VATICAN CITY (RNS) In a forceful message to more than 100 scarlet-clad cardinals arrayed before him, Pope Francis on Sunday (Feb. 23) warned them that they are “not a royal court” and told them to avoid “habits and ways of acting typical of a court: intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism and preferences.”
Francis has repeatedly called on clerics to live simply and humbly, and at a service a day earlier in which he added 19 new members to the College of Cardinals the pope also told them to work together and avoid “rivalry, jealousy, factions.”
But his homily at mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday was especially powerful and came just before the first anniversary of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down after his papacy was repeatedly undermined by scandals and infighting in the Roman Curia.
Benedict attended Saturday’s ceremony, his first public appearance at a liturgy since he stepped down, but he was not at Sunday’s mass.
“Dear brother Cardinals, may we remain united in Christ and among ourselves!” Francis said on Sunday, repeatedly imploring the men knows as “princes of the church” to forgive every insult so that “our way be that of holiness.”
“To be a saint is not a luxury. It is necessary for the salvation of the world,” Francis said.
In an unscripted remark he looked up from his text and challenged them to undergo a “heartfelt conversion: this is something that all of us – especially you Cardinals and myself – must do. Conversion!”
More than 150 cardinals – the exclusive club of high-ranking bishops who advise the pope and gather to elect a successor from among their ranks – have been in Rome for much of the past week in large part to discuss how to reform the Curia, the papal bureaucracy.
Anger over curial dysfunction and scandals was one of the reasons the cardinals turned to Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, because they believed he was an outsider who could finally overhaul the centuries-old court system.
But Francis has gone beyond a structural reform and has sought at every turn to refocus the Catholic Church on its mission to the poor and society’s outcasts, and to avoid political maneuvering among churchmen and internal fights over hot-button issues.
He did that again Sunday, as he linked the holiness of the church’s leaders to the efficacy of the church’s mission.
Every cardinal, like every Christian, he said, is “God’s temple.”
“This temple of ours is defiled if we neglect our duties towards our neighbor,” Francis said. “Whenever the least of our brothers and sisters finds a place in our hearts, it is God himself who finds a place there. When that brother or sister is shut out, it is God himself who is not being welcomed.”
“A heart without love is like a deconsecrated church, a building withdrawn from God’s service and given over to another use.”
He added: “May we always allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit of Christ, who sacrificed himself on the Cross so that we could be ‘channels’ through which his charity might flow. This is the attitude of a Cardinal, this must be how he acts.”
“A Cardinal — I am telling this especially to you all — enters the Church of Rome, not a royal court. May all of us avoid, and help others to avoid, habits and ways of acting typical of a court: intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism and partiality.”
Francis’ words were direct, as they often are, and he made no apologies for it:
“Jesus did not come to teach us good manners, how to behave well at the table!” the pope said with a characteristic turn of phrase.
“To do that, he would not have had to come down from heaven and die on the Cross. Christ came to save us, to show us the way, the only way out of the quicksand of sin, and this way of holiness is mercy.”