It is hard not to wonder if the list of 15 “spiritual diseases” Pope Francis identified in his Church in his Christmas address to the Curia at the Vatican may not go down in history as the papal version of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” Certainly, both lists of grievances, represent a kind of “throwing down the gauntlet” to the church.

Luther’s list was a strong declaration of the great Reformer’s theological position. The list Pope  Francis submitted to the church is focused much more on spirituality and practice. The Pope’s 15 diseases bears resemblance to the New Testament “Letter of James.” Luther’s theses are more akin to Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans.”

In the last five of the ailments he identifies in the leadership of his church, Pope Francis issues a stinging rebuke to those leaders he accuses of being:

11) Being indifferent to others. “When, out of jealousy or cunning, one finds joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.”

This is a painful indictment. It shows a leadership structure that is out of control. It is a terrible disease to find one’s “joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.” Francis is calling the leaders of his church back to a place of compassion, empathy and simple kindness. What a vision!

12) Having a ‘funereal face.’ “In reality, theatrical severity and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity. The apostle must be polite, serene, enthusiastic and happy and transmit joy wherever he goes.”

“Theatrical severity and sterile pessimism” – who would have thought to identify such qualities as among the “spiritual diseases” in the leadership of the church? But this is not a trivial concern. It is another way the Pope identifies a leadership that is more concerned with putting on the patina of spiritual life than the exercising the disciplines of a deep inner relationship with Christ.

13) Wanting more. “When the apostle tries to fill an existential emptiness in his heart by accumulating material goods, not because he needs them but because he’ll feel more secure.”

Jesus challenged his followers asking, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25b) The answer Jesus anticipated to this rhetorical question was obviously that “Yes, indeed, human beings are vastly more than food and clothing.” Any spiritual leader who seeks security in “material goods” has lost any qualification to give spiritual leadership.

14) Forming ‘closed circles’ that seek to be stronger than the whole. “This sickness always starts with good intentions but as time goes by, it enslaves its members by becoming a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body and causes so much bad — scandals — especially to our younger brothers.”

In the individualistic age in which we live, this is a difficult challenge. It is hard for those of us who are trained in the skills of autonomy to discern “the whole” that is stronger than the “closed circles” in which we find ourselves comfortable and at home. What might it mean for individual Christians and congregations to look to the wider good of the whole witness of Christ throughout the church?

15) Seeking worldly profit and showing off. “It’s the sickness of those who insatiably try to multiply their powers and to do so are capable of calumny, defamation and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines, naturally to show themselves as being more capable than others.”

So much of the Pope’s critique comes down to a failure to follow the example Jesus set particularly when Jesus said,
I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:27b)
The church does not exist to serve the interests of those who are in visible leadership in the church. The only reason for the church to exist is to serve the full becoming of all human beings. The church exists to encourage us to become more fully the compassionate, open, receptive, humble, loving people we were created to be.
It is important in conclusion to note that Pope Francis did not only issue a harsh rebuke to the leadership of his church this past Christmas. He also acknowledged that there are many leaders in the church who are serving Christ well in their ministry.
 Francis also joked that “priests are like airplanes … they only make news when they fall,” adding that “there are actually so many who fly.”
As we take to heart the words of Pope Francis, let us pray that all who bear responsibility as leaders in the church of Jesus may hear the Pope’s challenge to grow in our ability to “fly.”