Decoding the Vatican

  • Pope calls for World Day of the Poor at close of mercy jubilee

    In a document closing the jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis called for an annual “World Day of the Poor” to underline the church’s solidarity with the world’s suffering, and extended special faculties to forgive the sin of abortion.

    The pope’s document, Misericordia et Misera (Mercy and Misery), proposed ways to keep the spirit of mercy alive in all aspects of the church’s life, from the confessional to its social programs.

    The World Day of the Poor would be celebrated in November (on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in the church’s liturgical year.) Pope Francis said it would help Catholics “reflect on how poverty is at the very heart of the Gospel” and recall that God will judge people on their works of mercy toward the poor.

    The pope cautioned against merely theorizing about mercy instead of sharing in the lives of the poor. By “hand-crafting” works of mercy and engaging with others, the church can lead a “cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives,” he said.

    “There is no alibi to justify not engaging with the poor when Jesus has identified himself with each of them,” he said. While acts of mercy depend on individuals, they have an “immense positive influence” as a social value, and can help restore dignity to millions of people, he said.

    In one of the final papal encounters of the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis celebrated Mass Nov. 11 in St. Peter's Basilica for about 6,000 poor and homeless. At that time, he spoke about making it an annual day dedicated to the poor.

    In his document, the pope said he was extending the faculty, granted to all priests during the Holy Year, to absolve those confessing the sin of abortion. Normally this is something reserved to bishops and priests designated by bishops, but the pope said he wanted to underline that while abortion is always a “grave sin” because it puts an end to innocent life, “there is no sin that God’s mercy cannot reach and wipe away when it finds a repentant heart.”

    The pope also extended “until further provisions are made” the right of faithful to validly confess to priests of the traditionalist group, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, with which the Vatican has conducted a long and painful dialogue aimed at reconciliation.

    The pope said he was also extending the pastoral program of the “Missionaries of Mercy,” priests appointed by the pope to preach and confess in various parts of the world.

    It was important, the pope said, that mercy not be seen as “a mere parenthesis in the life of the church.”

    He emphasized a point he has made again and again during the jubilee year: that “forgiveness is the most visible sign of the Father’s love.”

    “Nothing of what a repentant sinner places before God’s mercy can be excluded from the embrace of his forgiveness. For this reason, none of us has the right to make forgiveness conditional,” he said.  Read More...

  • The pope's plea against an 'epidemic of animosity and violence'

    Pope Francis created 17 new cardinals Saturday and urged them to counter the “epidemic of animosity and violence” that is spreading in the world.

    The pope’s message reflected his vision of a church that is more merciful than judgmental, but it also appeared to be aimed at a wider audience – including the United States. In particular, the pope described how easy it is for immigrants to be marginalized and turned into the “enemy.”

    “Little by little, out differences turn into symptoms of hostility, threats and violence,” he said.

    “In God’s heart there are no enemies. God only has sons and daughters. We are the ones who raise walls, build barriers and label people.

    The pope emphasized that the church is not immune from this "virus of polarization and animosity." Church leaders, he said, need to be vigilant "lest such attitudes find a place in our hearts."

    A key passage of the pope's homily is worth reading in full (emphases mine):

    Ours is an age of grave global problems and issues. We live at a time in which polarization and exclusion are burgeoning and considered the only way to resolve conflicts. We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant, or a refugee, become a threat, take on the status of an enemy. An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs. An enemy because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class. An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith. An enemy because… And, without our realizing it, this way of thinking becomes part of the way we live and act. Everything and everyone then begins to savor of animosity. Little by little, our differences turn into symptoms of hostility, threats and violence. How many wounds grow deeper due to this epidemic of animosity and violence, which leaves its mark on the flesh of many of the defenseless, because their voice is weak and silenced by this pathology of indifference! How many situations of uncertainty and suffering are sown by this growing animosity between peoples, between us!

    Yes, between us, within our communities, our priests, our meetings. The virus of polarization and animosity permeates our way of thinking, feeling and acting. We are not immune from this and we need to take care lest such attitudes find a place in our hearts, because this would be contrary to the richness and universality of the Church, which is tangibly evident in the College of Cardinals. We come from distant lands; we have different traditions, skin color, languages and social backgrounds; we think differently and we celebrate our faith in a variety of rites. None of this makes us enemies; instead, it is one of our greatest riches.

    It’s significant that one of those receiving his red hat was Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who as archbishop of Indiana denied a request by Indiana Governor – now Vice President-elect – Mike Pence to put a halt to Catholic Charities’ resettlement of a Syrian refugee family. A federal court later blocked Pence’s move, saying it was discriminatory.

    The pope's words came the same week that President-elect Donald Trump confirmed his intention of deporting up to three million undocumented immigrants from the United States and his plan of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.  Read More...

  • Pope calls out critics on pastoral mercy, ecumenism

    Another day, another interview with Pope Francis. This one, in the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire, focused on ecumenism, and the pope took the opportunity to defend his bridge-building efforts with other Christian churches.

    He also delivered a rebuke to those who have recently critiqued his document, Amoris Laetizia, for its opening on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Critics, he said, don’t really understand the church’s role in the world.

    “The church exists only as an instrument for communicating to people the merciful design of God,” he said. That was clearly enunciated by the Second Vatican Council in its document on the nature of the church, he said.

    “This moves the axis of Christian understanding away from a certain legalism, which can be ideological, to the person of God who made himself merciful in the incarnation of the Son,” he said.

    “Some – consider certain replies to Amoris Laetitia – continue to not understand, (to see) either white or black, even though it is in the flow of life that one must discern,” the pope said. He added that this teaching of Vatican II will probably take a century to be “well absorbed” by the body of the church.

    “We’re at the halfway point,” he said.

    The pope’s reproach of those who want a “white or black” judgment of pastoral situations plainly referred to a small group of cardinals who this week published a letter to the pontiff, challenging him to clarify supposed “doubts” about Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s post-synodal document published in April. The cardinals have questioned whether some sections of the document could be read as contradicting traditional church teaching on marriage.

     In the interview, Francis said seeking Christian unity was a perennial task of any pope, and he described it as primarily a work of encounter and prayer, not negotiation. He said his recent meetings did not represent an “acceleration” of this process. It’s simply a matter of following the path of the Second Vatican Council, and the impetus comes from “the path, not me,” he said.

    At one point the interviewer noted that some conservative critics have accused the pope of “selling out doctrine” in order to promote ecumenical relations, and in effect “Protestantizing” the Catholic Church.

    “I’m not losing any sleep over that,” the pope replied. He added that the value of criticism depended on “the spirit behind it.” Authentic criticism can help the church, but sometimes it’s obvious that the criticisms “are not honest, and are made with a bad spirit in order to foment divisions, he said.”

    The pope said he was convinced that certain “rigorous” positions among critics are born from “a shortcoming, a desire to hide one’s own sad disappointment behind a type of armor.”

    On the issue of proselytism, there was this exchange:

    Pope Francis: "The church never grows through proselytism but by attraction, as Benedict XVI wrote. Therefore proselytism between Christians is in itself a grave sin."

    Interviewer: "Why?"

    Pope Francis: "Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how one becomes and remains a Christian. The church is not a soccer team in search of fans."  Read More...

  • New cardinals and a soon-to-be octogenarian pope

    This week Pope Francis is creating 17 new cardinals, including 13 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in the next conclave.

    Next month, the pope celebrates his 80th birthday.

    The 80-year mark has sometimes been floated as a default age for papal retirement, but there is certainly no sign that the Argentine pope has any intention of resigning his office. Francis has said he doesn’t like the idea of an age limit for the papacy, which he believes enjoys a “special grace.” At the same time, he has said Pope Benedict’s resignation in 2013 (at the age of 85) should not be considered an exception in the modern church.

    It’s become increasingly clear that in choosing new cardinals, Francis is looking for prelates who share his vision of the church as a “field hospital,” less concerned with doctrinal rules and more involved with people in their daily lives. The pope needs their support today and, in a certain sense, his legacy will one day rest in their hands.

    The three U.S. churchmen receiving their red hats this week endorse the pope’s fresh approach, which features flexibility on pastoral issues – including but not limited to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The three are Cardinal-designates Blase J. Cupich of Chicago, Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis (just appointed to head the Newark archdiocese), and Kevin J. Farrell, who will head the new Vatican office for Laity, Family and Life.

    If Pope Francis has a strategy in his cardinal selections, it might be called “break the mold.” He has chosen bishops from several diocese and countries that have never had a cardinal before, part of his push to include the voices of the church’s “periphery.”

    The idea of protecting his legacy may not be the first thing on his mind, but these cardinals are, after all, the ones who will one day elect his successor. The next conclave, whenever it occurs, will test the level of hierarchical support for the changes adopted by this pope. As the past week has demonstrated, not all cardinals are on the pope’s wavelength: four eminences saw fit to publicly challenge Francis’ opening on the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried.

    This week’s consistory will alter the population a bit among the 120 voting-age cardinals (121 until Nov. 28.) Let’s look at a few numbers:

    -- With the new appointments, Pope Francis will have named about 37 percent of the potential cardinal-electors. That’s significant after only three and a half years in office. However, it may well take the pope another three years – from now until October 2019 – to reach the 50 percent mark of cardinal-electors. That’s because relatively fewer cardinals will turn 80 during that period.

    For now, the rest of the would-be voters in a conclave are made up of cardinals appointed by Pope Benedict XVI (46 percent) and Pope John Paul II (17 percent).

    -- If the pope remains in office another five years, he will have the opportunity to name at least an additional 32 cardinals. As a result, by his 85th birthday he may well have appointed 58 percent of the cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave. But that’s a long way from today.

    By way of contrast, when Pope John Paul II died at the age of 84 (after a pontificate of more than 26 years), he had appointed all but two of the 115 cardinals who voted in the conclave to elect his successor.

    -- The geographical balance of cardinal-electors is slowly shifting under Pope Francis. After Saturday’s consistory, Europeans will represent 44.6 percent of voting-age cardinals, down from 52 percent three and a half years ago. The percentage of electors from North America has dropped slightly, to 10.7 percent, and gone up a bit for Latin Americans, to 17.4 percent. The biggest gains have come among cardinals from Africa (now 12.4 percent of total electors), Asia (11.6 percent) and Oceania (3.3 percent).

    -- The influence of the Roman Curia in a future conclave is declining somewhat but remains strong. About 27 percent of potential cardinal-electors today are active or retired Rome-based Vatican officials, and that goes up to 34 percent when one includes archbishops in other places who once worked in the Roman Curia.

    The Curia cardinals, in my opinion, are the closest thing to a “bloc” in a future conclave. Traditionally, this group has had great influence in the selection of a new pope – these cardinals operate at the center of the universal church, have frequent contact with other cardinals and local bishops, and are more experienced in ecclesial politics. The conclave of 2013 was an exception to this rule, a moment when the world’s cardinals took issue with Roman Curia missteps and infighting, and elected a true outsider to the papacy.  Read More...

  • Pope Francis on Martin Luther and ecumenism ahead of Sweden trip


                    Pope Francis

    Pope Francis travels to Sweden next week, in one of the most important ecumenical journeys of his pontificate. Among the events is a commemoration service with Lutherans marking the beginning of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which began when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517.

    Today, the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica published an interview with the pope on the themes of the visit. Francis being Francis, the interview also ranged to unrelated topics. Among other things, the pope said that proselytizing was a sin, that war in the name of religion was "satanic," and that gossip could be seen as a form of terrorism.

    The exchange about Martin Luther was revealing, with Francis offering a hint at the atmosphere inside the conclave that elected him in 2013. The pope was asked what the Catholic Church could learn from the Lutheran tradition. He responded: 

    "Two words come to my mind: «reform» and «Scripture». I will try to explain. The first is the word «reform». At the beginning, Luther’s was a gesture of reform in a difficult time for the Church. Luther wanted to remedy a complex situation. Then this gesture—also because of the political situations, we think also of the cuius regio eius religio (whose realm, his religion) —became a «state» of separation, and not a process of reform of the whole Church, which is fundamental, because the Church is semper reformanda (always reforming). The second word is «Scripture», the Word of God. Luther took a great step by putting the Word of God into the hands of the people. Reform and Scripture are two things that we can deepen by looking at the Lutheran tradition. The General Congregations before the Conclave comes to mind and how the request for a reform was alive in our discussions."  Read More...

  • An evening with a 'Pope Francis cardinal'


    Cardinal-designate Joseph W. Tobin

    Minnesotans got a glimpse this week of what a “Pope Francis cardinal” looks and sounds like, and it was a refreshing change from the “princes of the church” figure of the past.

    Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis delivered a talk on immigration at the University of St. Thomas Oct. 24. Titled “Welcoming the Stranger While Challenging the Fear,” it pulled no punches when it came to the demands of the Gospel on an issue that has become a political football.

    Archbishop Tobin cited comments by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has denounced refugee resettlement programs, including those sponsored by the Catholic Church, and claimed they raise the threat of terrorism in the United States. Trump recently called efforts to resettle refugees from Syria “the great Trojan horse of all time.”  Read More...

  • Pope Francis issues norms for removal of bishops for negligence in sex abuse cases


    Pope Francis

     In a landmark move toward accountability, Pope Francis has established new norms that provide for the dismissal of bishops when they demonstrate "lack of diligence" in protecting minors or vulnerable adults from the sexual abuse of priests.

    The norms say a bishop does not need to have "grave morally culpability" in order to be removed; serious negligence by the bishop is enough.

    Current church law provides for removal of bishops for "very grave cause." The new norms state that in the cases of sexual abuse, removal can be for "grave cause." This slight wording change is considered significant. According to Vatican Radio, it effectively lowers the standard needed for a bishop to be removed from office in such cases. It certainly puts bishops on notice that their actions or lack of them will receive greater scrutiny in Rome.  Read More...

  • Pope's document opens door to pastoral flexibility on family issues

    Pope Francis’ document on the family avoids issuing directives or a “final word” on debatable questions. Instead, it argues for pastoral flexibility and recognition of the complex relationship between the human conscience, sin and the state of grace.

    That alone makes this text remarkable. Rather than announcing new practices or decisions from Rome, the pope is opening a discussion that involves bishops, priests, theologians and lay Catholics.

    Titled “Amoris Laetitia, on Love and the Family,” the 260-page document reflects on the results of the Synod of Bishops, convened in two sessions in 2014 and 2015.  Read More...

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John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

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John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

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