Speaking to the powerful Italian bishops’ conference Monday, Pope Francis tagged three “preoccupations” in the only country in the world where he rules as Primate: a “hemorrhage” of vocations, “evangelical poverty and transparency,” and the need for a “consolidation” of Italy’s sprawling number of dioceses.

Francis told the bishops he wasn’t sharing these concerns to “beat you up,” but rather as points for further “dialogue and reflection.” He also said he wanted to hear their questions, even their criticisms, because “it’s not bad to criticize the pope, it’s useful.”

On vocations, the pontiff didn’t mince words.

“How many churches and convents have been closed in recent years for a lack of vocations, only God knows,” he said.

Francis blamed the crisis in vocations on many factors, including “a culture of the provisional,” a “culture of relativism,” the “dictatorship of money”, a “demographic inversion” in which families are having fewer children, the impact of Church scandals, and the “tepid witness” given by some priests and bishops.

“What we need is a fidei donum [system] from one diocese to the other,” he said.

The term fidei donum comes from a 1957 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, which encouraged dioceses with substantial numbers of priests to release some of them for service in mission countries which didn’t have enough priests. Today, it’s most often employed in a reverse sense, as countries in the developing world are sending some of their priests to the West to compensate for priest shortages.

“I think of some dioceses in the Piedmont, with its grand tradition [which today lacks priests],” Francis said, referring to a region of northern Italy. “Yet in Puglia there’s an over-abundance,” he said, referring to a region of the comparatively under-developed Italian south.

“A fidei donum system in Italy … some of you may laugh, but let’s see,” he said.

Finally, Francis urged a serious examination of the possibility of consolidation among Italy’s 217 archdioceses and dioceses, along with one military ordinariate.

“A reduction in the number of dioceses is a pastoral exigency,” he said, noting that as long ago as 1964, Blessed Pope Paul VI had called for it. The test, Francis said, is whether all current jurisdictions have the personnel and resources “to sustain a truly functional diocesan organization.”

“There are some dioceses we can group together,” the pope said. “It’s not easy to do, but we can do it.”

Full story at Crux.