roman curia

Two Years In, Pope Francis Faces Headwinds in Reforming the Vatican. Here’s How He Can Prevail

Photo via Paul Haring / Catholic News Service / RNS

Pope Francis during the feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, 2014. Photo via Paul Haring / Catholic News Service / RNS

One reason the cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis two years ago on March 13 was a brief but powerful speech the Argentine cardinal made shortly before the conclave in which he denounced the “theological narcissism” of the Roman Catholic Church.

The church, Francis declared, was “sick” because it was closed in on itself and needed to go out “to the peripheries” and risk all by accompanying the shunned and marginalized.

In these past two years, Francis’ efforts to do just that have captivated the public’s imagination and inspired a wide swath of the Catholic spectrum with visions of a newly resurgent faith unshackled from years of scandal and stagnation.

But there was another big reason the cardinals voted for Bergoglio: They thought the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires was the one man with the administrative chops to finally rein in the dysfunctional papal bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia, that was often at the root of the Catholic crisis.

Pope Francis Diversifies His Cardinals. But Will They Have Clout Where It Counts?

Photo via REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi / RNS

Cardinals attend a consistory led by Pope Francis as he names 20 new cardinals. Photo via REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi / RNS

Pope Francis’ new cardinals, who will be formally installed on Feb. 14, represent everything the pope says he wants for the future of Catholicism: a church that reaches out to the periphery and the margins, and one that represents those frontiers more than the central administration in Rome.

That’s why he picked cardinals for the first time ever from countries like Myanmar and Cape Verde, as well as one from the Pacific archipelago of Tonga, which has just 15,000 Catholics out of a population of 100,000 spread across 176 islands.

The 15 new cardinals who are of voting age — five new “honorary” cardinals are over 80 and ineligible to vote for the next pope — come from 14 countries and include prelates from Ethiopia, Panama, Thailand, and Vietnam, and from places in Europe far removed from the traditional power dioceses of Old World Catholicism.

In fact, only one new cardinal comes from the Roman Curia, the Italian-dominated papal bureaucracy that Francis is struggling to tame in the wake of a series of scandals that revealed a deep dysfunction at Catholicism’s home office.

But will diversifying the College of Cardinals make it look more like the church’s global flock of 1.2 billion members? 

Or will it leave the electors so fragmented by geography, language and viewpoints that they won’t be able to serve as a counterweight to career churchmen in Rome?

Pope Francis Wants ‘Absolute Transparency’ as He Pushes Vatican Reform

Photo via REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi / RNS

Pope Francis leads a consistory at the Vatican on February 12, 2015. Photo via REUTERS / Alessandro Bianchi / RNS

Pope Francis called for a Vatican that operates with “absolute transparency” as he gathered more than 165 cardinals in Rome for high-level meetings aimed at tackling one of the toughest challenges of his reformist papacy: overhauling the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Roman Curia.

The goal, Francis told a lecture hall filled with the scarlet-clad “princes of the church, is to foster “greater harmony” among the different church offices in a bid to foster “absolute transparency that builds authentic … collegiality.”

“Reform is not an end in itself, but a means of bearing a powerful Christian witness,” Francis said.

That was a nod to the scandals that overshadowed the waning years of Benedict XVI’s papacy and undermined the Vatican’s credibility with the public and the dismayed churchmen who had to deal with the fallout.

The two-day gathering with the cardinals – including the 20 new appointees who the pope will officially elevate on Feb. 14– comes almost two years to the day after Benedict stunned the world by announcing that he would become the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign from office.

The Vatican vs. the Nuns: 3 Takeaways from the Vatican's Investigation of Women's Religious Communities

Photo courtesy of Leadership Conference of Women Religious / RNS

Sister Sharon Holland, IHM, LCWR President-Elect. Photo courtesy of Leadership Conference of Women Religious / RNS

The moment was more “Kumbaya” than “Come to Jesus” on Dec. 16 as the Vatican released the much-anticipated results of an investigation of women’s religious communities in the U.S., the first of two controversial investigations of American nuns by the Roman Curia.

The 5,200-word report was largely positive, and participants at a Vatican news conference were even more effusive in their praise for each other, the process, the outcome, and prospects for future collaboration to meet serious challenges. That was a big change from how things started six years ago.

So what did we learn from this whole saga? Here are three takeaways:

1. Rome’s “War on Women” is over

“It is not a truce,” Sister Sharon Holland of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main network of U.S. nuns, told reporters in Rome. “We are not at war.”

Pope Francis Wanted Open Debate. With Clashing Cardinals, He’s Got It

Cardinal Walter Kasper (Left) and Cardinal Raymond Burke. Photos via Trace Murphy and David Gibson/RNS.

Leading up to a Vatican summit on family life that Pope Francis opens on Oct. 5, high-ranking churchmen have fiercely debated church teaching — and criticized each other — in sharp exchanges that offer a ringside seat to the kind of battles that Rome used to keep under wraps.

But amid all this verbal sparring, the opposing camps have found one point of consensus: Airing their differences is good for the Roman Catholic Church.

“Everybody is free to express his opinion. That is not a problem for me,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian who has emerged as the point man for the reformists, said in an interview published Sept. 29 in America magazine.

“The pope wanted an open debate, and I think that is something new because up to now often there was not such an open debate. I think that’s healthy and it helps the church very much.”

A day later, Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who heads the Vatican’s highest court and a vocal exponent of the conservative camp opposing Kasper, spoke to reporters to toss back a few barbs. But he, too, praised the frankness of the exchanges.

Advisers Urge Pope Francis to Slow Down for a Summer Break

Pope Francis during his general audience at the Vatican Dec. 4. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic New Service.

Pope Francis has been working nonstop since his election more than a year ago, and he has shown remarkable resilience for a 77-year-old confronted with an array of church crises. But he is also fatigued at times and his advisers are hoping that he will take a break this summer.

“We have been asking him to have holidays this year,” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras told reporters during a visit to Washington this week. “Because last year he didn’t and sometimes he’s very tired.”

“So I think that during August he’s going to retire to rest,” said Maradiaga, who heads a kitchen cabinet of eight cardinals from around the world that Francis established as his top advisers.

Nuns Say They Will Continue Dialogue Despite Vatican Criticisms

Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, head of Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Photo:Paul Haring/Catholic News Service.

The American nuns who were publicly scolded by the Vatican’s top doctrinal official for disobedience and promoting unorthodox beliefs have rejected the criticisms, and say their “attempts to clarify misperceptions have led to deeper misunderstandings” between Rome and the organization representing most of the 50,000 sisters in the U.S.

But the leaders of the umbrella group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also said in a statement that the April 30 conversation with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who leads Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “was constructive in its frankness and lack of ambiguity.”

“It was not an easy discussion, but its openness and spirit of inquiry created a space for authentic dialogue and discernment,” the four sisters representing the LCWR said late Thursday.

“This work is fraught with tension and misunderstanding,” they said. “Yet, this is the work of leaders in all walks of life in these times of massive change in the world.”

What's It Like to Have Pope Francis as Your Boss? Depends Where You Work

Couples gathered in St. Peter’s Square received a blessing from Pope Francis on Feb. 14. RNS photo: Eyal Baruch (

So what’s it like to come to work every day when your boss is the pope?

At the one-year mark of Pope Francis’ election, the answer probably depends on whether you are an old-timer or a relative newcomer, and whether you agree with his reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy or you pine for the old ways of the papal court.

Much also depends on whether you are one of the approximately 3,500 (mostly Italian) lay people in the Vatican’s workforce or one of the 1,100 or so cardinals, bishops, priests, or religious brothers and sisters who tend to occupy decision-making positions and are deeply invested in the policies that Francis adopts.

That second group, often defined by their ideologies and rivalries, tends to draw the most attention, given the high stakes and fierce passions involved.

To Understand Pope Francis, Look to the Jesuits

A Swiss Guard salutes Pope Francis and cardinals. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy Catholic News Service. Via RNS.

Figuring out why Pope Francis has upended so many expectations, how exactly he’s changed the Catholic Church in his first year and what he might be contemplating for the future has become a Catholic parlor game that is almost as popular as the pontiff himself.

A single key can best answer all of these questions: Francis’ longstanding identity as a Jesuit priest.

It’s an all-encompassing personal and professional definition that the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio brought with him from Buenos Aires, and one that continues to shape almost everything he does as Pope Francis.

“He may act like a Franciscan but he thinks like a Jesuit,” quipped the Rev. Thomas Reese, a fellow Jesuit who is a columnist for National Catholic Reporter.

At 77, Pope Francis Keeps a Busy Pace, and Aides Keep Their Fingers Crossed

Pope Francis passes news photographers in St. Peter’s Square. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

When cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel a year ago to choose a successor to Pope Benedict XVI, a frail 85-year-old who had become the first pope in six centuries to resign, many of them had one non-negotiable for the next pontiff: that he not be over 70 years old.

So what did the cardinals do? They elected 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina — a man who had part of a lung removed in his 20s and who today “walks kind of crookedly,” as a former aide once put it, because he wears orthopedic shoes to help alleviate chronic lower back pain.

All in all, though, Pope Francis, now 77, seems to be doing quite well at the one-year mark of his papacy, despite maintaining a nonstop pace of liturgies, meetings, public appearances, and hours of prayer throughout a day that starts before 5 a.m.

“He eats works, it’s true,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest — like Francis — who conducted a book-length interview with the pope last year and knows him well.