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Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis outlined plans for reform of the Church to make it less “Vatican-centric” on Tuesday as he met with top cardinals tasked with helping him overhaul the 2,000-year-old institution.

In his strongest censure of the intrigue-filled Vatican world yet, the Argentine pontiff condemned “leprosy” in the Vatican and called for a less hierarchical Church structured “horizontally”.

“Leaders of the Church have often been Narcissuses, gratified and sickeningly excited by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy,” Francis said in an interview with Italian left-wing daily La Repubblica.

The comments came as the pope, who has become known for his humble style, met with a group of eight cardinals he has called to advise him on reforming the Vatican administration and bettering communication with local churches.

Francis has already taken several significant steps to tackle one of the Vatican’s most high-profile problems: the scandal-plagued bank.

In June he set up a pontifical commission to analyze the bank and propose ways to reform it, and on Tuesday it published its accounts for the first time in a new drive for transparency.

A report in the Corriere della Sera daily said the bank was shutting 900 accounts as part of an internal audit, including ones deemed suspicious belonging to diplomats from the embassies to the Holy See of Indonesia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The unique advisory board of cardinals meeting on Tuesday — an innovation in Church government — is holding closed-door talks for three days and is expected to address a range of problems.

These could include further financial reform, the role of women in the Church and whether to soften institutional lines on issues such as the position of divorced Catholics and homosexuality.

It will also look at how to strengthen ties between the Vatican and local parishes, and place more focus on priests and their communities.

The Holy See “is too Vatican-centric”, the pontiff said in the interview.

“It looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are for the most part, earthly interests. This Vatican-centric vision neglects the world that surrounds it,” he said.

“I do not share this vision and will do everything to change it.

“The Church is — or must become once more — a community of the people of God, and the presbyter priests, vicars and bishops who cure souls are at the service of God’s people,” he added.

The eight cardinals in the group come from Australia, Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy and the United States.

“This is the start of a Church structured just not vertically but horizontally as well,” Francis said.

The cardinals “are not courtiers but wise men who share my same feelings,” he added.

The 76-year-old said his focus lay on helping the Church engage better with the modern world — while also returning to its humble roots.

“We have to open up to the future,” he said, recalling how the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which carried out large-scale reforms to update the Church.

Those who drew up the reforms “knew that opening up to modern culture meant Christian unity and dialogue with non-believers.”

“Little was done to follow-up on it. I have the humility and ambition to want to do it,” he added.

The pontiff recalled his namesake, St Francis of Assisi, who “longed for a poor Church that looked after others, accepted monetary help and used it to help others with no thought of itself.”

“Eight hundred years have passed and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary and poor Church is still more than valid,” he said.

The first pope from Latin America also revealed that he had briefly thought about turning down the papal nomination after being elected by his fellow cardinals at an historic conclave in the Sistine Chapel in March.

“Before accepting, I asked if I could retire for a few minutes… I felt great anxiety,” he said.

“I closed my eyes and all thoughts disappeared. Even the one about refusing to accept the nomination. At some point a great light filled me. It lasted a moment but for me it seemed a very long time,” he said.

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