Pope Francis: Look out for ‘self-referential’ founders who put themselves ‘above the Church’

Pope Francis meets participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican’s Clementine Hall, Dec. 11, 2021 Pope Francis meets participants in the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican’s Clementine Hall, Dec. 11, 2021. | Vatican Media.

Pope Francis asked Vatican officials on Saturday to look out for “self-referential” founders of Catholic communities who put themselves “above the Church.”

The pope told members of the Vatican department that oversees consecrated life on Dec. 11 to focus on “discerning and accompanying,” while carefully scrutinizing leaders.

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

He said: “In discerning and accompanying, there are some considerations that should always be kept in mind. Attention to the founders, who at times tend to be self-referential, to feel that they are the sole custodians or interpreters of the charism, as if they were above the Church.”

The pope was speaking to members of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life gathered at the Vatican for a plenary meeting.

The congregation is composed of five offices, responsible for promotion and formation, monastic life, governance, disciplinary matters, and the creation, merging, and suppression of communities.

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

The department is led by the Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz.

The pope urged officials to pay particular attention to the pastoral care of vocations and the formation process.

He also called for “attention to how the service of authority is exercised, with particular regard to the separation of the internal and external forums — a theme that worries me so much — the duration of mandates, and the accumulation of powers. And attention to abuses of authority and power.”

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

The “internal forum,” also known as the “forum of conscience,” relates to practices such as confession and spiritual direction, while the “external forum” refers to matters affecting the public good.

The pope added that he had recently received a volume by the Vatican reporter Salvatore Cernuzio on “the everyday abuses that hurt the strength of the vocation.”

In November, the journalist released a book in Italian called “The Veil of Silence: Abuses, Violence, and Frustrations in Female Religious Life,” highlighting the mistreatment of religious sisters.

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

The pope’s comments about founders are the latest sign of the Vatican’s concern about the quality of leadership in Catholic groups around the world.

The Vatican announced strict limits in June on the terms of leaders of international associations of the faithful and new communities.

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The Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, which is responsible for associations of the faithful and international ecclesial movements, issued a decree restricting terms of office in a movement’s central governing body to a maximum of five years.

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

Members are now permitted to hold positions at the international governing level for no more than 10 years consecutively. Re-election is then possible after a vacancy of one term.

The new regulations say that where leaders have already exceeded the term limits, groups must provide for new elections “no later than 24 months from the coming into force of this decree,” or before Sept. 11, 2023.

In his address on Saturday, the pope spoke about the Vatican’s role in approving new communities.

Pope Francis changed canon law in November 2020 to require a bishop to have permission from the Holy See prior to establishing a new religious institute in his diocese, further strengthening Vatican oversight over the process.

“With regard to discernment in view of the approval of new institutes, new forms of consecrated life, or new communities, I invite you to develop collaboration with the diocesan bishops,” he said.

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“And I exhort the Pastors not to be frightened and to fully welcome your accompaniment. It is the responsibility of the Pastor to accompany and, at the same time, accept this service.”

“This collaboration, this synergy between the dicastery and the bishops also makes it possible to avoid — as the [Second Vatican] Council asks — the inappropriate creation of institutes lacking sufficient motivation or adequate vigor, perhaps with goodwill, but something is missing.

“Your service is valuable in seeking to provide Pastors and the People of God with valid criteria for discernment.”

Vatican Media.
Vatican Media.

In an address to representatives of lay Catholic associations, movements, and new communities in September, Pope Francis underlined that governance in the Church is “nothing but a call to serve.”

He said that the Vatican decree setting term limits for leaders was issued because “the reality of the last few decades has shown us the need for the changes.”

“The exercise of government within associations and movements is a theme that is particularly close to my heart, especially considering ... the cases of abuse of various kinds that have also occurred in these realities and which always find their root in abuse of power,” he said.

“Not infrequently the Holy See, in recent years, has had to intervene, starting not easy processes of reorganization. And I think not only of these very bad situations, which make noise; but also to the diseases that come from the weakening of the foundational charism, which becomes lukewarm and loses the capacity of attraction.”

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