SEINT PAING, Myanmar (AP) — Of all the moments to chase a dream, May Aye Nwe chose the morning of Dec. 26, 2004.
A child of rural Myanmar, she boarded a small boat seeking a better life in Thailand, just as the Indian Ocean tsunami raced in.
Ten days later, her mother got a phone call that her 20-year-old daughter had died, and apparently vanished at sea in one of modern history's worst natural disasters.
It took her nearly 10 years to learn the truth. Her daughter's body had in fact been recovered after the tsunami and was buried in an anonymous grave. It lies today beside more than 400 unclaimed bodies at the Tsunami Victims' Cemetery in southern Thailand, a memorial to the disaster's forgotten victims.
The tombstones are marked with numbers, not names.
An Associated Press investigation helped track down two families with loved ones at the cemetery, including May Aye Nwe's mother. As the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches, Aye Pu, now a 55-year-old widow, says her healing process can finally begin.
"For so long, I believed my child was lost," said Aye Pu, her eyes filled with tears, during an interview at her remote village in Myanmar's southern Karen state, where she taps rubber trees for a living. "It's impossible to put into words how very sad — and very happy — I now feel."
The discovery has rekindled emotion and memories of her daughter, a bright star in a family of farmers who was on the cusp of a new life.
May Aye Nwe dreamed of becoming a nurse and set off for Thailand to earn money, as do so many of Myanmar's poor. She and a childhood friend, Khin Htway Yee, traveled 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from their village to the country's southern tip. At about 10 a.m. on Dec. 26, 2004, they boarded a boat to cross a tiny patch of the Andaman Sea to Thailand, a trip that takes about 15 minutes.
Earlier that morning, a magnitude-9.1 earthquake tore open a vast stretch of sea bed off Indonesia's Sumatra coast. It displaced billions of tons of water, sending waves roaring across the Indian Ocean, in some places at jetliner speeds. It killed about 230,000 people in 14 countries. More than 5,000 died on Thailand's Andaman Sea coast, where the waves swallowed resort beaches and flattened fishing villages.
Khin Htway Yee, who survived, said the calm sea turned violent a few minutes into the boat ride. She and May had never seen the ocean before, and didn't realize the waves were unusual.
The boat flipped and there was panic, screaming, struggling. Khin Htway Yee, now 31, remains haunted by her friend's desperate last moments.
"We were grabbing at one another," she said, speaking in the shade of her friend's family home. "She tried to pull me, but finally I had to push her away.
"There was nothing I could do. I was struggling for my life, and I couldn't save her," Khin Htway Yee said. She said she survived by holding onto a plastic container bobbing in the water.
After an hour at sea, she struggled ashore with one goal: To evade arrest. She had entered Thailand illegally and was too afraid to report what had happened to authorities. She disappeared into the illegal workforce and stayed two years in Thailand before returning home and starting a family.
May Aye Nwe's story helps explain why there are 418 unclaimed bodies at the Tsunami Victims' Cemetery, in the town of Ban Bangmuang. Experts believe most of those buried are migrant workers from Myanmar, also known as Burma, who came to do the jobs that Thais shun. Then, as now, many were working in the area illegally and had no documents. When they died, no one knew who they were, and those who did know were too scared to go to authorities.
"I believe that over 90 percent of these bodies are Burmese migrant workers," said Htoo Chit, a human rights advocate for Myanmar migrants, during an interview at the cemetery. "Many migrants who lost their loved ones, they were afraid of being arrested and deported. That's why there are so many bodies here."
The cemetery was created after a massive operation by international forensics experts to identify and repatriate victims was completed.
As part of the AP investigation, reporters sifted through more than 100 documents, finding mostly single names that led nowhere and non-working phone numbers. Some have DNA data but most have little beyond a reference number. Their gravestones are concrete blocks with metal plaques that bear a reference number.
May Aye Nwe's reference number was PM66-TA1415. It is unclear why she went unidentified because her body was found with her national identity card __ which AP used to find her village, and then her mother.
While most of the bodies in the cemetery will probably never be identified, one other family now has a degree of closure, after 10 years of waiting.
On a sunny morning last month, the body of Bhesraj Dhaurali, a tailor from Myanmar of Nepalese descent, was exhumed from the cemetery and cremated with Hindu rites, after the AP investigation traced police records to his family.
The ceremony was attended by his 19-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter. They were still in Myanmar when the tsunami killed both their parents, who had gone to Thailand to work. The son and daughter have followed in their footsteps, and now live in southern Thailand.
"If I could speak to my father today, I would ask him why he left us so early," said the daughter, Dipa Dhaurali. "It has been so many years. But after being able to see this with my own eyes, in a way it gives me some joy."
May's mother is too poor to travel to Thailand to retrieve her daughter's body, or to pay to have it brought home. She hopes the body can be cremated in line with Buddhist customs.
"I'm not angry. I don't blame anyone. I want to thank those who kept her body," Aye Pu said, sobbing. "This was my daughter's fate."
WASHINGTON (AP) — Christmastime is here and a new poll reveals the cards and gifts that are part of celebrating the holiday are ubiquitous, even among those who don't share the Christian beliefs behind the story of the Magi who gave the first Christmas gifts.
According to the Associated Press-GfK poll, 77 percent of Americans plan to exchange gifts this holiday season and 48 percent will send greeting cards. The gift-giving set includes about 8 in 10 Christians and 73 percent of those who say they have no religious beliefs.
Greeting cards also cross denominational lines, with 53 percent of Protestants, 55 percent of Catholics and 40 percent of those without religious beliefs saying they will send cards this year.
Here's a look at how Americans view this season's greetings:
THE PHOTO CARD GENERATION
Americans who aren't religious are less likely to send cards because they tend to be younger, and young people are less apt to send cards, regardless of their religious beliefs. Fifty-two percent of non-religious Americans over age 50 plan to send cards, not far off the 57 percent of Protestants and 64 percent of Catholics in that age group who will send them.
Young people are the least likely of all demographic groups to say they'll send cards this year. Just 29 percent of Americans under age 30 plan to, compared with 64 percent of seniors. The young are also the least likely to receive cards. Two-thirds under age 30 receive five Christmas cards or less per year. Among seniors, just 18 percent receive five or fewer cards in a typical year.
Those under-30s, raised in the age of email, are most likely to reject the concept of cards altogether. Asked what type of card they prefer to receive, 21 percent say none, thanks. Just 8 percent of seniors share that view.
Younger adults who do like holiday cards are more likely to say they want a photo card, while the older set tends to prefer handwritten notes or Christmas letters. A third of those under age 50 say photo cards are their favorites, compared with 18 percent of those age 50 or older. Among those 50 or older, 54 percent prefer a pre-printed or boxed card with a note or a personal signature, compared with 36 percent of younger adults. Another 12 percent age 50 or older say they'd really like a Christmas letter. And regardless of age, no one embraces the holiday e-card: Just 2 percent say they want one of those.
MARRIAGE, GENDER GAPS ON CARDS AND GIFTS
Women are more likely than men to say they will send seasonal greetings to friends or loved ones this year, with married women most likely of all to send a card full of holiday cheer. About two-thirds of married women said they will send out cards, compared with 52 percent of married men, 42 percent of unmarried women and just 31 percent of unmarried men.
On the gift front, married people are more apt to give presents than those who aren't married (82 percent plan to exchange gifts this year compared with 66 percent of those who have never been married), though the gap between men and women among married people is significantly smaller than the card gap (84 percent of married women plan to give gifts compared to 80 percent of married men).
HANDMADE VS. STORE BOUGHT
D-I-Y is not on Americans' wish list. Asked whether they prefer to receive a store-bought gift or a handmade one, Americans err on the side of the stores. By a 62 percent to 35 percent margin, people prefer their gifts to come from the store. Women (41 percent), rural residents (43 percent) and whites (38 percent) are most apt to favor handmade presents.
When giving, however, the preference for store-bought wares is even stronger. Overall, 85 percent of Americans who will exchange gifts this year say they would rather buy a gift than make one. Women (17 percent) are still more likely than men to prefer handmade gifts.
HOW MANY STAMPS?
When it comes to cards, Americans receive more than they give. Although 50 percent of Americans say they won't send any cards this year, just 11 percent say they don't typically receive any cards. Forty percent say they usually get more than 10 cards around the holidays.
Among the 48 percent who say they will send a card this year, 50 percent say they will send fewer than 20 cards. Those who plan to send more drive up the average to about 30 cards per sender, including 11 percent who say they plan to send more than 50 cards this year, presumably including one for the postman.
The AP-GfK Poll of 1,010 adults was conducted online Dec. 4-8, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost to them.
Twenty-thousand feet down the answers may be waiting, hidden in some underwater canyon far off Australia's coast. But more than nine months after searchers began scouring the seas for a Malaysia Airlines jetliner that vanished with 239 people aboard, the catastrophe defies resolution.
In that way, the long, fruitless hunt for clues to Flight 370's fate set the tone for many of the headlines that defined 2014. It was a year upended by calamity and conflict, disease and division that often left the public and its leaders grasping for answers.
From Ukraine to the Middle East, from the Ebola threat to the tensions exposed by police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, many of the top news stories fed into a growing sense of frustration.
Confronting the questions raised by the headlines brought little peace of mind. Instead, one event after another exploded, demanding attention but often rewarding it with weariness and lingering unease. Unlike 2013, when much of the news centered on Washington's political dysfunction, many of this year's biggest stories were rooted in far-flung locales, but their impact kept rippling.
That was certainly the case with the conflict over Ukraine, stretching back to President Victor Yanukovych's ouster in February. When Russia filled the vacuum by grabbing the Crimean peninsula and working with militants bent on taking more territory from the western-leaning government, it set off a standoff reminiscent of the Cold War.
Militants are blamed for downing a second Malaysian jet as it flew over Ukrainian airspace in July, killing all 298 aboard, the largest number of them Dutch. U.S.-led sanctions have begun tightening a vise on the Russian economy. Months later, both sides are locked in a stare-down that can hardly be called a peace.
In less harried times, even many of the biggest news events capture the public's attention for just a few days, or perhaps weeks, before slipping from view. But in 2014, Ukraine kept a lasting place in the headlines and was hardly an exception.
Consider that the Ebola crisis began with a case in Guinea last December. By March, the World Health Organization was tracking the outbreak and working to marshal a response. But a year after the outbreak began, there is no end to fears of a disease that has already killed at least 6,000 people.
Nearly all of those deaths came in three west African countries. But when a Liberian man with the disease died at a Dallas hospital this fall, followed by a handful of other U.S. cases, it set off a panic and doubts about whether the health system was ready. As the year neared an end, the WHO questioned reports of progress in containing the disease in Africa based on data it says is filled with inconsistencies.
The Malaysia Airlines disaster, too, captivated the world long after the plane disappeared shortly after takeoff in the early hours of March 8. Eventually, aircraft, ships and searchers from 26 countries were assembled to look for the wreckage. In October, a contractor dispatched ships with high-tech sonar to scan 23,000 square miles of Indian Ocean floor. But the job could take until at least next May, officials say, and no wreckage has ever been found.
"The sense of helplessness, the feeling of powerlessness, and the pain have not eased but only worsened as times goes by," said Liu Weijie, whose wife was aboard the flight. He was speaking after 100 days passed without any sign of the jet.
Meanwhile, violence in the Middle East once again took command of the headlines, sometimes in ways that shocked even a public numbed by the region's tense history.
The worst violence broke out in Libya since dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown, after the Islamists in control of the national congress ignored a general's February order to dissolve the chamber. With militias in control of Tripoli, the year ended with the country split by two governments, two parliaments, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
In Gaza, the June kidnapping of three Israeli teens by Hamas operatives brought a crackdown by Israeli forces, retaliatory rocket attacks and a 50-day war that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis. But it ended with no hint of a route toward resolution.
After nearly four years of civil war in Syria, the U.S. and other countries appeared stuck in a circular debate about whether and how to intercede. But the radical Islamic State group's rapid expansion, capped by militants' videotaped beheadings of Western hostages, jarred an expanding coalition to launch a campaign of more 1,000 bombing attacks on IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria. As the year ends, though, leaders cautioned that their vows to destroy the insurgency could take years to fulfill.
"We recognize that hard work remains to be done," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Even as the war on the Islamic State group began, Americans turned their attention to suburban St. Louis, where in August a white police officer fatally shot black 18-year-old Michael Brown, after stopping him and a friend for walking in the middle of the street. Exactly what happened was clouded by conflicting witness accounts. Brown's death, and a grand jury's decision not to charge the officer, prompted a furor over law enforcement's treatment of young, black men. Other police killings in New York, Cleveland and elsewhere just fed the public's frustration.
The year's string of unsettling news stories continued through its final weeks, when a gunman's siege of a Sydney cafe ended with two hostages dead, and the U.S. accused North Korea of responsibility for a hacking attack on Sony that roiled the studio and the film industry.
If any news event offered the chance for resolution, it was the November elections that presented fed-up voters with a means for shaking up the status quo.
That's just what they did, handing Republicans control of the Senate they sought to battle President Barack Obama and boosting the party's strength in a number of statehouses.
But there's been little sign that will break gridlock in Washington, where Obama's recent decisions — particularly an executive order curbing deportations — have stirred intense GOP enmity. With the election over, public disenchantment has remained in place, with polls showing that two of every three Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, despite continued improvement in the economy.
Clearly, not all of the news stories of the past year lacked resolution. Obama's December announcement that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than half century prompted both celebration and disdain.
There were winners and losers at the Winter Olympics and the World Cup — which spotlighted athletic excellence, along with Russia's outsized spending and Brazil's political discontent. The number of states allowing same-sex marriage doubled this year, reflecting shifting attitudes and politics.
In South Korea, parents grieving over the April ferry sinking that killed 300, most of them high school students, saw the captain sentenced to 36 years in prison, fixing some measure of responsibility, but without closure.
But those headlines could not distract from the larger narrative of a country and world faced by daunting challenges and few answers within reach. That was clear in late October, when Peter Foley, an Australian coordinating the hunt for the vanished Malaysia Airlines jet, faced questions about its direction.
"We are in for the long haul," Foley said.
He was referring only to the searchers and their role in trying to bring resolution to a singular conundrum. But he could just as well have been speaking about the challenges raised by any one of numerous news events in 2014, a year when making sense of the headlines required patience, but did little to reward it.
Adam Geller can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — It's after 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in late November and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is deep into a conference call, talking about nuclear weapons and Iran.
One voice is advocating a hard line, arguing against allowing Iran any capability to enrich uranium. Another summarizes the status of current negotiations and argues that forcing Iran to give up enrichment entirely isn't realistic.
This is how Christie has spent many of his nights during a year in which he raised record-setting amounts of campaign cash for his fellow Republican governors and methodically tried to recover from a political scandal involving traffic jams near a New York City bridge. Late at night, away from the spotlight of the midterm elections and 2016 speculation, he's been on the phone with some of the brightest foreign policy minds in the Republican Party, getting ready to run for president.
"They've been much more quiet in general in their outreach and their approach than, say, (Texas Gov.) Rick Perry, who's been very public and active," said Lanhee Chen, who served as 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney's chief policy adviser and is among those that Christie's aides have sought out for guidance.
"And I think that reflects a difference in terms of what they perceive that they need to accomplish here very early on to be viable as presidential candidates," Chen said.
Such preparation is expected from prospective White House candidates, especially those such as Christie, a long-time politician in New Jersey and former U.S. attorney who lacks the foreign policy experience of the favorite for the Democratic nomination, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But the previously undisclosed prep sessions are another indication that Christie's political ambitions are undeterred by the George Washington Bridge scandal and the all-but-formal entry into the 2016 campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a competitor for support among donors eager to back an establishment nominee.
The briefing efforts are led by Bob Grady, a longtime adviser to Christie and a former White House official who has become the point-man on policy in the tight-knit Christie circle. Assisting is Bob Zoellick, the former president of the World Bank and U.S. Trade Representative, and Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state who was the Romney campaign's senior adviser on foreign policy.
Zoellick and Grady said some of the sessions have covered Christie's recent trips to Mexico and Canada. Other topics have included Ukraine and Russia, the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq, Iran, and the U.S. defense budget.
The calls, which generally last about 90 minutes, typically begin with several experts discussing a region's history, recent developments and the views of foreign leaders of the countries involved, followed by a detailed question and answer session. The format is designed, they said, to expose Christie to multiple points of view and help him build a deeper understanding of history and world affairs.
"The idea is, the governor will form his own views, and this is the stage where he can get some sort of range of perspectives, some sense of questions that he should be thinking about," Zoellick said. "I personally think, having been through these since the '88 campaign in one form or another, is that it's the best way for him to actually think through and develop a foundation."
Christie has also met one-on-one or on the phone with officials, business leaders and academics, including former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass.
While selling himself as a brash straight-talker, Christie has been notably reluctant to share his views about policy issues that fall outside his wheelhouse as governor. That includes immigration, which Christie has repeatedly said he won't discuss unless he chooses to run.
That has triggered criticism, with a Washington Post columnist suggesting Christie was at risk of becoming the "Rick Perry of 2016" — a reference to the Texas governor's dismal performance in 2012 and his inability to recall in one debate the details of his own plan to eliminate three federal departments.
While Christie and his aides have also been reluctant to share other details about their preparations, members of his team, led by his chief political adviser Mike DuHaime and money man Bill Palatucci, have begun a quiet outreach effort to potential donors as well as conservative activists, people familiar with the efforts said.
One of Christie's most loyal cheerleaders, Ken Langone, the billionaire founder of Home Depot, told The Associated Press that he's been chatting up friends and associates who may also be interested in backing a Christie campaign.
"As I talk, I'm keeping a list of people that, if the governor decides to run, these are the people I'm going to go to and say, 'Would you like to help?' " he said.
There is more to be done, and soon, should Christie want to stay competitive in a race defined by Bush's announcement last week that he plans to "actively explore" a campaign.
Christie's people have been less aggressive in feeling out potential staffers in early voting states, and he does not have any kind of political action committee to allow him to raise money to pay for his travel and other campaign preparation.
With nearly a dozen potential candidates raring to go, there is little time left for the behind-the-scenes approach. Florida's Mel Sembler, a former finance chair of the Republican National Committee, said he received a flurry of calls from donors last week telling him, "We're ready," following Bush's announcement.
"Sides," Sembler said, "are beginning to be drawn."
HAVANA (AP) — U.S. tourists are roaming the streets of Old Havana, listening to lectures on Art Deco architecture and meeting with jazz musicians. What they aren't doing yet — at least most of the time — is lounging in the sun and sipping mojitos at white-sand-beach resorts.
American citizens have been allowed to visit Cuba on such "people to people" trips since 2011, one of President Barack Obama's first moves toward detente with the communist-run island — provided their scheduled activities are sufficiently educational, and down time is kept to a minimum.
Now, such cultural exchanges are not only expected to grow dramatically, they are expected to become more flexible and less bureaucratic following last week's announcement by Cuba and the U.S. that they would work to restore normal diplomatic relations for the first time in more than 50 years.
Obama has said the U.S. is easing the rules on visiting Cuba, and that will mean major changes for the trips, which are currently so tightly regulated that operators must submit extensive documentation to the Treasury Department, including detailed justification for all activities to prove they are sufficiently educational. That may help cut the costs for trips that can cost much as a good used car back home.
For Americans who don't have family on the island or fit into one of the handful of other categories for legal visits, the trips have been the only way to visit the island. General tourism to Cuba is still prohibited by the half-century old trade embargo, and it would take an act of Congress to lift it.
"We can't go to the beach and drink mojitos all day," said Tony Pandola, who was leading an eight-day trip to the island this week with Global Expeditions of San Francisco, California, that included a guided architecture tour of Havana.
The new Treasury Department rules have not yet been released, but a White House statement suggests that educational travel to Cuba will now be covered by a "general license," which means tour operators — and perhaps individuals, depending on how the regulations are written — will be able to head to Cuba and simply give the U.S. government their word that they're not engaging in ordinary tourism.
Travelers may simply have to sign a form and board a charter flight, making it easier and cheaper to visit the island, experts say.
"As long as, with integrity, they can say they're going to engage with the Cuban people and learn about Cuba and talk about the United States then they don't have to do anything other than say that's what they're doing," said John McAuliff, executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, which has organized trips in the past.
The changes should add some flexibility to trips that tend to be pretty wonky, less of a sun-and-sand vacation and more like a seminar. Jonathan Anderson, a 33-year-old from Denver on the Global Expeditions tour was spending a sunny Sunday morning in Havana on an architecture tour, attended a dance exhibition the day before and met with a Cuban diplomat.
"It's not very, very regimented because we can go out and see things but we have to conform to the rules," said Anderson, who was on an eight-day trip with his parents that cost them about $6,000 each, including a charter flight to the island. "But we're not on a leash. We can wander around."
There are already scores of trips on all sorts of topics: baseball, architecture, dance, photography, bird-watching, cigars, churches, visits to colonial cities and to scenic rural parks. Visitors can run in the Havana Marathon or cheer for the Industriales baseball team.
Critics sometimes complain that the trips already veer into tourism, with occasional group chats and lectures on politics and culture thrown in.
And while education is the primary purpose of these trips, some travelers readily admit the appeal of Cuba is a mix of the exotic and the basic desire for sunny weather.
"I thought, OK, I'm going to go somewhere I have no idea about, that has music that I'm going to learn about that I really don't have any idea about," said Katja Von Tiesenhausen, a 41-year-old emergency room doctor from Boston who was on a tour that included the Havana Jazz Festival.
Dozens of operators offer people-to-people travel at prices that typically range from $2,000 to $6,000. Some cater to specific groups such as academic and legal organizations and others are for the general public. The precise number of people who take them is unknown but experts say most of the 100,000 or so non-Cuban Americans who visit the island legally each year came by this route. That is expected to increase amid renewed interest in the country following Obama's Dec. 17 announcement of restored relations after two decades of hostility.
"In the last week, I've gotten more calls and emails than ever," said Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, which last year brought 3,000 people to Cuba.
The easing of tourism regulations is a gamble for both the U.S. and Cuba.
Obama said Wednesday that "people-to-people" was a way to "empower the Cuban people." At the same time, a surge in U.S. travel could funnel sorely needed cash to a tourism industry run mostly by what Obama described Friday as "a regime that represses its people."
But that hasn't stopped many Americans from traveling to Cuba through a third country and keeping quiet about it when they go through immigration and customs upon arrival back in the United States.
Tom Popper, president of tour organizer Insight Cuba, said he thinks many new travelers to Cuba will take organized tours because it can be difficult for an individual to organize a trip that meets Treasury Department requirements.
Still, eliminating the license requirement will remove a significant bureaucratic hurdle, according to Popper, whose last application was more than 700 pages long.
"This is such welcome news to us," Popper said.
Associated Press writers Michael Weissenstein and Peter Orsi contributed to this report.
VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis issued a blistering critique Monday of the Vatican bureaucracy that serves him, denouncing how some people lust for power at all costs, live hypocritical double lives and suffer from "spiritual Alzheimer's" that has made them forget they're supposed to be joyful men of God.
Francis' Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was no joyful exchange of holiday good wishes. Rather, it was a sobering catalog of 15 sins of the Curia that Francis said he hoped would be atoned for and cured in the New Year.
He had some zingers: How the "terrorism of gossip" can "kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood." How cliques can "enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body" and eventually kill it by "friendly fire." About how those living hypocritical double lives are "typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that no academic degree can fill."
"The Curia is called on to always improve itself and grow in communion, holiness and knowledge to fulfill its mission," Francis said. "But even it, as any human body, can suffer from ailments, dysfunctions, illnesses."
Francis, who is the first Latin American pope and never worked in the Italian-dominated Curia before he was elected, has not shied from complaining about the gossiping, careerism and bureaucratic power intrigues that afflict the Holy See. But as his reform agenda has gathered steam, he seemed even more emboldened to highlight what ails the institution.
The cardinals were not amused. The speech was met with tepid applause, and few were smiling as Francis listed one by one the 15 "Ailments of the Curia" that he had drawn up, complete with footnotes and Biblical references.
The annual Christmas greeting comes at a tense time for the Curia, the central administration of the Holy See which governs the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church. Francis and his nine key cardinal advisers are drawing up plans to revamp the whole bureaucratic structure, merging offices to make them more efficient and responsive.
The Vatican's finances are also in the midst of an overhaul, with Francis' finance czar, Cardinal George Pell, imposing new accounting and budget measures on traditionally independent congregations not used to having their books inspected.
Yet it was perhaps Pell that Francis had in mind when he complained about the temptation to lust for power even if it means defaming or discrediting others "even in newspapers or magazines, to show themselves as more capable ... in the name of justice and transparency."
Pell recently penned an explosive essay in Britain's Catholic Herald in which he said his team had discovered that the financial situation of the Holy See was "much healthier than it seemed, because some hundreds of millions of euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet."
The Vatican later clarified that the money hadn't been hidden and that nothing illicit was going on, just that the funds didn't appear on the Vatican's balance sheet. Over the weekend, the Jesuit magazine America reported that an internal Vatican memo had undercut Pell's claim of having found the cash in the first place, saying the funds kept in the Vatican Secretariat of State were well-known, duly reported, were used to cover Vatican losses and special projects and actually had been well-managed over the years.
Francis started off his list with the "ailment of feeling immortal, immune or even indispensable."
Then one-by-one he went on: Being vain. Wanting to accumulate things. Having a "hardened heart." Wooing superiors for personal gain. Having a "funereal face" and being too "rigid, tough and arrogant," especially toward underlings — a possible reference to the recently relieved Swiss Guard commander said to have been too tough on his recruits for Francis' tastes.
Some critiques could have been seen as worthy of praise: working too hard and planning too much ahead. But even those traits came in for criticism as Francis noted that people who don't take time off to be with family are overly stressed, and those who plan everything to a "T'' don't allow themselves to be surprised by the "freshness, fantasy and novelty" of the Holy Spirit.
"How good it is for us to have a healthy sense of humor," he said.
At the end of the speech, Francis asked the prelates to pray that the "wounds of the sins that each one of us carries are healed" and that the Church and Curia itself are made healthy.