One of the Christmas stories that caught my attention was Pope Francis’ Christmas message. Although he was speaking to his priests and cardinals, I believe there is a message there for us as well. As Lutherans, we believe in the “priesthood of all believers”. Much of what was addressed to the priests is relevant to all us believers.
We may not have a “curia”, but we do have synodical and congregational councils. I will paraphrase some of his comments to make the language more inclusive. Pope Francis accused those who serve him (the church) of using their careers (positions) to grab power and wealth, of forgetting that they’re supposed to be joyful people of God. He made it clear that his plans for a radical reform of church structures must be accompanied by an even more radical spiritual reform of the individuals (believers).
Ticking off 15 “ailments of the Curia”, Francis urged those sitting before him to use the season to repent and atone and make the church healthier and holier in 2015. Benedict, the previous Pope had commissioned three cardinals to probe deep into the Vatican’s back-stabbing culture to root out the source of some of these unacceptable actions. Francis had some zingers: how the “terrorism of gossip” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood”; how cliques can “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body”; and eventually kill it off by “friendly fire”; how some suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”; forgetting what drew them to the priesthood (church) in the first place.
The Curia (councils, congregations) are called on to always improve themselves and grow in “communion, holiness and knowledge to fulfill their mission”. Francis said, “But even it, as any human body, can suffer from ailments, dysfunctions, illnesses.” Francis, who is the first Latin American pope, has not shied from complaining about the gossiping, careerism and power intrigues that afflict the Holy See. Francis was essentially asking the Curia to undergo an examination of conscience, self-examination.
It is a difficult time for the Curia. Francis and his nine key cardinal advisers are drawing up plans to revamp the whole structure. He has said, though, that while this structural reform is moving ahead, what is taking much longer is the “spiritual reform” of the people involved as he prayed for healing and a healthier church.
The beginning of each new year always brings talk of making resolutions and starting or stopping some habits. We promise ourselves that this is the year we’re going to lose those extra ten pounds, stop smoking, make better choices, or fix a broken relationship. With resolution-making on our minds, the beginning of 2015 is a great time to think about the commitments we make and consider whether or not we are choosing well.
Commitments say a lot about who we are. Decisions to add or discard habits speak to things that are important to us – health, wholeness, family, relationships, and so forth. When we choose to make commitments, we test ourselves to see if we can be true to our word. Instead of a long list of new resolutions or promises this year, we can just resolve to make the best possible choices in our commitments.
An Ignatian spiritual practice can help us think about activities we say “yes” and “no” to in the coming year. Imagine that you are holding a decision, commitment, or choice in your hand. Close your eyes and think of all that comes along with that decision, commitment, or choice – the stress, sacrifice, happiness, guilt, and so forth. Now imagine that there are two poles, one on each side of you. To the left is desolation, the land that’s full of burden and no joy. To the right is the land of consolation, offering peace, joy, and satisfaction. When you consider the decision you hold in your hands, does it feel more like desolation or consolation? Does the commitment make your heart leap with joy or sink in despair?
Commitments that feel like a journey to the land of desolation very likely will not be fulfilled; and, even if they are fulfilled, they may turn into pressure, stress, and probably some guilt. Decisions that feel like a journey to consolation give us pep in our step and keep us focussed on following through with our commitment.
A sure way to choose well is to seek first the kingdom of God. When we are in constant communion with God, we are more in tune with our capacity and are able to say yes or no at the right time. This year challenges us to make just one resolution – to say yes to life-giving things and no to life-draining things.
Let us make a commitment in 2015 to focus on our “spiritual reform” and pray for healing and a healthy church.