Pope Francis' reform plan can be boiled down to this one thing

popedanielcna2016 Pope Francis arrives in St. Peter's square for the general audience Sept. 21, 2016. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

If there's anything Pope Francis' recent 12-point plan for the reform of the Roman Curia shows, it's that while his vision of a simple, less clerical body is clear, it's contingent on one thing: conversion.

In a Dec. 22 speech to members of the Curia, the Pope, before outlining his guide to reform, stressed that "the reform will be effective only if it is carried out with men and women who are renewed and not simply new."

Merely changing staff and structures is not enough, he said, calling for the "spiritual, human and professional renewal among the members of the Curia."

Reform, he said, "is in no way implemented with a change of persons – something that certainly is happening and will continue to happen – but with a conversion in persons."

"What we need also and above all is permanent conversion and purification. Without a change of mentality, efforts at practical improvement will be in vain."

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."

So while the stern tone of the Pope's speeches might leave some feeling slighted and longing for a warmer approach, Francis seems to be indicating that sometimes tough love is needed more than a pat on the back.

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A look at the bigger picture with conversion as the frame shows that for Francis, who was elected with a mandate for reform, a thorough examination of conscious is needed as these reform efforts continue to roll steadily forward.

More than singling anyone out or taking a swing at his officials, the Pope seems to be inviting curial members to ask themselves whether they might be infected with any of the "diseases" he identified, to apply the right virtues if the answer is yes, and to move on.

After all, the Church ultimately isn't here to make us feel good, but to help us conform to Christ and draw nearer to him. The Pope's plan for reform, then, seems to be founded on and aimed at just that.

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