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Pope To Vatican Leaders: In-Fighting Must Stop

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Pope Francis gave us a new phrase this Christmas - spiritual Alzheimers. It's one of several spiritual afflictions the Pope diagnosed the Vatican leadership with in a pre-Christmas speech on Monday. Another from the list of the Pope's so-called catalog of illnesses - the sickness of feeling oneself indispensable or immune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken).

CORNISH: The Pope compared the Vatican government to a sick body, saying it had neglected routine checkups and self-criticism. To talk more about this, we're joined by Rocco Palmo. His blog chronicling the Catholic Church is called "Whispers In The Loggia." Welcome back to the program.

ROCCO PALMO: Anytime, Audie. It's great to be here.

CORNISH: So the Pope had listed 15 ailments of the Curia in this speech, and that's the central governing body of the Church. And that one I mentioned earlier about the spiritual Alzheimers - that's getting a lot of attention. But what was he actually trying to say with that phrase?

PALMO: Well, to use his line, he talked about a, quote, "progressive decline of the spiritual faculty, the capability." There's no spiritual merit - remembering that you're here as a priest. You're not here as a bureaucrat. You're not here to work a desk. You know, this is a pastoral function. You know, this is a church. And one thing he has routinely assailed is this sense of you see yourselves only as people at desks and give yourself over to the power gains that come with that and the sense of rivalry and turf warfare and everything. And basically he's saying - he said a degree of this last year but to a much stronger extent this time - basically that's got to stop. And it's not becoming of what their job is in the life of the Church.

CORNISH: You know, you watch the video of the cardinals and bishops listening to the speech. They're not giving much away with their facial expressions. What has been the push back?

PALMO: Well, again, this is just, you know, the whole rest of the world's seeing this. This is just continuing of a kind of two-pronged reform that Francis has pursued since his election. I mean, basically he's getting ready to reveal his first draft of the most sweeping structural reform in at least a century to the Curia this coming February. But as he himself has said on numerable occasions, it's not just reform of structures. You can have the best administrative flowchart in the world, if you will, but if the people in it are corrupt, it means nothing. And already, since becoming Pope, it's interesting that Francis has engaged in something of a purge of a law that middle ranks Vatican offices - not just to prepare the ground for the structural reform, but also to basically say anyone who's been here for too long really doesn't belong here anymore. And this is not a job for life. It's a job you take on for a short time in service of the Church. And then you go home, and you go back to do what you're ordained to do being a priest.

CORNISH: You've given us an idea of what the Pope wants to do. But do you have a sense that he has any real traction to make any changes?

PALMO: The Pope has absolute power in the job, Audie. So, you know, there will be and there already is - especially from the old guard over there. I mean, folks in Rome have been running scared practically ever since the Pope's election, by and large. But I think there's also the sense, too, that even without a structural change, Francis has completely changed the way the place operates because it used to be the case that the office - different office heads would only report to the Pope when they would see him maybe two or three times a year and the rest of the time were, you know, able to get away with doing whatever they wanted to do. Now with Francis, if there's a problem he hears about in office, he calls the Cardinal up directly on the guy's cell phone immediately. And the traction's there, too, just in terms of the immense support and goodwill he has from practically, you know, every corner of the world and so much of the Church.

CORNISH: Rocco Palmo covers the Catholic Church on his blog "Whispers In The Loggia." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PALMO: Anytime, Audie. Have a great holiday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.