Pope Francis gave a speech to the high officials of the Roman curia on Thursday, and something – it’s safe to say – got lost in translation, but not the core of the message, which can fairly be summed up as: Merry Christmas, you lepers!
Now, Pope Francis didn’t quite say that – not in words – but he did compare his audience to Naaman, the Syrian general and war hero who secretly suffered from leprosy and sought healing from the prophet, Elisha. The pope also contrasted his hearers with the attitude of the shepherds, the Magi, and Jesus.
It wasn’t just any old talk, either. It was the traditional end-of-year allocution to the senior officeholders in Rome’s central governing apparatus. Couched as “Christmas greetings” and conducted under a veneer of cordiality, the speech is among the most highly anticipated and closely attended papal events of any year.
Pope Francis didn’t just want his audience to hear him, in other words. He wanted the world to hear him telling them what he told them.
“The mystery of Christmas,” said Pope Francis, “is the mystery of God who enters the world by the path of humility.” Only, “Our times seem either to have forgotten humility,” or at least, he went on to say, the hierarchical leaders and governors of the Church have “relegated it to a form of moralism, emptying it of its explosive power.” Pope Francis said that, if we had to put the whole mystery of Christmas in a word, it struck him that “humility is the one most helpful.”
“It is not easy to understand what humility is,” Pope Francis said, calling it “the effect of a change that the Spirit himself brings about in us in our daily lives,” and offering the case of Naaman the Syrian in example.
“In the days of the prophet Elisha,” Pope Francis explained, “this man enjoyed great renown,” having proven himself time and again in battle. “Yet together with fame, power, esteem, honors and glory, Naaman was forced to live with a tragic situation: he had leprosy.” His armor helped him win victory in the field and made him known, but it concealed a gruesome disease.
“We often find this contradiction in our lives,” Pope Francis said, further noting that great gifts are sometimes “the armor that covers great frailties.” Some apparently find such contradiction more often than others. “[M]y desire for you, and for myself,” he continued, “is that we may allow ourselves to be evangelized by the humility of Christmas and the manger, by the poverty and simplicity with which the Son of God entered into the world.”
“[M]indful of our own leprosy,” Pope Francis said in conclusion, “and shunning the worldly thinking that deprives us of our roots and branches, let us allow ourselves to be evangelized by the humility of the Child Jesus,” adding that he and the officials are “here” in order “to learn how to kneel and adore the Lord in his humility, not other lords in their empty trappings.”
Then, something interesting happens in the official translations.
“We are like the shepherds,” it reads, “we are like the Magi; we are like Jesus.” The Italian – supposed to be the original – says Siamo come i pastori, etc., which could be either, “We are like the shepherds,” etc., or “Let us be like the shepherds,” etc. The French uses the indicative, as well, but the Spanish uses the subjunctive form: Seamos como los pastores, etc. It’s one thing to declare oneself and others to be the good guys, and quite another to exhort oneself and others to be like the good guys. For what it’s worth, the Spanish seems to capture the sense better than the other translations.
Two other things from the speech stood out pretty boldly, too.
One was Pope Francis’s insistence that communion in the Church not only admits of diversity but requires it. “Seeing things from the standpoint of communion also entails acknowledging our diversity as a gift of the Holy Spirit,” he said. Again, you’d have a hard time proving him wrong. “Whenever we step back from this,” he went on to say, “and regard communion as a synonym of uniformity, we weaken and stifle the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”
Church-watchers will wonder how that squares with the reasons Pope Francis himself gave for his recent restrictions on the use of older liturgical books, and whether the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is getting all the memos.
The other was his insistence that the purpose of the Roman curia is to serve the Church’s mission of evangelization. Now, one would be hard pressed to make a case for his being wrong about that.
“The curia,” said Pope Francis, “is not merely a logistical and bureaucratic instrument for meeting the needs of the universal Church, but the first body called to bear witness.”
The curia may well be more than a mere logistical and bureaucratic instrument, but certainly is both of those things. Whatever else the curia is, or may be, it is a bureaucracy. Forgetfulness of that will not help one make it into something it’s not. Such forgetfulness – if that’s what it is – can only be a recipe for quite possibly disastrous failure.
In any case, where the curia stands in the pecking order of witness is a matter capable of opinion. How the curia should go about serving the Church’s evangelizing mission, is likewise an opinable question.
Also, one should expect Church-watchers and Church leaders to ask: Is the curia really the “first” body, though? If so, in what sense is the curia the “first” body called to bear witness?
“Precisely for this reason,” Francis continued, “it grows in prestige and effectiveness when it embraces in first person the challenges of that synodal conversion to which it too is called.” If one reads quickly, that sounds like an answer. Even folks who are very excited about the “synodal journey” on which Francis has taken the Church, however, remain rather perplexed about what synodality is and where the Church is supposed to be headed.
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