VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Where there is no tenderness, there is cruelty and what is unfolding in Syria is a veritable “workshop of cruelty,” Pope Francis told governing members of Caritas Internationalis.

“I believe the greatest illness of today is cardiac sclerosis,” he said Nov. 17, implying a kind of hardening of the heart that renders a person unable to feel compassion or be moved by another’s suffering.

An example of this, he said, is Syria and how so many parties are involved in the conflict, each bent on seeking its own interests and not the freedom and well-being of the people.

“Where there is no tenderness, there is always cruelty. And what is happening today in Syria is cruelty. There are intersecting interests, a workshop of cruelty,” he said.

At the meeting of the Caritas Internationalis’ representative council, Pope Francis also discussed the dangers of bureaucracies and his hope that Caritas would not be one.

“I would like Caritas not to be an institution that depends on the pope, the Holy See, Cor Unum, (the Pontifical Council for) Justice and Peace. No. It is a federation of diocesan Caritas (agencies) that are linked with the Holy See,” he said.

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued new statutes for Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-based confederation of 165 national Catholic charities, to place it under the supervision of Cor Unum. But Cor Unum will cease to exist Jan. 1, 2017, when it is absorbed together with three other pontifical councils into the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The Caritas statutes will have to be rewritten to reflect the reorganization of the Roman Curia, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, president of Caritas Internationalis, told Catholic News Service after the papal audience.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, who will be prefect of the new dicastery, was scheduled to meet with Caritas representatives to discuss what kind of relationship the confederation would have with the new office.

The pope told the Caritas representatives, about 80 people gathered in the apostolic palace’s Sala Clementina, that he asked Cardinal Tagle whether he should read his written speech aloud or just sit and listen to what they had to say and have a “little dialogue.”

“We chose the second” proposal, the pope said to applause.

As is the usual practice, the audience was broadcast via closed-circuit audio feed so journalists could report on the proceedings as they unfolded. However, the last minute change in the nature of the meeting meant the Vatican cut off the audio feed after about 13 minutes. The Vatican later said the encounter was meant to be private.

An unidentified man from Aleppo, Syria, thanked the pope for his encouragement and underlined the importance of the church’s presence in the Arab-Islamic world.

An unidentified woman who covers Caritas efforts in the Middle East and North Africa said Pope Francis’ call to be a sign of tenderness to the people truly changed their hearts and minds and approach to their work, giving them greater courage in a sometimes “arid” world.

The pope told his audience that a “revolution of tenderness” was needed, especially in a world dominated by a “throwaway culture.”

Being tender and close to the people means holding them, embracing them and “to not be afraid of the flesh,” the pope said.

God chose to become flesh through his son so he could be even closer to humanity; the church, too, must be near the people and show this same love — this “tenderness of the Father,” he said.

The flesh of Christ today, he said, are people who are unwanted, exploited and victims of war.

“For this reason the proposals of spirituality (that are) too theoretical are new forms of gnosticism and gnosticism is a heresy,” he said. Gnosticism reflects an idea that a select elite can develop special powers and gifts through specialized knowledge that is hidden from most people.