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Some are cautiously looking forward to it with hopeful expectations. Others are fearing it with dread and despair. It’s the upcoming reform and restructuring of the Roman Curia.
As Massimo Faggioli recently pointed out, it could be one of the most significant structural changes Pope Francis makes in a determined effort — contested by some members of the hierarchy — to bring about a more decentralized and synodal Church.
The Jesuit pope has spent his entire pontificate working on curia reform with the help of an international group of senior advisors called the Council of Cardinals (C9).
When he announced the establishment of this unprecedented body just four weeks after being elected Bishop of Rome, he said its purpose was “to advise him in the government of the universal Church and to study a plan for revising the apostolic constitution” that defines the curia’s purpose and structures.
Most observers made little of the C9’s primary mandate (to advise the pope on governing the worldwide Church) and focused almost exclusively on its second and more specific task at hand — re-writing the apostolic constitution. They foresaw the project’s completion within a year or so.
Instead, the reform has not yet been concluded despite the fact that Francis has been in office just a few months shy of six years.
During this long period those who eagerly want the reform have expressed frustration with the 81-year-old pope for not acting more swiftly.
But, in actual fact, Francis has been rolling out major changes in the Vatican structures all along. By reducing and merging a number of offices, for example, he has already begun changing the complexion of the curia.
Because of this, once an all-encompassing reform is finally unveiled, it may not seem to be as jolting. But with a pope who has not been afraid to make startling changes, that may not be a safe bet. We’ll all find out soon enough.
It’s all but certain that before Francis begins the 7th year of his pontificate next March, the first Roman “outsider” to be elected pope in over a hundred years (the first since Pius X not to have studied or worked in Rome) will have issued a document that is likely to radically re-shape the Catholic Church’s central bureaucracy.
A substantial “final” draft of the new apostolic constitution on the curia was already under study by last summer. Greg Burke, head of the Holy See press office, told reporters in June that it has also been given a provisional title — Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel).
In the months since then the heads of the various Vatican offices have had the opportunity to review the draft and make further recommendations and comments. The contents of the text, however, have been kept under wraps.
One thing we know for certain is that Pope Francis wants to decentralize decision-making authority in the Church. And that means many Vatican offices — especially the congregations that have traditionally acted as minders of the local dioceses, Church institutions and Catholic individuals around the world — are likely to lose real power.
“The dicasteries of the Roman Curia are at the service of the pope and the bishops. They must help both the particular churches and the bishops’ conferences. They are instruments of help,” the pope said in September 2013 in a major interview with Italian Jesuit Fr. Antonio Spadaro.
“In some cases, however, when they are not functioning well, (these offices) run the risk of becoming institutions of censorship,” Francis said. He then proclaimed words that sent shockwaves through the Vatican: “The Roman congregations are mediators; they are not middlemen or managers.”
The pope gave that interview as he was putting the final touches on his most important document to date — the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, his blueprint for Church reform and renewal.
“It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization,’” he wrote.
“Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach,” he said.
The offices of the Roman Curia have been the vehicle through which the popes have historically maintained their centralized control over the teaching, worship and many other spheres of the Church’s life and practice throughout the world.
These offices have often acted as an extension of the pope as if they were co-sharers of his authority. Their heads (almost always cardinals) have assumed a special rung on the Church’s hierarchical ladder between the rest of the world’s bishops and the Bishop of Rome.
Francis has already begun to correct this by taking away the teaching and governing authority of a number of Vatican offices (especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) by placing a virtual moratorium on their publication of normative documents.
There have been only a trickle of them in this pontificate compared to the tidal-wave of Vatican instructions, notifications and guidelines with which Roman Curia offices flooded the Church, especially under John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
We can expect the new apostolic constitution will make both juridical and structural changes to the curia to ensure that it exists only to serve the pope and the local bishops and has no authority to control or mediate between them.
There are some 40 offices that make up the Church’s central bureaucracy in Rome. They are officially known as “dicasteries.”
The current apostolic constitution on the curia, Pastor Bonus, defines them as “the Secretariat of State, congregations, tribunals, councils and offices, namely the Apostolic Camera, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See.”
It says they are “juridically equal among themselves,” although — in reality — there is a well-established pecking order.
The Secretariat of State, the tribunals and the congregations have traditionally stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, due to their much longer history and/or their more august functions.
It was not reported in the official list of papal audiences, but it has emerged through private conversations that Pope Francis held a meeting last month with heads of the Vatican dicasteries to discuss Praedicate Evangelium, the document that will replace Pastor Bonus.
Evidently, the meeting was tense. A number of the current Curia chiefs were displeased with several changes stipulated in the new draft text. One of them was the strict term limit of five years that the new constitution wishes to place on top curia officials and priests who staff the offices.
Currently, clerics and religious are hired on an initial five-year contract. But, more often than not, the term of one’s service is extended even indefinitely. This has created a situation where priests and bishops have spent decades and most of their priesthood serving in a Roman office.
For example, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, a 76-year-old Argentinean who came to Rome shortly after his ordination in 1968, is currently in his fourth five-year stint as chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
Another Argentinean, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, is in his 12th year as prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. A trained Holy See diplomat, the soon-to-be 75-year-old has spent most of his life working in the Vatican.
Many other heads of congregations or pontifical councils in the past have easily spent a dozen or more years at the helm of their offices. And don’t forget Benedict XVI who spent more than 23 years as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith before becoming pope.
But it is the long-term presence of mid-level officials in these Vatican dicasteries that Pope Francis finds most troubling. Many of them are mere paper-pushers. They live in apartments or priest residences without any connection to pastoral work with laypeople.
Some are chaplains at convents of nuns or help out in seminaries. Many of them come to work in Rome just a few years after ordination with scant experience of serving in a parish.
Once they serve five years in a curia office they are all but guaranteed to receive the honorary title of “monsignor.”
One of my classmates from the North American College is a classic example. Ordained in 1990, he spent only a couple of years in his diocese before being sent to work at a major Roman congregation. He did his five years of service and in 1999, at the age of 35, he was named Chaplain of Honor to His Holiness, a monsignor.
Title and rank matter in Rome, especially in the Roman Curia where priests and people alike participate in the perpetuation of clericalism.
It is the rule (though there are a few exceptions) that every head of a major Vatican office be a cardinal or archbishop.
Presumably, that is because only those who are in Holy Orders possess official teaching authority in the Church and only they can have jurisdiction over clerics.
But in a reformed Roman Curia that is more clearly at the service of the pope and bishops, no such authority would be required. And it would be helpful if all other honorary titles were banished, especially that of monsignor.
Pope Francis decreed in 2014 that no diocesan priest under the age of 65 can be give this honorary title, but the Roman Curia balked and the former disposition was not changed for priests who work at the Vatican or are papal diplomats.
Perhaps the new constitution will change that.
But until the final words of Praedicate Evangelium (or whatever it shall be called) are written and the ink is dry, Pope Francis is continuing to play — more or less — by the old rules that have long governed the game of ecclesiastical maneuvering in Rome.
He continues to confer titles on his aides, arming them with the clout and power to do his bidding.
In a sign that he is bracing for further resistance to his planned reform of the Roman Curia, the pope has added a new component to the C9 group of advisors.
On Oct. 27 he named Msgr. Marco Mellino, a canon law expert, as the adjunct secretary to his advisory council.
The 52-year-old Northern Italian recently completed 12 years of service in the Secretariat of State. And he will be ordained a bishop next month by the man he worked for — Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is also a key C9 member.
Pope Francis will need all the support he can get from clerics in Rome.
His reform of the curia is not likely to be very popular, especially with the priests and bishops who have spent many years within its corridors.
It’s not clear how radical the changes will be. But the relative, though uneasy calm that currently hovers over the Vatican is surely only the prelude to a document that is likely to cause one devil of a storm.
Robert Mickens, Rome
Vatican City November 9, 2018