All this comes in the first part of a lengthy, in-depth speech Francis gave to the Curia offering what he said are the key principals that ought to guide ongoing reform efforts. He gives the speech annually, and this year his focus on conversion not only in the first part, but throughout the entire 7-page text, seems to lay the groundwork for what his 12-point guide should be built on.
After focusing on the birth of Jesus, the Pope went on to highlight 12 “guiding principles” at the heart of his vision for the ongoing Curial reform: individuality (personal conversion); pastoral concern (pastoral conversion); missionary spirit (Christocentrism); rationality; functionality; modernization; sobriety; subsidiarity; synodality; catholicity; professionalism and gradualism (discernment).
Conversion is a theme alluded to throughout the 12 points. In his first note on individuality, the Pope again reaffirmed “the importance of individual conversion, without which all structural change would prove useless.”
“The true soul of the reform are the men and women who are part of it and make it possible,” he said, explaining that personal and individual conversion eventually lead to and support conversion for the community as a whole. Though he also cautioned that while one person can bring “great good to the entire body,” they can also cause “great harm and lead to sickness” if personal sanctity isn’t a priority.
However, the Pope’s repeated focus on conversion coupled with some harsh critiques of unhealthy curial attitudes in the past have rubbed some the wrong way.
In 2014 Francis held nothing back when he spoke to the Curia, outlining 15 spiritual “diseases” involving not only the tendency toward careerism and an attitude of superiority, but an uncurbed desire for wealth and power typical of a “hypocritical” double life that has forgotten the joy of serving God and others.
Then in 2015 he offered a “catalog of virtues” the curial officials ought to adopt in order for their service “to be more fruitful,” including humility, respect, honesty and sobriety. These, in many ways, were the remedy for illnesses outlined in the previous year’s grilling speech.
Francis himself told members of the Curia this year that the underlying reason for identifying these diseases and virtues is that “the ‘semper reformanda’ (always being reformed) must also become, in the case of the Curia, a permanent personal and structural process of conversion.”
“It was necessary to speak of disease and cures because every surgical operation, if it is to be successful, must be preceded by detailed diagnosis and careful analysis, and needs to be accompanied and followed up by precise prescriptions.”
The Pope’s emphasis on conversion, then, is not so much a jab at the Curia, as some have made it out to be, as much as it is a jab at sin itself and how it manifests in the Church. If anything, his insistence on this point is evidence of just how crucial he sees conversion as being to the final, positive result of the reform.
Neither is it anything new. Pope Francis has spoken about the importance and necessity of conversion and attention to person holiness even from his time in Buenos Aires.
In the 2010 book “On Heaven and Earth,” which is a conversation between Pope Francis and his good friend Abraham Skorka, a rabbi and scholar from Buenos Aires, the then-cardinal archbishop of the city spoke on a variety of topics, but the centrality of holiness in regards to the Church’s mission was by far the most potent.
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In the book, Bergoglio insisted that holiness is essential to leadership in religious organizations, saying it is “a springboard to the transcendent.”
“With regards to religion, holiness is unavoidable for a leader,” he said, and, touching on various periods of difficulty and corruption in the Church’s history, noted that “religion bounced back” when figures such as newly-canonized St. Teresa of Calcutta appeared to “rejuvenate religious fervor.”
Alejandro Bermudez, Executive Director of Catholic News Agency and the book’s translator from Spanish to English, said in April 2013, just two months after Francis’ election, that “it's impossible to understand anything this Pope is doing without understanding personal conversion.”
He pointed specifically to “the very profound Jesuit tradition of the change of heart,” which he said goes hand in hand with the Pope’s idea of conversion.
Bermudez, who interviewed Francis a number of times while he was still in Buenos Aires, insisted that “only the changing of the heart will create a change in the Church, and a change in the Church is what will create a change in society and culture.”
“For Pope Francis there is no way around that reality – that arises only from a converted heart.”