Tradition has it that Julius Caesar was stabbed on the steps of the original Curia, the Senate-House. They say now that it was in the theatre of Pompey. But the modern curia seems to have more than enough stabbings to make up for the change of venue. It's nothing new; things have been building up for some time.
An Italian friend of mine, (not himself anything to do with the Curia) has a close friend who, some fifteen or more years ago, was made a fairly high member of one of the curial offices. He discovered another curial cleric with his hand in the till. Scandalized, he told the thief that he was going to report the man to the authorities. The thief was not fazed much, but said in return 'that's okay; it's easy to find something better'. The report was made, and a month or two later the thief was consecrated an archbishop and a nuncio to a large country. And no, I'm not referring to the Nuncio to the US. This happened several years ago, under Pope John Paul.
It was my belief that Pope Benedict would sort this out; indeed, it was well known that the Curia was getting out of hand under JPII, and I thought that the election of a curial cardinal would be precisely because he would understand how the system worked and, crucially, would know where all the bodies were buried. And as we are now discovering, in some cases there were literal bodies. But, as we have discovered, Pope Benedict has concentrated on other things. Not that I'm complaining; this Pontificate has been one of the most profound and fruitful in hundred of years, imho.
But there remains the problem of the Curia. Messori has said, and he probably has a point, that the real problem is sheer mediocrity. There is also the fact that some curial clerics are on a deliberate career path; the Curia is a way to become a Monsignor before you're thirty-five and an Archbishop before you're forty-five. Some of these priests have no intention of doing any actual pastoral work. Though the quick ascension to the purple or scarlet from the ranks tends to work only if you're Italian; for non-Italian curial officials there tends to be a glass ceiling, I have been told, and higher non-Italian clergy tend to be parachuted in from outside, rather than working their way up.
And here we have a real rub. I have known a few priests in the Curia, good men without question, good pastoral priests, and men who were there, on the whole, reluctantly. One commented to me about how he would sit in his office and type a few letters. He had to be there, but there was nearly nothing to do. Being a good priest, he found one or two pastoral outlets in Rome, but most of his colleagues didn't bother. Another priest friend commented to me about the sheer loneliness of the curial life. There is no sense of community in the big convitti and case de clero where most of these priests live. They get up in the morning, celebrate Mass, eat breakfast, head off to work, come home, eat supper and spend the evening in front of the television. There are none of the joys of priestly ministry, of seeing the faith on the face of a child as he or she receives first Communion, of the happiness when a young protégé first discerns the call to serving the Lord in the priesthood or religious life. There are no warm embraces of families, no profound moments of helping people to die well, no joy at repentant sinners returning to grace...
I think that there are many good priests in the Curia who truly see their work as a self-sacrificing vocation within a vocation. They pray, they celebrate Mass, they hear confessions sometimes, and they see their work as a hidden one in the service of the Gospel. That is how it should be, if this is a suitable job for priests. But perhaps now is the time we should ask ourselves that question.
If this is to continue to be a job for priests, I would suggest:
• That nobody should be appointed to the Curia unless he had served several years in pastoral work.
• That unless he was going to be promoted, he should serve no more than five years, and then should return to his diocese or congregation.
• That unless he was going to be promoted to the next rank, he should serve no more than ten years.
• Ditto, twenty.
• That the (in my opinion, scandalous) legal fiction of creating these office-johnnies bishops stop as soon as it can be managed. Only the Cardinals bishops should be bishops, with real pastoral responsibilities in the suburbicarian sees.
• That the office of Protonotary Apostolic should be the highest title given to curial clergy.
• If they must continue to be made cardinals, it should not involve consecration as a bishop, and should be an honorary red hat, with no right to participate in conclave, and with the scarlet relinquished upon retirement.
But really, would it not be better if the work were conducted by some societies of lay Apostolic life such as Das Werk or even Opus Dei?
It seems like it has been a never-ending refrain with every papacy: Curia reformanda est. With each new Pope we expect it to come about – but it never does. I had similar hopes with Pope Benedict’s election. He knows the territory. He has been around the Curia for decades. He has the inside track. He’ll fix it!
But it has not been fixed. On the contrary - as recent events demonstrate - things have gotten worse. Pope Benedict has warned about ‘careerism’ in the past and has tried to lead by example - putting service before everything else. But the example has not been followed and the problems continue - but are now in the very public domain.
Decades ago, as a student in Rome, one of my tasks was to get visas renewed each year for the Irish contingent at our international college. The first stop was at the Vatican to get documentation assuring that we were indeed bonafide seminarians studying in Rome. I would go to the office of some minor curial functionary – a monsignor, of course – who would provide the required approval. The monsignor – an affable man who apparently had time on his hands – would take his time over the process and we chatted at length.
Then it was on to Rome’s police Questura where visas were issued. Here, a similar scene played out. The officer (a lot of braid, but probably not much rank…) took his time also and if his morning break coincided with my visit, he would go on break as usual while I cooled my heels in his office. The final stop was at the local police station in the Castelli Romani town where our college was located. Here the bored police officer laboriously typed out the forms on a vintage Olivetti typewriter. With names like O’Brien and O’Connor he had difficulty locating the apostrophe – there not being much use for it in Italian…
But what struck me about this was that the function of the monsignor didn’t seem much different from that of the police officers – a boring duty that someone had to perform. But the monsignor was an ordained priest. Surely his talents – and ordination – could have been put to better use…?
When the Apostles instituted the Diaconate it was to free themselves up from ‘waiting at tables’ to go out and preach the Gospel. With the reintroduction of the Permanent Diaconate, it seemed to me an ideal solution for the ‘waiting at tables’ done by so many priests in the Vatican. Why not use them for this and free up all those priests to go out and fulfill the duties they were ordained to perform?
It's no surprise that Benedict XVI hasn't reformed the curia - unlike our politicians, he doesn't see structural reform as a substitute for the inculcation of virtue. But these are valuable reflections nevertheless.
May I take issue with just one point? It seems quite proper that many of the senior members of the curia should be cardinals. The task of the cardinals is twofold: service to the bishop of Rome and the election of his successor. Few people serve the pope more directly than the leaders of the curia, and as for the election, it is quite proper that it should be a matter for the Roman church itself, and especially for its senior members, who, again, include the senior curial officials who collaborate closely in their bishop's ministry.
The only alternative seems to be election by cardinals who are diocesan (arch)bishops from across the world; this has some political advantages, but it tends to build up a faulty ecclesiology in which the pope is simply the bishop of a worldwide diocese and the other bishops are simply his functionaries whose administration of their dioceses is a form of local government. Let's not take this idea any further.
On the other hand, the idea that cardinal deacons should be just that - deacons - has a lot to be said for it. For those who serve below them, we might have need of recourse ... to the subdiaconate.
I would agree with GOR and with your good self, Father, that these duties do need to be passed on to others - preferably to some lay institutes. Perhaps the reason is financial? Perhaps it is simply that certain dioceses use the curia as a dumping ground for clergy they don't want? Perhaps it is Italian resistance to change on what they see as their own turf.
Still, whatever the reason, given the shortage of priests throughout the Western world it is scandalous to have them sitting in offices.
That said in my own order and province we have priests whose pastoral involvement is minimal and whose primary task is to type and do paper work. A Church wide problem then.
You're all making too much sense --which is why it will never happen,
Truly astonished about the jobsworth caught stealing who just shined it on and got kicked upstairs.
Is that person still serving in that capacity?
In the late 50s I was studying for the priesthood, living as a Franciscan in Rome attending a Dominican University. The Sacred, Apostolic Penitentiary was staffed by the Order of Friars Minor Conventual which meant that we, as students wearing the habit could ofttimes gain access to the Vatican City even with the Swiss Guard standing to attention as we passed through. The reason for our visits was that commodities inside the Vatican were duty-free, so whenever we had some money of our own we went there where a friendly, English lay-brother would supply our needs (mainly decent coffee and cigarettes) much cheaper than in surrounding Italy. Having said this and to return to the subject. the number of people we encountered in the corridors and lifts in the Vatican nearly all wore purple or at least black cassocks with scarlet piping. on my first visit I nearly genuflected when a bishop entered the lift. One of our party told me later, "take no notice of them, they are 2 a penny in here." I thought fleetingly then, why is everyone here a prelate, what do they do?
I agree with GOR absolutely re: the Apostles instituting the Diaconate to free themselves from waiting on tables.
The Vatican Civil Service does not need to be 'ordained'. Those who make decisions and judgements obviously do but the orderlies and pen-pushers do not.
There are many Curias in Rome - the one of which you speak and those of a number of religious orders. My reading, supplemented by limited but pointed experience, confirms what you suggest, Fr. Rome is home to good, faithful and capable priests who do their duty while longing to fulfil their vocation elsewhere. Sadly, it also knows incompetent chancers who disgrace their cloth while enjoying the benefits of their corporate credit cards.
When I lived in Italy as a young man, I knew two or three non-Italian monsignori (dead these many years) who worked in the Curia.
In their Anglo-Saxon way, they were all sane, holy, hard working and very charming men, who didn't take themselves too seriously.
How did they survive ?
They all involved themselves in pastoral work outside the Vatican.
They were busy, run off their feet, but they were fulfilled in their priestly life. I, a layman, could see that.
But they were, I regret to say, very much the exception to the rule.
Good luck with reforms. Regrettably, the Curia is by no means unique - this sort of thing is mirrored exactly in governments, institutions, companies... A combination of too many vested interests and the Peter Principle. Sorry to sound cynical and pessimistic, but most organizations exist as ineptocracies. Very sad when it comes to the Church, which should know better, but human nature will, unfortunately, out. and there's no point blaming His Holiness - there are myriad ways of sabotaging or just going slow on needed change.
It was never the established tradition that Caesar was stabbed (twenty-three times) in what is called the Curia Julia; the theatrum Pompei has always, since antiquity, been recognised as the location of the assassination. Although the notion of 'Curial assassins' might be pleasing in the current context, it doesn't correspond to the narrative of history.
Sean, I do hope your break in recent posts means that you're either very busy or - preferably - enjoying a well earned holiday!
Fr. Don't you think it would be most appropriate for all theologians to spend time at the coal-face, instead of creating musings to the satisfaction of only themselves.
I am thinking, at this particular time, of both ++Di Noia and ++Muller.
I most certainly agree with your own projections.
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