A New Pope, A New Curia – A New Church?


During the conclave and the preceding Congress of Cardinals, as it was becoming clear that there was a widespread desire for extensive reform of the curia, I came across one observation that intrigued me. This noted the tradition that the heads of all curial departments automatically resign when the papacy becomes vacant, so that one of the first tasks of any new pope is to confirm the previous incumbents in their posts – or to replace them with new appointments, as he sees fit. One indication of the new pope’s commitment to curial reform, would be the time he took to complete the process (usually, within 24 hours). A speedy process would imply largely leaving the old guard in possession – but a lengthy process could suggest a fairly comprehensive overhaul. So, I began scouring the news pages for reports of the confirmations or new appointments. By the weekend, there were still none. Instead, we were told that Pope Paul had asked all those affected to remain in their posts as before – but only provisionally, while he gave the matter serious deliberation. Remarkably, this applied not only to the heads of departments, but also to their deputies.

Francis has provisionally reappointed the heads of the curial departments. Provisional being the operative word, as he says he wants to pray and reflect before making permanent decisions. This should have some within the Curia thinking about brushing up their CVs. Where Pope Benedict XVI often spoke of strengthening the church, Pope Francis is speaking about mercy and the need to “protect creation.” The new Pope is already shaking things up in the Vatican with his actions and words, but he can’t do it alone. Just as a president or prime minister can put their personality into a government, so the Pope can nurture a certain culture within the church. But even in the Vatican, no man is an island. Who Francis picks to help him will say a lot about the way he wants the church to work.

CBC News

It seems that root and branch reform may be on the way.

If that is the case, he will be strengthened in his resolve by knowledge of the deep revulsion for the curial status quo that is said to have been on display during the conclave. When first elected,  Francis joked that the cardinals had gone “to the ends of the earth” (Argentina) to find their man. This is true not only geographically, but also symbolically. Although he was a part-time member of a handful of curial commissions, he has never worked in the Vatican. The symbolism extends also to the much remarked simplicity of his personal style and clothing: this does more than illustrate his determination to transform the church into one that is “poor, and for the poor”. The ostentation and finery that have been so conspicuous in the past, and are now thankfully on the way out, were also the outward signs of a monarchical, power -crazed system of governance: a modern day Holy Roman Empire. The changes in style we have seen are much more than changes of style alone – they are important indications of a planned fundamental change in Vatican culture.

Will he succeed? One of the surprises in the selection of Francis, was his age. It had been widely expected that the conclave would go for a much younger man. He is the same age though as John XXIII was on accession – another surprise choice, who soon embarked on the biggest reform the church has seen, with the summoning of the Second Vatican Council. The reforms and decisions of the Council were widely welcomed – but as is well known, were fiercely resisted by the curia, which soon began a process of undermining the progress that had been achieved. As I watch with fascination the early days of Francis’ papacy: are we about to see a deep reform of the Curia so that, instead of blocking more general and much – needed reform as it has previously done – it could  instead become an instrument of reform?

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