What are Catholics, and the world for that matter, to make of the stern words of Pope Francis in his Christmas lecture to senior Vatican staff? The pope minced no words in an unexpectedly harsh critique of the conduct and lifestyles of cardinals and church high officials. His extraordinary rebuke of Vatican hierarchy and bureaucracy signaled that the reforms he said he would institute will happen.

The pontiff’s denunciation of the scandal-ridden Curia, the Vatican’s administrative apparatus, was in keeping with criticism he has leveled since he was elected in March 2013. But the intensity and strong language of the Dec. 22 address to the assembled Curia were an unexpected ramping up of his campaign. And that he chose the annual address in the Apostolic Palace to denounce the Curia added more weight to his pledge to reform the Vatican’s bureaucracy.

He’s already started the housecleaning. Several senior cardinals have been replaced and/or demoted, including a few who have openly resisted the pope’s initiative. Francis shined his rhetorical klieg lights on cardinals and other church leaders who, by his definition, have adopted patrician lifestyles that are not in keeping with the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit and the first New World pontiff, is not cut from the same ecclesiastical cloth of the European-dominated Vatican power structure. He’s carried his modest lifestyle to Rome from his former posting in Argentina. He’s eschewed the trappings of the papacy. He dresses in plain white vestments. He lives in a modest apartment instead of the traditional palatial papal residence. He wears a simple metal cross and shuns expensive cars.

Activist popes are nothing new. Among the best examples was John Paul II, whose role in the ultimate collapse of communism in Eastern Europe cannot be minimized. In much the same way, Francis was a key player in the recent opening to Cuba by the United States. Because a pope can have great influence on worldwide issues, his approach to the business within his own church is a matter of global significance.

To be sure, the pope has not wavered in his adherence to church doctrine. He has, however, advanced a refreshing approach to inclusiveness and to explaining the inviolability of doctrine. His is an invitation rather than a condemnation.

The new pope is delivering on his early pledge to change the way his church operates inside the Vatican and outside in the world. His message to mossback Vatican leadership is direct and clear: Clean up your act. End “the sickness of mental and spiritual hardening.” Shake off “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease.” Don’t allow “… the color of one’s robes, insignia and honors become the most important aim in life.” Be a positive model for the world.

It’s a powerful, credible message for a church that has been in crisis for more than a decade. It’s a message not only for cardinals and the Curia, but for all Catholics.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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