, to their purpose, which is that of cooperating in the ministry of Peter (for the Curia in Rome) and, by extension, to the ministry of the Bishop at the local level who, “by divine institution succeed to the place of the Apostles through the Holy Spirit who have been given to them, are constituted pastors in the Church, so that they are teachers of doctrine, priests of sacred worship and ministers of governance” (Canon 375, par. 1).

The second point, Church structures are understood as assisting the Bishop in his office of pastor, and therefore must be guided by an ecclesiology of service and care for the salvation of souls.
Reform then requires a sense of conversion and represents a sign of life in the Church, both at the universal level and the local level. Pope Francis affirmed that the Curia “is not an immobile bureaucratic apparatus” but something that must always be changed as the Church walks on her pilgrim way. The same is true for the local offices, structures and even programmes and pastoral approaches in your dioceses. No part of the Church is free from constant evaluation and reform.

To begin with, such institutions must be staffed by people who themselves are renewed and are open to change and conversion and purification. In any institution, “without a change in mentality, efforts at practical improvement will be in vain” (RC). Simply put, reform, which is based in conformity to the Gospel and an ecclesiology of service for the good of souls, requires “an ongoing personal and structural process of conversion” (RC). An authentic reform of the structures of the Church makes them more apt to serve the Gospel and the people of God.

The principles of the reform

After giving the theological/philosophical foundation for the reform, the Holy Father then listed twelve principles that have guided his reform of the Roman Curia, and they are: Individual responsibility, pastoral concern, missionary spirit, organisational clarity, improved functioning, modernisation, sobriety, subsidiarity, synodality, catholicity, professionalism and gradualism.

I am sure that in your various chanceries there exist organisational clarity, effective functioning and a sense of modernisation. In the exchange of communications between the Dioceses and the Nunciature, it is clear that there is also professionalism and sobriety.

Therefore, let us look at two groupings of these guidelines, the first which includes individual responsibility, pastoral concern and missionary spirit, and the second which entails subsidiarity, synodality and catholicity.


With reference to the first grouping of principles, it is interesting to note that the Holy Father has sub-defined them with the phrases, personal conversion, pastoral conversion and Christocentrism.

These three principles find their roots in most of the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (EG), The Joy of the Gospel. Perhaps, the best line in The Joy of the Gospel, in this regard is: “I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are (EG, 25).

Even individual conversion will lead us to change structures. Indeed, “personal conversion supports and reinforces communal conversion” and leads us to recall that our mission is fundamentally pastoral, therefore, even in the structures, we are “a community of service” (RC).

The Holy Father also points out that “the Second Vatican Council presented ecclesial conversion as openness to a constant self-renewal born of fidelity to Jesus Christ: ‘Every renewal of the Church essentially consists of an increase of fidelity to her own calling... Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way... to that continual reformation of which she always has need, in so far as she is a human institution here on earth’” (EG, 26).

The Holy Father in the Joy of the Gospel laments that “there are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelisation” (EG, 26) and “mere administration can no longer be enough” (EG, 25).

He even faults some structures as the very reason for which people leave the Church. He says, and let me quote: “We must recognise that if part of our baptised people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places, an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelisation” (EG, 63).

Following that line of thinking, he critics parish structures and affirms: “We must admit that the call to review and renew our parishes has not yet sufficed to bring them nearer to the people, to make them environments of living communion and participation, and to make them completely mission-oriented” (EG, 28).

In addressing the realities of basic Christian communities and ecclesial movements, the Holy Father, while recognising them as a source of enrichment for the Church, explains that they would be more beneficial if they do not “lose contact with the rich reality of the local parish” and in that way they will be prevented “from concentrating only on part of the Gospel or the Church” (EG, 29).

The diocese, too, is called to “missionary conversion” (EG, 30), and in that context, the Holy Father encourages “each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform” (EG, 30). And for the sake of completeness, the Pope includes his own office, the papacy, as subject to this process of reform. He affirms, very explicitly, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy” (EG, 31).

In the ecclesial places of advancing the Gospel, the Holy Father is calling for a deep missionary conversion. For this conversion to take place, two things are needed. First, we must, according to Pope Francis, “abandon the complacent attitude that says, ‘we have always done it this way’” (EG, 33). Secondly, we must make sure that our evaluations are inspired by an “evangelical spirit” (EG, 26), which leads us “to return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel” (EG, 11). Any reflection to reform the Church is always Christo-centric, Gospel-centred and service-oriented and never politically or sociologically inspired. When we focus on Christ and his people, “new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world” (EG, 11). Otherwise, “without this new and authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s fidelity to ‘her own calling’, any new structure will soon prove to be ineffective” (EG, 26).

-- Continued next week: Synodality

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