Vail Daily column: Pope challenges church leaders to shape up

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Last December, Pope Francis didn’t sound like a joyful Christmas carol. His harsh tones clanged like a tuning fork, banging against priests in the Curia who didn’t echo Christ’s perfect pitch of humble service. The Curia is the central administration of the Holy See that runs the 1.2 billion member Roman Catholic Church.

Last month, when the pope welcomed 20 new cardinals in Saint Peter’s Basilica, he reiterated his tough-love message to church leaders. He warned priests not to succumb to sins of jealousy, pride or resentment. Beware of church leaders whose self-interest in their careers is “cloaked in noble appearances.”

Pope Francis sounded like a spiritual doctor who prescribes strong medicine for the Curia’s sickly priests. Because of weighty administrative routine that defies change, they habitually foot-drag. Their turf-protecting clogs the Church’s arteries. By flashing artificial smiles to colleagues, some priests poison the Body of Christ. Privately, they grimace when colleagues get preferred tasks.

Doesn’t Pope Francis sound like the seer who criticized the ancient church at Sardis? This critic found believers at Sardis ingrown, resistant to change for the good and entrenched in customs that slighted people’s needs. He chastised them as spiritually among the walking dead. “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead,” is the scriptural indictment. “Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of God” (Revelation 3:1-2), says the seer to the church at Sardis.

In a similar tone, Pope Francis prescribes what it takes to cure this sick ecclesiastical body. Priests working in the Curia must let go of power by cleansing their souls of status-seeking.

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The pope excoriated the Curia for its treachery and in-fighting. He scolded priests because the “terrorism of the gospel” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood.” Cliques thriving in the Curia “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body.”

Some Curia bureaucrats suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s,” forgetting why they are in servant-ministry, said the pope. Jesus didn’t call disciples to vocations which offered promotions. He told them to act like servants by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and prisoners and welcoming strangers.

Didn’t Jesus have it easier in his ministry than Pope Francis who presides over the Curia’s mammoth ecclesiastical machine? Christ was an itinerant preacher. He visited villages, greeted people in their homes and then moved on. Jesus’ Christianity was fluid, unsophisticated and frugal. Its ministerial energy deterred leaders from fighting more-and-more about less-and-less to protect their jobs and traditions.

Pope Francis practices a slimmed-down model of ministry. Many perks come with the papacy: A large house staff; traveling with a huge entourage of courtiers, advisors and clerks; and is assisted by ecclesiastical jurists who defend papal power. With a pope’s reach as wide as the world, an expansive religious bureaucracy grows like weeds around the Holy Father.

Pope Francis lives simply in a two-room modest house. No expensive cars are parked in his garage. Nor does he adorn wardrobe with ornate crosses; his is of low-cost metal.

Does the Curia groom priests to win at all-costs, much like parents who want their children to be No. 1 in sports? A youth soccer coach who mentors boys catches Pope Francis’ spirit. His vision of team sports parallels how the pope wants the Curia to work: As community-builders rather than hot-shots whose only goal is to win.

This soccer coach describes how Pope Francis’ model for constructive ministry looks on the field. He describes the secret of soccer: “(His players) know a good team beats a good player every time. They know that they need to give up some of their individual success for the sake of team success. They pass to their teammates and find the player who has the better shot. They know that it’s more important that the team scores than that they do.”

Pope Francis rebukes the proud Curia for lacking community-builders. Priests suffer from an “ailment of rivalry and vainglory: when appearances, the color of one’s robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim of life.” There’s no place among the priesthood for what’s presumptuous, pretentious or self-aggrandizing. The pope demands the Curia groom unassuming leaders who meet human needs. He expects his administrators practice humility like Christ.

“The old order changeth, yielding place to the new, and God fulfills Himself in many ways, lest one good custom corrupt the world,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson. Without such change, the Curia corrupts Christianity, claims the pope.

If most religious structures don’t change, then a legend’s lesson kills them. Several prehistoric pigs were found frozen, standing in a perfect circle with their noses together.

When asked why, a farmer said, “A pig will do anything to keep its nose warm.”

The Pope cools toward entrenched clergy of all faiths who do anything to keep their noses warm. If such conduct persists, then death’s cold chill chokes stagnant religious traditions and their entrenched leaders.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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