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Pope Encounters Resistance On Some Reforms


When Pope Francis was elected two years ago, he had a mandate from the College of Cardinals: restore credibility to an institution rife with cronyism, corruption and waste. This week, he spent two days with cardinals to discuss reforming the Vatican's central administration. As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome, the Pope is encountering resistance.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Pope Francis urged the cardinals to reform a dysfunctional administration known as the Roman Curia. Last December, in his Christmas address to the bureaucrats, Francis was scathing. He spoke of the pathology of power and the temptation of narcissism in what he called the list of illnesses afflicting the Curia.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter). There's a spiritual Alzheimer's, a gradual decline in spiritual faculties that leads people to build walls around and make idols of themselves.

POGGIOLI: Francis denounced existential schizophrenia that leads to hypocrisy and a double life.


FRANCIS: (Through interpreter). There's the illness of gossip and rumors. There are those who kill their colleagues' reputation in cold blood, cowards who speak behind the others' backs. My brothers, beware the terrorism of gossip.

POGGIOLI: Many in the audience were stunned by the Pope's diagnosis.

JOHN THAVIS: The Pope's critique of the Roman Curia last Christmas just caused jaws to drop. No one had ever told them those kind of things before.

POGGIOLI: John Thavis is a veteran Vatican analyst. In wanting to overhaul the Vatican bureaucracy, Thavis says, Francis is not just trying to change administrators.

THAVIS: He is trying to change a culture here. He was elected with a mandate to do this. That means not only changing the nameplates on the Vatican office doors but getting to these chronic problems of careerism, power struggles, financial transparency and streamlining the bureaucracy.

POGGIOLI: The cardinals came to Rome to discuss proposals for the Pope's nine-member Advisory Council. Those include placing 20-odd current departments under two new, large umbrella groupings: one for laity, family and life and another for charity, justice and peace. The latter would include a new section for the environment, a priority issue for Francis, who will issue a major document on the topic this summer and who believes climate change is manmade. But changing the cultural climate inside the Vatican is proving difficult. Pope Francis, says Thavis, was cheered when he was elected and announced he was going to clean house.

THAVIS: But now the cheering has subsided, at least inside the Vatican. And I think it's because a lot of Vatican officials realize it's getting a little too close to home.

POGGIOLI: South African Cardinal Wilfred Napier, a member of the new council advising the Pope on economic reforms, said in an interview that the group has run into resistance from some departments that had earlier enjoyed financial autonomy. And in a sign that the establishment may be trying to downsize expectations of sweeping and speedy reforms, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said changes will take some time. And at a briefing, Lombardi was asked whether a layperson could become head of one of the new departments.


FEDERICO LOMBARDI: (Through interpreter). It seems to me unthinkable that a layperson could chair a department. They've always been headed by cardinals.

POGGIOLI: Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, says no cardinals or bishops should serve in the Curia.

THOMAS REESE: I think we have to destroy this idea that they are like a 17th-century royal court and turn them into a civil service. And that should be their image of who they are.

POGGIOLI: Francis has repeatedly said that image should be of men who see themselves as servants of God, not princes, not the rulers in charge of a 1.2 billion-member church. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
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