The Blog

Everything listed under: Pope Francis

  • Cardinal Mueller's "manifesto"

    Saying church leaders have allowed the spread of “doctrinal confusion,” German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller has published a “manifesto of faith” that reasserts traditional church teaching on several issues, including a ban on Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.Although Mueller does not specifically mention Pope Francis, the text is clearly aimed at the more flexible stance taken by the pope and some progressive bishops. Two years ago, Mueller was let go by...  Read More...

  • Pope Francis adding frequent flyer miles at record pace

    When he was elected in 2013 at the age of 76, Pope Francis was not expected to be a globe-trotting pope. After all, this was a man who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, traveled infrequently to Rome because he considered such trips an extravagance.But in Panama last week, the pope logged his 26th foreign trip – and he shows no sign of slowing down. He plans to make four more trips before the middle of this year, including a February visit to the United Arab Emirates, the first by a pope to t...  Read More...

  • Pope says no to wholesale change on priestly celibacy, but sees room for exceptions

    Pope Francis has offered some clarity about how far he’ll go on the issue of married priests.Speaking to reporters aboard his flight from Panama to Rome Jan. 27, the pope said he did not agree with those who want to make priestly celibacy “optional” throughout the Latin-rite church.The pope was asked whether he could envision the Catholic Church adopting the practice of Orthodox Churches, in which priestly candidates can choose whether to marry or remain celibate – a choi...  Read More...

  • New role of laity is key issue in sex abuse summit

    There are signs that Vatican officials preparing the February summit on sex abuse hope the event will launch a new role for Catholic laity.That would be a significant development in a scandal that, as Pope Francis himself has said, has been perpetuated by clericalism.At first glance, the Feb. 21-24 summit looks like another “bishops monitoring the bishops” event. But planners have quietly taken steps to involve lay experts, and are signaling a more open approach to lay authority and ...  Read More...

  • Tweets, clicks and photostreams

    Pope Francis’ love-hate relationship with social media was on display this month.On Jan. 20, appearing before pilgrims at his weekly blessing, he tapped a tablet to launch a “Click to Pray” app that allows people to share prayer intentions and (virtually) pray with each other. The pope called social networks “a resource of our time” that gives people a way to “share values and projects.”But a few days later, the 82-year-old pope sounded a different tune ...  Read More...

  • Vatican official says pope's outreach to divorced Catholics well-received

    A leading Vatican official says opposition to Pope Francis’ outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics comes from a minority that is tied to a vision of the church that “never existed.”Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, made the comments in an interview published in the British magazine The Tablet Jan. 25.   Read More...

  • A night to remember

    Five years ago...  

  • Food for thought in pope's speech to diplomats

    Pope Francis this week delivered his annual “state of the world” talk to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican. It was one of his more far-ranging speeches, and his comments touched on several topics of particular interest to the United States:-- North Korea. The pope repeated his call to settle any international disputes by negotiation and agreement, not by recourse to arms, and added:"In this regard, it is of paramount importance to support every effort at dialogue on the Korean...  Read More...

  • Pope Francis and nuclear deterrence

    As 2017 drew to a close, the potential for nuclear destruction was clearly on the mind of Pope Francis.During the Christmas season, the Vatican circulated a card reproducing a dramatic photo from the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Taken by Marine photographer Joseph O’Donnell, it showed a boy carrying his dead brother on his back as he waited in line at a crematorium.On the reverse of the card is the phrase “The fruits of war” and the pope’s si...  Read More...

  • On Christmas, pope looks to forgotten conflicts and underlying causes

    Pope Francis’ urbi et orbi blessing on Christmas day checked the expected boxes of global trouble spots, but added several other areas of tragic suffering that often don’t make the nightly news.Most of the coverage focused on the pope’s comments about Jerusalem: “On this festive day, let us ask the Lord for peace for Jerusalem and for all the Holy Land. Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally ...  Read More...

  • Pope Francis takes aim at Vatican officials who 'betray trust'

    Pope Francis’ annual Christmas speeches to the Roman Curia have become famous for their honest – some would say brutal – critiques of infighting, careerism and selfishness found in the top tier of the Vatican’s bureaucracy leadership.This year, the pope set his sights on in-house critics and “those who betray the trust put in them,” in particular Vatican officials who, when they find themselves sidelined from power, go around complaining of a “pope kept ...  Read More...

  • Pope Francis returns authority over liturgical translations to local bishops

    Pope Francis has issued a document that effectively returns to local bishops' conferences the leading role in liturgical translations.The move, which involved a modification of church law, reverses years of Vatican efforts to exert centralized control on the thorny issue of language in the liturgy. It is bound to set off a new round of criticism by conservative Catholics who fear that Francis is slowly undoing the legacy of his two predecessors.The pope's decision also underscored just h...  Read More...

  • 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...

  • Closing synod, pope says church must practice mercy not condemnation

    Pope Francis closed the Synod on the Family with a ringing call for the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families, and to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”In a final address to the more than 300 synod participants, the pope also noted that the discussion during the three-week-long assembly was open but not always charitable. At times, he said, the synod had to rise above “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”The pope’s address came shor...  Read More...

  • The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

    Synod of Bishops

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family has highlighted what I call the “paradox of collegiality” for Pope Francis.

    The pope clearly wants to share his governing authority with bishops, giving them a bigger voice in decision-making in Rome and more latitude in their home dioceses. He also wants them on board as he shifts the church’s missionary approach to a more “merciful” and invitational style, less focused on doctrinal rules.  Read More...

  • Synod's lack of consensus may still leave doors open for Pope Francis

           Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge

    It’s apparent from today’s Vatican briefing that the Synod of Bishops on the Family is not going to resolve many of the hotly debated issues taken up in the course of the two sessions last year and this year.

    The synod participants told reporters that it was unrealistic to think the assembly could reach a consensus on questions like divorced and remarried Catholics, or proposed changes in language on moral issues.

    That effectively means that the follow-up will largely be left to Pope Francis, who can proceed in specific directions and at his own pace. The synod will not give the pope a mandate on the tougher questions, but it will give him an idea of where the world’s episcopate stands on his “mercy” agenda of pastoral outreach.

    I expect the language of the synod’s final document to reflect the disagreements, but also to leave the doors open for development – and I don’t expect Pope Francis to shy away from that task, especially during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

    Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane summed up the situation today when asked about where the synod was going on three issues: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and homosexuality.

    “The indications are that there will be no substantial change on church teaching on those three issues that you first mentioned. I have no crystal ball, but on the basis of the discussions we had in the small group this morning and on Friday afternoon, there is no groundswell of support for the change of church teaching.,” Coleridge said. “But my hope is that we will move toward, without actually accomplishing at this synod, a genuinely new pastoral approach. At the heart of this I think there has to be a whole new language.”

    There may be no change in church teaching, but more and more, the synod seems to be focusing on case-by-case treatment of some pastoral situations. Frequently, the role of the individual conscience comes into play. That’s also a perennial area of debate, of course, and a word from the pope on this subject might be helpful. Instead of giving the church another summing-up document on the family in the wake of the synod, perhaps Pope Francis should consider issuing a magisterial document on the relationship between the judgment of conscience, the church’s teaching authority and pastoral realities.

    As the synod entered its final week, there were some other interesting developments:

    -- Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of 10 papally appointed members of a commission that will write the synod’s final document, was sharply critical of bishops who have suggested the assembly has somehow been manipulated.

    In an interview with America magazine, Wuerl was asked about cardinals and bishops who have expressed anxiety over the synod’s process. Others have warned about the direction of the debate on issues including Communion for divorced Catholics.

    Here is a key part of Cardinal Wuerl’s interview:

    Cardinal Wuerl: Now there are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality. I just think that these are people who have their own position and they just want to articulate that, and they have taken to saying that somehow the Holy Father and the synod structure are trying to manipulate all of the bishops. I just find that does not correspond to what I see, to what I experience, and what I’ve experienced over the years in dealing with synods.

    Q: How do you interpret these people who seem to imply that the pope is somehow manipulating the synod? It seems almost like a vote of no-confidence in Pope Francis.

    Cardinal Wuerl: I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church. He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.

    I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

    -- Meanwhile, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who had been one of the strongest voices against a proposals to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, appeared to indicate a measure of openness to that possibility in “extreme individual cases.”

    According to Vatican Radio, the cardinal reportedly spoke in an interview with a German magazine, and cited the 1981 papal document Familiaris Consortio, which said divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive Communion but also referred to possible exceptions in the “realm of conscience.”

    “It is possible to think further in this direction,” Cardinal Mueller said.

    Familiaris Consortio said in part:

    Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

    -- Cardinal Walter Kasper, who last year outlined a possible “penitential path” to reception of the sacraments by divorced Catholics, said he still hoped that a majority at this synod would approve such an approach. He spoke in an interview published today by the Italian church agency SIR:

    "I hope in an opening, in a majority in favor of Communion for divorced, with a process of integration in parishes and in the life of the church. We see many families in irregular situations, but they too are children of God. They too need the bread of life, because the Eucharist is not for the ‘excellent’ but for sinners, and we are all sinners: we say this every time at the consecration. It’s probable that for a final document a little more time is needed, but I hope that the pope may say something already at the end of the (synod’s) work, after having received all the reports.

  • Papal adviser: At stake in synod is relationship between church and world

             Father Antonio Spadaro addresses the Synod of Bishops

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family marks a dramatic and delicate moment, in which “the relationship between the church and the world is at stake.”

    So says a close papal adviser, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, in an interview today with Vatican Radio. Father Spadaro is director of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and was a papal appointee to the synod.

    Spadaro described the synod’s three-week session as a lively and effective debate over problems, language and ways of approaching family issues that vary in different parts of the world. Because the synod really does represent global diversity, sometimes there are tensions and conflicts, he said.

    “Therefore this is a very delicate moment, in which one understands that the relationship between the church and the world is at stake. This truly is at stake in this synod: to see how the church should live in relation with the reality of today, which has great challenges and great changes, but which, I repeat, is very different in the diverse places of the earth,” he said.

    Spadaro returned to a theme raised by Pope Francis the previous day, that the church and the synod must begin by listening to its people.

    “One cannot enlighten reality without first having heard it,” Spadaro said. “The human being is not an element extraneous to the Gospel. The Gospel is not an abstract doctrine that strikes people from the outside like a stone. It must be incarnated in lived lives, in experiences. Sometimes (this process) can be adversarial and sometimes peaceful.”

    Spadaro said the theme of mercy that Pope Francis has emphasized throughout his pontificate and the synod will continue in a follow-up phase during the Holy Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8.

    “And it won't end there. It needs to be understood that we are experiencing an ecclesial process of great dimensions. For this reason, it shouldn't surprise people that there are moments of fatigue, impasse, difficulties and tensions. But there is also the joy of constructing history together,” he said.

    Father Spadaro was reminded that some synod bishops are uneasy with the emphasis on mercy, and say people also need to rediscover a sense of sin.

    “The Gospel proclamation, that the Lord has died for us, has died for me, is not the proclamation of sin,” Spadaro said. “The proclamation of the Gospel is that of mercy: in the light of the mercy of the Lord’s forgiveness, I understand my sin, I comprehend my sin.”

    “If there is no perception of a merciful God, the sense of sin is merely a sense of guilt, which is often useless,” he said.

    Spadaro said truth and mercy are never in contradiction in the Gospel, and so any attempt to place doctrine and pastoral practices at odds makes no sense.

    “The doctrine of the Gospel is mercy. That is to say, the teaching of the Lord is the teaching of mercy. Everything else follows from this,” he said.

  • Pope says synod is a 'listening' event; as guarantor of unity, pope has last word

    In the middle of one of the most contentious synods in modern times, Pope Francis laid out a vision of a church that is “synodal” bottom to top – listening first to the people of God and last to the pope as the supreme guarantor of unity.

    The pope’s speech at the Vatican marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops came after talks by several other church leaders. The most significant was that of Austrian Cardinal Christophe Schonborn, who said synod participants need to go beyond theological debate and above all be attentive to how God is acting in the church and in the world.

    The pope’s address received a standing ovation from some 300 bishops and others who were attending the October Synod on the Family. His key points are here:

    -- A synodal church is a listening church. Listening begins with the “people of God,” who as a whole cannot err in matters of belief. That’s why the Synod on the Family was preceded by a worldwide consultation with local Catholic churches.

    “The ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of the faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate between the ‘teaching church’ and the ‘learning church,’ because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new roads the Lord is opening for the church,” the pope said.

    -- The synod itself should be a time of “mutual listening” between the people of God, the bishops and the pope. But the pope’s role is unique.

    “The synodal path culminates in listening to the bishop of Rome, who is called to pronounce as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians,’ not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness of the faith of the whole church, the guarantor of the church’s obedience to and conformity to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the church,” he said.

    -- In a synodal church, the hierarchy is, in a sense, flipped over like an inverted pyramid: those with the “highest” positions are at the bottom, in service to the rest. That means being in touch with the everyday problems of the people.

    The pope said the church has only partially understood how regional and national bishops’ conferences should function in this synodal understanding of the church. But he said it’s clear that a “healthy decentralization is needed,” because the pope cannot substitute for local bishops in dealing with all local problems.

    -- The role of the pope and the concept of papal primacy still need to be fully developed.

    “The pope does not stand alone above the church, but inside it as a baptized person among the baptized, and inside the episcopal college as a bishop among bishops, called at the same time, as the successor of the Apostle Peter, to guide the church of Rome which presides in love over all the churches,” he said.

    In his speech, Cardinal Schonborn evoked the Council of Jerusalem as a model for modern-day synods, recalling that the debate at that early church encounter was also heated and at times bitter. That council decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic law of the Jews, laying the foundation for the church’s wider missionary expansion.

    Theological debate was important at Jerusalem, Cardinal Schonborn said, but in the end, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, those kinds of arguments were not decisive. Instead, it was St. Peter who took the floor and said his missionary experience told him that God was calling Gentiles to the faith, and that the bishops should not be “putting God to the test” by placing an unreasonable burden on them.

    Schonborn said that lesson – that listening to people’s experience is more important than abstract theorizing – should be remembered in modern synods.

    He added that, just as in the time of the early church, synods today should have the church’s missionary dynamism as the priority. Bishops should favor direct witness of human experience, realizing that their task is not to win a theological debate but to “discern the will of God.”


    Here is a provisional English translation of the pope's address today. (Note: This text does not contain the 32 footnotes in the original.)

    Pope Francis’ Address at Commemorative Ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops

    October 17, 2015

    Paul VI Audience Hall – Vatican City

    [Working translation prepared by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB,

    English language media attaché, Holy See Press Office]

    Your Beatitudes, Eminences, Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters,

    As the XIV Ordinary General Assembly is underway, it is a joy for me to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops and to praise and honor the Lord for the Synod of Bishops. From the Second Vatican Council up to the current Synod on the Family, we have gradually learned of the necessity and beauty of “walking together.”

    On this happy occasion I would like to extend a cordial greeting to His Eminence Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops along with the Undersecretary, His Excellency Archbishop Fabio Fabene, the Officials, the Consultors and other collaborators in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. Together with them, I greet and thank the Synod Fathers and other participants in this Synod gathered here this morning in this hall.

    At this time we also want to remember those who, over the course of the last 50 years, have worked in the service of the Synod, starting from the successive General Secretaries: Cardinals Władysław Rubin, Jozef Tomko, Jan Pieter Schotte and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. I take this opportunity to express my deepest, heartfelt gratitude to those – both living and deceased – who made such generous and competent contributions to the activities of the Synod of Bishops.

    From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I intended to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. The same Pontiff desired that the synodal organism "over time would be greatly improved." Twenty years later, St. John Paul II would echo those sentiments when he stated that "perhaps this tool can be further improved. Perhaps the collegial pastoral responsibility can find even find a fuller expression in the Synod.” Finally, in 2006, Benedict XVI approved some changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated in meantime.

    We must continue on this path. The world in which we live and that we are called to love and serve even with its contradictions, demands from the Church the strengthening of synergies in all areas of her mission. And it is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.

    In a certain sense, what the Lord asks of us is already contained in the word "synod." Walking together – Laity, Pastors, the Bishop of Rome – is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice. After reiterating that People of God is comprised of all the baptized who are called to "be a spiritual edifice and a holy priesthood," the Second Vatican Council proclaims that "the whole body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief and manifests this reality in the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people, when 'from the bishops to the last of the lay faithful' show thier total agreement in matters of faith and morals."

    In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I stressed that "the people of God is holy because this anointing makes [the people] infallible "in matters of belief”, adding that "each baptized person, no matter what their function is in the Church and whatever educational level of faith, is an active subject of evangelization and it would be inappropriate to think of a framework of evangelization carried out by qualified actors in which the rest of the faithful People were only recepients of their actions. The sensus fidei prevents rigid separation between “Ecclesia” (Church) and the Church teaching, and learning (Ecclesia docens discens), since even the Flock has an "instinct" to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.

    It was this conviction that guided me when I desired that God's people would be consulted in the preparation of the two-phased synod on the family. Certainly, a consultation like this would never be able to hear the entire sensus fidei (sense of the faith). But how would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to at least hear some of the people on those issues that closely affect them and about which they have much to say.

    A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening "is more than feeling.” It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of truth" (Jn 14:17), to know what the Spirit "is saying to the Churches" (Rev 2:7).

    The Synod of Bishops is the convergence point of this dynamic of listening conducted at all levels of church life. The synodal process starts by listening to the people, who “even participate in the prophetic office of Christ", according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: "Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet" [what concerns all needs to be debated by all]. The path of the Synod continues by listening to the pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, who must be able to carefully distinguish from that which flows from frequently changing public opinion.

    On the eve of the Synod of last year I stated: "First of all, let us ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of listeining for the Synod Fathers, so that with the Spirit, we might be able to hear the cry of the people and listen to the people until we breathe the will to which God calls us.”

    Finally, the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as "pastor and teacher of all Christians," not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of “totius fides Ecclesiae” (the whole faith of the Church), of the guarantor of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church.

    The fact that the Synod always act, cum Petro et sub Petro - therefore not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro – this is not a restriction of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, is "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops as much as of the multitude of the faithful." To this is connected the concept of “ierarchica communio” (hierarchical communio) used by Vatican II: the Bishops being united with the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) and at the same time hierarchically subjected to him as head of the college (sub Petro).

    As a constitutive dimension of the Church, synodality gives us the more appropriate interpretive framework to understand the hierarchical ministry. If we understand as St. John Chrysostom did, that “church and synod are synonymous,” since the Church means nothing other than the common journey of the Flock of God along the paths of history towards the encounter of Christ Lord, then we understand that within the Church, no one can be raised up higher than the others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person be “lowered " in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way.

    Jesus founded the Church by placing at its head the Apostolic College, in which the apostle Peter is the "rock" (cfr. Mt 16:18), the one who will confirm his brothers in the faith (cfr. Lk 22: 32). But in this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called "ministers" because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles (cfr. Jn 13: 1-15 ). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God).

    Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of the service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their leaders oppress them. It shall not be so among you: but whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave" (Mt 20:25-27). “It shall not be so among you:” in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.

    In a Synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most obvious manifestation of a dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions. The first level of exercize of synodality is realized in the particolar (local) Churches. After having recalled the noble institution of the diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to collaborate with the Bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community, the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to those that are usually called “bodies of communion” in the local Church: the Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, the Chapter of Canons and the Pastoral Council. Only to the extent that these organizations are connected with those on the ground, and begin with the people and their everyday problems, can a Synodal Church begin to take shape: even when they may proceed with fatigue, they must be understood as occasions of listening and sharing.

    The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Regions, of Particular (local Councils) and in a special way, Episcopal Conferences. We must reflect on realizing even more through these bodies – the intermediary aspects of collegiality – perhaps perhaps by integrating and updating some aspects of early church order. The hope of the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. As I have said, “In a Church Synod it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local Episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy "decentralization."

    The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality inside a church that is synodal. It manifests the affective collegiality, which may well become in some circumstances "effective," joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in the solicitude for the People God.

    The commitment to build a Synodal Church to which all are called – each with his or her role entrusted to them by the Lord is loaded with ecumenical implications. For this reason, talking recently to a delegation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reiterated the conviction that "careful consideration of how to articulate in the Church's life the principle of collegiality and the service of the one who presides offers a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches."

    I am convinced that in a synodal Church, the exercise of the Petrine primacy will receive greater light. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but inside it as one baptized among the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as Bishop among Bishops; as one called at the same time as Successor of Peter – to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.

    While I reiterate the need and urgency to think of " a conversion of the papacy,” I gladly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: "As Bishop of Rome I know well [...] that the full and visible communion of all the communities in which, by virtue of God's faithfulness, his Spirit dwells, is the ardent desire of Christ. I am convinced that you have in this regard a special responsibility, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made ​​of me to find a form of exercise of the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

    Our gaze extends also to humanity. A synodal church is like a banner lifted up among the nations (cfr. Is 11:12) in a world that even though invites participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration – often hands over the destiny of entire populations into the greedy hands of restricted groups of the powerful. As a Church that “walks together" with men and women, sharing the hardships of history, let us cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and the exercize of authority, even now will be able to help civil society to be founded on justice and fraternity, generating a more beautiful and worthy world for mankind and for the generations that will come after us.


  • Communion for divorced Catholics returns as emblematic synod issue

    Bishops attending the Synod of Bishops on the Family are returning to the issue that has always been the lightning rod of this and last year’s assemblies: whether a new path can be found to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

    We’ve heard cautions (from bishops and Pope Francis) about over-focusing on this question, as if there aren't a hundred other important matters affecting modern families. Yet in many ways it encapsulates a key theme of this synod and the pontificate of Francis: reaching out in a spirit of mercy to those who are suffering, who have fallen or who feel alienated from the church’s doctrinal rules, and recognizing that the Eucharist is a healing sacrament and not a reward for the perfect.

    The essential problem, it should be noted, is that Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment of their first marriage are required by the church to live “as brother and sister” (no sexual relations) in their second marriage in order to receive absolution in Confession and Holy Communion. Many see that as an unrealistic requirement and an undue burden on a marriage.

    At today’s briefing, reporters were told that many of the short speeches over the last day or two have explored this issue from a variety of directions. Some have returned to Cardinal Walter Kasper’s suggestion last year of a “penitential path” for divorced Catholics, which would allow local pastors to guide a person or a couple through a process of reflection and examination of conscience, culminating in absolution for sins and reception of Communion.

    Some bishops have emphasized that such an approach should be personalized, and should not simply be made available on a general basis. Some believe any change in policy would cause confusion about the church’s teachings on marriage, while others said that if the church truly follows the teaching of Jesus it cannot permanently exclude a set of people from the sacraments.

    Clearly, many synod participants are still not on board with the entire idea of creating a new path to Communion. At today’s briefing, for example, Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, said the bishops of Poland have excluded the idea of Communion for divorced Catholics. He said there were many other ways in which such Catholics can participate in the life of the church. That has been a common refrain in other synod speeches.

    On the other hand, Mexican Archbishop Carlos Aguilar Retes, who also spoke to journalists, seemed more open to the penitential proposal, saying it would lead those Catholics to recognize their past mistakes and “begin a new path.”

    Those in favor of the proposal often cite the painful spiritual side of the church’s current policy. One bishop took the floor and, in what was described as an emotionally charged moment, told how a child making his first Communion took the host and broke off a piece to give to his father who, because he was divorced, could not receive it directly.

    Archbishop Retes also made an important point when he said it was not up to the synod to make any decisions regarding divorced Catholics – that will be up to the pope.

    In fact, as this synodal assembly begins to wind down, one has the impression that it will be left to Pope Francis to provide closure on the important and most controversial questions. My impression is that this session may be advancing the discussion somewhat, but in large part it seems a replay of the different views on doctrine and pastoral mercy that were so evident at last year’s session.

  • Pope denounces scandals … but which ones?

    Pope Francis today made a brief, impromptu request for people to forgive the “recent scandals both in Rome and in the Vatican.” The problem in interpreting his remarks was that there are several scandals to choose from.

    The gay official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation who recently came out with his partner, saying the climate at his workplace was homophobic? Accusations of sexual impropriety made by a group of Catholics against priests and an official of the Carmelite religious order in Rome? The resignation of Rome’s leftist mayor, Ignazio Marino, following press reports that the pope was unhappy with the mayor’s action on a number of issues?

    The accusations of sexual abuse against a Vatican diplomat, who was found dead in his Vatican residence in late August before he could stand trial? Or this week’s leak of a “Letter of 13” cardinals to the pope, contesting the direction and methods of the current Synod of Bishops on the Family, which was followed by a series of confusing denials and clarifications?

    “Jesus is realistic and it is inevitable that scandals occur,” the pope said at the start of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. “But woe to the person who causes scandal. Before I start this catechesis, I'd like to ask you for forgiveness, in the name of the church, for the scandals that have occurred both in Rome and in the Vatican in recent times.”

    Perhaps it’s likely that the pope had sexual abuse in mind. After his off-the-cuff remarks, he spoke in his regular audience talk about the place of children in the family. Every child trusts that he or she will be loved, the pope said, and “when that promise is broken, the result is a ‘scandal’ which Jesus condemns.”

    But beyond sexual abuse, there is growing concern at the Vatican over the multiplication of scandals and a return of the “Vatileaks” syndrome – a climate of revelations, suspicion and rumors of a “gay lobby” that helped convince Pope Benedict XVI to resign in 2013. The most notorious chapter, played out in 2012, was the systematic leaking of papal documents to an Italian journalist by Benedict’s butler.

    I wrote yesterday that the developments at the synod, in particular, were reminiscent of the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Today, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, veteran Vatican analyst Massimo Franco suggested that the recent scandals were part of an attempt by opponents of Pope Francis to “recreate the climate of Vatileaks.”

    “It makes one think of an operation that’s been planned for some time, and which aims at delegitimizing not the synod but the two years of the Argentine pope,” Franco wrote. “It describes an episcopate in the grip of chaos and fratricidal conflicts, as if it were the Curial version of the Italian Parliament. It pushes everything back to the time of thirty months ago, as if during this time nothing or little had changed.”

    It was Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who first evoked the “Vatileaks” scandal. Mueller refused to confirm reports that he was one of the signatories of the letter critiquing some aspects of the synod, but he condemned the publication of a version of the text, saying: “The scandal is that a private letter to the pope has been published. It is a new Vatileaks.”


  • A ploy that will boomerang

    As the smoke clears, somewhat, over the “Letter of the 13” cardinals to Pope Francis regarding the Synod of Bishops, a couple of things stand out.

    First is that some synod participants – a small minority, it appears – don’t trust the synod's process as modified by Pope Francis to be fair or collegial. They chose to raise the issue in a private letter rather than on the floor of the synod; that set a political dynamic in motion, one that was easily exploited.

    Second, despite Pope Francis’ reform efforts at the Vatican, the culture of leaks, manipulation and power struggles is still very much alive in Rome. Indeed, at times this week the clock seemed to have turned back to the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, when petty scandals and internal conflicts became such an embarrassment to the church.

    We still don’t know exactly what the letter said, but by most accounts it included objections to the process by which the synod’s conclusions will be expressed, specifically the role of a 10-member writing commission appointed by the pope. The suggestion that Francis cannot be trusted to select an unbiased editorial group and to guide the synod to an honest conclusion is rather astonishing.

    The letter also warned that a synod that was intended to reinforce the church’s teachings on the dignity of marriage and family could end up being dominated by the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

    Maybe Pope Francis does not believe that raising these issues is out of line. After all, he has said repeatedly that he wants to hear directly from those who disagree with him. And the pope, in fact, appeared to respond to the letter-writers in two ways: by having the synod’s secretary-general explain the procedural details more fully, and by saying himself that the synod would not change church doctrine on marriage, and was far from a single-issue discussion on divorced Catholics.

    The pope also pointedly cautioned against what he called a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” by which I can only suppose he meant the eagerness to embrace the rumors that this synod has been “rigged” from the start.

    In effect, I think the pope neutralized these objections with his unexpected words to the synod, which came a day after the “Letter of the 13” was hand-delivered to him.

    And that’s precisely when the move to “leak” the letter – or a version of it – was made, clearly an attempt to make it look like the pope was facing an internal revolt. The wheels began falling off this maneuver almost immediately, when several cardinals denied having signed the letter and others said the content was mistakenly reported.

    Today, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the leak was a “disruption” to the synod that was not intended by the signatories, and that a very positive atmosphere reigns at the synod.

    My reading of all this is that the ploy has backfired. I suspect most synod participants are not amused at this rather obvious attempt to pre-emptively discredit the synod’s outcome.

  • Yes, the church will survive an open discussion about the family

    There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on about the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is only a few days into its second and final session.

    We’ve heard warnings that Pope Francis and his “mercy” agenda may be leading the church down the road to schism (over the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics), or confusion (over more welcoming language regarding gay people, cohabitating couples and others), or a “first-world vs. third-world” split, or some type of dangerous pastoral shift that was worked out before the bishops even arrived in Rome and which non-Italian speakers might not even understand when it comes time to approve or disapprove.

    We heard these concerns during last year’s synod session, too, and they have evidently persisted. I think that’s why Pope Francis has taken the floor and tried to reduce some of the hyperventilating that’s going on inside and outside the synod hall.

    He began by encouraging bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit, and not to view their meeting as some kind of Parliament. That the pope felt he had to say this speaks volumes about the kind of political posturing that’s been going on in recent months. One participant said the pope also asked the bishops not to give in to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” apparently responding to the murmured fears about this synod’s new methodology.

    The pope emphasized that the “deposit of faith” is not a “museum” but a living fountain that must have a connection to people’s lives. He said apostolic courage includes the courage to look critically at the “hardening of hearts” in the church that simply sends people further away from God.

    While insisting that the synod had never contemplated changing basic doctrine about the permanence of marriage, the pope said bishops need to show “evangelical humility.” That means “not pointing fingers at others in order to judge them, but extending them a hand in order to help them up, without ever feeling superior to them.” I think this plays into the pope’s exploration of how the church can restore full sacramental participation for divorced Catholics, among other things.

    Meanwhile, predictions that the synod would be muzzled (allegedly part of the “conspiracy” to shove through a prefabricated outcome) are proving untrue. Bishops are free to talk to reporters, and the Vatican is providing a daily “meet the press” with several bishops each day.

    The fact that these bishops sometimes disagree about important issues has already emerged in the press hall. That has prompted an “oh my God” reaction among some reporters, who apparently believe the church cannot survive an open discussion on these questions.

    I think that’s the kind of melodrama that Pope Francis is trying to move beyond. The tension between mercy and truth is not something this pope created, as readers of the Gospel will recognize.

    Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. He knows this involves a difficult debate, among a hierarchy that was largely put in place by two popes who emphasized doctrinal identity.

    It’s far too early for predictions, but I’ll make some anyway: The synod will not derail, bishops will not pick up their briefcases and march out of the hall, the faithful will not be stunned and disoriented by the outcome. At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with “untraditional” families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.

    The pope has wisely structured this synod in a way that avoids up-and-down votes on specific final proposals. I think he probably realizes that reaching a consensus on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, or replacing the “living in sin” language the church has used to define some relationships, will take more time. I expect some of these questions will be handed to commissions for quiet advancement in the months to come.


  • Opening synod, Pope Francis aims for balancing point

    Pope Francis tried to set the tone of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in his opening Mass today. It was a tone of balance between preaching truth and practicing mercy.

    The pope’s point was that the church can and must do both, that there is no contradiction between the church as a doctrinal teacher and the church as a pastoral “field hospital.”

    In one of his homily’s key passages, he first quoted Pope Benedict XVI in saying, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” Then, explaining why the church must be a bridge and not a roadblock to people who fall, he quoted Pope John Paul II, who said that those who err must be “understood and loved.”

    By drawing on both his predecessors, I think Pope Francis was doing a little bridge-building himself, between the liberal and rigorist wings of the more than 270 bishops who will participate in the three-week long synod.

    Here is how the pope described the church’s mission in today’s world. On the one hand, truth:

    To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.

    And mercy:

    To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

    Not surprisingly, the pope did not focus on hot-button issues like divorce, gay marriage and cohabitation, topics that became lightning rods in last year’s synod debate. Instead, he emphasized the spiritual and material afflictions – including loneliness and selfishness – that are harming family life around the globe.

    Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom.

    I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.

    In describing the contemporary culture, the pope seemed to strike some notes of criticism that sounded familiar to those (like me) who heard many such homilies from John Paul II and Benedict. Lasting and fruitful love, Pope Francis said, is “increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past.”

    “It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”

    I expect this is the kind of message we’ll hear from the synod, too. The more unsettled part of the debate, however, is pastoral language and practice regarding those who don’t align perfectly with church teaching, including Catholics who practice birth control, couples who live together outside of marriage, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay couples.

  • Pope Francis and Kim Davis

    For those asking what I think about the pope's meeting with Kim Davis last week, I point them to this Tweet yesterday from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope's closest advisors in Rome:


    If a top papal advisor is saying Pope Francis was "exploited," that raises questions about the entire episode.

    Some may remember that Rebecca Kadaga was the Ugandan parliamentarian who pushed for that country's controversial anti-homosexuality bill. While in Rome in 2012, she was in a group that met with the pope -- an encounter that was billed by her supporters as a papal blessing for her cause. The Vatican later put out a statement saying that was not the case, that there was no implied papal approval of her actions or proposals.  Read More...

  • At final U.S. Mass, pope preaches openness and tender mercies

    Pope Francis wound up his U.S. visit with a defense of the family as a place of “little miracles,” where gestures of compassion and tenderness often reflect true holiness.

    The pope also said the church needs to recognize that the Holy Spirit works in many settings and among many people, sometimes bypassing “officialdom and inner circles.”

    “To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group’, who are not ‘like us’, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!” the pope said.

    The pope spoke at a Mass celebrated on a Philadelphia parkway before several hundred thousand people, the culmination of a church-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

    His homily made the point that family life is made up largely of small, tender gestures that are crucial in a world full of “new divisions, new forms of brokenness.”

    The pope recalled the words of Jesus, “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded.”

    The pope added: “These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children.

    They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work.”

    The pope said people should ask themselves: “In my own home, do we shout or do we speak to each other in love and tenderness?”

    “That’s a good way of measuring our love,” he said.


  • Pope meets with abuse victims, promises accountability for those who failed to protect minors

    After meeting with five sex abuse victims in Philadelphia, Pope Francis told international bishops that the church owes them a debt of gratitude for bringing to light shameful crimes.

    "I am profoundly sorry. God weeps," the pope said of sexual abuse. He called abuse victims "true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy."

    The five were not all Catholic, and not all of them were victims of sexual abuse by priests. Some had been abused by a teacher or family member, the Vatican said. A spokesman later said that while previous such encounters had been with victims of abuse by clerics or other church personnel, this meeting had a "larger perspective."

    UPDATE: Here is the text of the pope's remarks as released by U.S. bishops:

    “I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart. I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm.

    I am profoundly sorry. God weeps. The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.

    You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”

    Earlier this year, Pope Francis approved a system of reporting and judging bishops who fail to protect minors, including a Vatican tribunal to determine whether a bishop is guilty of “abuse of office.”

    The Vatican said the pope met with three women and two men who had been abused as minors. The pope met with each, expressing his own "pain and shame" at their suffering.

    Here is the Vatican statement on the encounter:

    This morning between 8:00 and 9:00 am, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Holy Father received some victims of sexual abuse by the clergy or by members of their families or their teachers. The group consisted of five adults - three women, two men - who have suffered abuse when they were minors. Each person was accompanied by a family member or support person.

    The group was accompanied by Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and Chair of the commission set up by the Pope for the protection of minors; by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Charles Chaput and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia Office for the protection of minors.

    The Pope spoke with visitors, listening to their stories and offering them a few words together as a group and later listening to each one individually. He then prayed with them and expressed his solidarity in sharing their suffering, as well as his own pain and shame in especially in the case of injury caused them by clergy or church workers.

    Pope Francis reiterated the commitment of the Church so that all victims be heard and treated with justice; the guilty be punished and crimes of abuse be combated with an effective prevention program in the Church and in society. The Pope thanked the victims for their essential contribution to restore the truth and begin the journey of healing. The meeting lasted about half an hour and ended with the blessing of the Holy Father.


  • Pope to bishops: Families need our support, not complaints and criticism

    It’s become increasingly clear during his U.S. trip that Pope Francis is trying to get bishops on board in his quest for a church that is more merciful, less judgmental and closer to its people.

    That was the sub-theme at this morning’s encounter with international bishops attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

    The topic was the modern family, which usually prompts a litany of problems from church leaders. Pope Francis began his talk by stating that the “foremost pastoral challenge” facing the bishops is to recognize the family as a gift.

    “For all the obstacles we see before us, gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints,” he said.

    The pope did address the challenges facing families, in particular a “consumerism” mentality that has invaded even personal relationships – accumulating friends on social networks, for example. He also appeared to reference gay marriage when he noted “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds.”

    But as pastors, he said, the response is not to condemn or exclude:

    Should we blame our young people for having grown up in this kind of society? Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?”

    No, I do not think that this is the way. As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this conversion on our part.

    That “conversion on our part” was a pretty remarkable comment. He went on to explain that it’s a mistake for the church to interpret contemporary culture as merely indifferent to marriage, or engaged in selfishness. And it’s wrong to assume young people are “hopelessly timid, weak or inconsistent.”

    “We must not fall into this trap,” he told the bishops.

    The pope then turned the argument around, saying it’s the church’s responsibility to “rebuild enthusiasm for marriage.”

    “We need to invest our energies not so much in explaining over and over the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family,” he said.

    And in a line that reflected the “actions vs. words” theme of his pontificate, he added: “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”

    Shepherding, not talking, is what is required of bishops today, and they may need “infinite patience” in that process, he said.

    He closed his speech with a rather amazing request that bishops “become more and more like fathers and mothers, and less like people who have simply learned to live without a family.”


  • Pope Francis' somewhat different take on religious liberty

    Well, that was interesting.

    At the official “religious freedom” event during his U.S. visit, Pope Francis never mentioned the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaigns, nor their battles over alleged religious discrimination on Obamacare provisions and conscience protection issues.

    The bishops have certainly made this a priority. Here was Archbishop William E. Lori last June asking the faithful to support their efforts:

    “Religious institutions in the United States are in danger of losing their freedom to hire for mission and their freedom to defend the family…. Endangered is the freedom of church ministries to provide employee benefits and to provide adoptions and refugee services in accord with the church’s teaching on faith and morals. It is one thing for others to disagree with the church’s teaching but quite another to discriminate against the rights of believers to practice our faith, not just in word but in the way we conduct our daily life, ministry and business.”

    Perhaps a detailed analysis of these matters was never in the cards for Pope Francis. At the White House the other day, he did offer generic backing for the bishops, encouraging the defense of religious freedom from “everything that would threaten or compromise it.” And he made a brief, symbolic stop at the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order that is suing over the Obamacare provisions on contraception coverage.

    If the bishops were looking for something more explicit in Philadelphia, the pope went in a different and more philosophical direction: “Uniformity.”

    It’s a word that’s popped up more than once during the pope’s U.S. visit. Clearly, the pope doesn't like it. As he said at the 9/11 Memorial Friday, religious leaders should be “opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity.”

    But what exactly is he talking about?

    Today in Philadelphia we got some explanation. Citing the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, the pope said the big threat to religious liberty today comes from “a uniformity that the egotism of the powerful, the conformism of the weak, or the ideology of the utopian would seek to impose on us.”

    The pope then explained how this uniformity emerges in the modern age, going back to a concept he expressed in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì.

    “We live in a world subject to the ‘globalization of the technocratic paradigm,’ which consciously aims at a one-dimensional uniformity and seeks to eliminate all differences and traditions in a superficial quest for unity,” he said.

    To resist that movement, he said, religions have a duty to promote a healthy pluralism in which differences are respected and valued. The pope evidently sees such pluralism as the antidote to the push for uniformity.

    “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others,” he said.

    He noted that the Quakers who founded Philadelphia aimed to establish a colony that would be a “haven of religious freedom and tolerance.”

    I doubt if all the pope’s deep-thinking points were picked up by the massive crowd that filled Independence Mall, a three-block area that is considered the cradle of American democracy.

    They applauded when he spoke about the Declaration of Independence and its affirmation that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect those rights. He spoke at a lecturn used by Abraham Lincoln when he gave the Gettysburg Address.

    “Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity,” the pope said.

    But he added that U.S. history also shows that these principles must constantly be re-affirmed and defended. As examples, he cited the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and “the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice directed at successive waves of new Americans.”

    The event was billed as a “meeting for religious freedom with the Hispanic community and other immigrants,” and the Latin American pope returned to the theme of immigration at the end of his talk, delighting his audience when he told them: “Never be ashamed of your traditions.”

    “Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation,” he said.


  • At the United Nations, the pope 'makes it personal' on war, economics and the environment

    In the middle of his address to the United Nations today, Pope Francis called international leaders to an “examination of conscience.” In every situation of conflict, he said, “real human beings take precedence over partisan interests, however legitimate the latter may be.”

    “In wars and conflicts there are individual persons, our brothers and sisters, men and women, young and old, boys and girls who weep, suffer and die. Human beings who are easily discarded when our only response is to draw up lists of problems, strategies and disagreements,” he said.

    These few lines encapsulate the pope’s entire outlook, whether in international affairs or in the way the church conducts its mission. It is a “make it personal” approach, and it is key to understanding this man and his papacy.

    The speech was, as expected, largely an explanation of the church’s take on global problems including war, economics, ecology and the drug trade.

    In a clear reference to violence by ISIS, the pope made a particular plea on behalf of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, who he said have been “forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.”

    Perhaps with the situation in the Middle East in mind, the pope gave the United Nations a mixed review on war and peace issues. In the course of its 70-year history, he said, the United Nations has proven capable of heading off conflicts through dialogue and negotiation.

    But on some occasions, he added, the U.N. charter has been used as a pretext, releasing “uncontrollable forces which gravely harm defenseless populations, the cultural milieu and even the biological environment.”

    He called for urgent efforts to work for a “complete prohibition” on nuclear weapons, drawing applause from the U.N. assembly. He offered strong support for the recent nuclear deal with Iran, saying the agreement was proof that political good will and patience can yield results.

    One of the most powerful moments came when the pope spoke of environmental damage, citing his own “grave responsibility” to speak out about an issue that is crucial for humanity’s future.

    The ecological crisis and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, he said, are the result of “irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy,” and can threaten the very existence of the human species.

    He tied environmental devastation to a “relentless process of exclusion” that has its greatest impact on the poor:

    In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment. The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing “culture of waste.”

    Throughout the speech, the Latin American pope was a voice for the poor, especially when talking about economics. While praising the United Nations’ efforts in general, he was critical of the organization’s agencies and mechanisms that deal with economic crises.

    He called for measures to make sure that developing countries are not subject to “oppressive lending systems which, far from promoting progress, subject people to mechanisms which generate greater poverty, exclusion and dependence.” Here, the pope appeared to be speaking from his own experience in Argentina, where economic collapse more than 15 years ago was followed by austerity measures demanded by international lenders.

    Restoring hope for the world’s marginalized cannot be a matter of solutions dictated by the powerful, the pope said. “To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny.”

    At the same time, he said, government leaders have a responsibility to protect basic rights needed for human development. The absolute minimum is lodging, labor and land, as well as spiritual freedom, which includes the right to education – including education for girls, which is denied in some places, he said.

    Citing his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, and his own recent encyclical on ecology, the pope said that defense of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize “a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman, and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.  Read More...

  • In Congress, papal challenges on weapons, immigration, death penalty and the role of politics

    There were plenty of specific challenges in Pope Francis’ speech to Congress today: denunciation of the weapons industry and its profits that are “drenched in blood,” an appeal to abolish the death penalty, condemnation of fundamentalist violence, a call to redirect economic wealth toward those trapped in poverty, encouragement to welcome immigrants and a call to conscience on environmental protection.

    But above all, the pope expressed a vision of politics that goes beyond the partisan yelling we’ve been treated to in recent months. As he put it, political life is essentially about “the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good” that seeks, in particular, to help the most vulnerable in society.

    And the pope extended this vision to the place of the United States in the world, in particular on the issue of violence caused by ideological or religious extremism. It is not enough to approach this problem with a sense of righteousness, or an effort to divide the world into camps of “good or evil,” he said. Any real solution, he said, will require resolving the world's injustices and “open wounds” in a way that restores hope and healing.

    Here is the relevant passage, well worth reading:

    A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.

    As popes tend to do, Francis framed his message by citing the lives and words of Americans: in this case, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He astutely leaned on them to make his points about liberty, racial equality, social justice and dialogue.

    Highlights of the speech were many:

    -- On the weapons trade, the pope was characteristically blunt in a country that is the world’s biggest manufacturer and exporter of weapons.

    “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”

    -- On immigration and the global refugee crisis, the pope reminded his listeners that the United States is a nation largely of immigrants, where the rights of indigenous peoples were “tragically” violated. As Americans deal with new arrivals today, he said, they should reject a “mindset of hostility.”

    “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.” It was a line that drew heavy applause in the hall.

    “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation,” the pope said. He encouraged the country to practice the Golden Rule with immigrants and refugees: “If we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.” One of many standing ovations followed these words.

    -- On the economy, the pope sought to quiet critics of his recent denunciations of the excesses of global capitalism, saying: “How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty!” He then went on to affirm that much more needs to be done, and that the fight against poverty and hunger must continue on many fronts. The creation and distribution of wealth, he added, must always serve the common good and protect the environment, and today requires “courageous actions and strategies.”

    -- On the death penalty, the pope was categorical: he called for a global abolition, saying that “a just an necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

    The pope’s speech included brief allusions to abortion and gay marriage. He said the Golden Rule that should govern politics extends to protecting human life “at every stage of its development.” And he said he was concerned about the modern family because “fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.”

    One of the most interesting moments of the papal address, delivered entirely in English, came when the pontiff was discussing the need to challenge one’s own shortcomings in order to make courageous decisions. He quoted the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, who wrote in his autobiography:

    Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers.

    The pope said that like Merton, who challenged the certitudes of his time, politicians today are called to show “courage and daring” in a spirit of openness and dialogue. He added that, as pope, he shares in that effort: “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.”

    The pope paid tribute to hard-working Americans who are trying to build a better life for their families, and at the same time support organizations that give a helping hand to people in need. “These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society,” he said. In particular, he cited volunteer work performed by the elderly who have retired from active employment.


  • Climate change, call for pastoral dialogue are pope's focus in DC

    The takeaway from Pope Francis’ meeting with President Obama at the White House this morning:

    -- The pope offered a generic endorsement of the U.S. bishops’ campaign for “religious liberty.” Without getting into specifics, the pope seemed to indicate that he had the bishops’ backs on issues of disagreement with the Obama administration, including alleged discrimination over some health care provisions and gender policies.

    -- The pope weighed in on the challenge of climate change, and in the process endorsed Obama’s recently proposed “Clean Power Plan,” which has drawn criticism from political opponents.

    --The pope applauded, indirectly, the recent U.S.-Cuban diplomatic agreement, saying we need more international efforts to mend “broken relationships.”

    The pope introduced himself as a “son of an immigrant family,” and in general lauded the founding principles of the United States and gently challenged Americans to live up to them.

    Next stop was with U.S. bishops at the Washington cathedral, and here the pope had much more to say, and with a certain eloquence. Again, he framed his remarks with a long list of positives, including the “remarkable growth” of the church in the United States, the commitment to pro-life causes (he specifically mentioned victims of abortion), the church-run school system and its outreach to immigrants.

    His words on sexual abuse by clerics – he avoided the term “sexual abuse,” referring instead to “dark moments in recent history” – praised the bishops, saying they had shown courage and made sacrifices in attempting to regain authority and trust, bring healing to the victims and make sure “such crimes will never be repeated.” His words were met with applause; there was not a hint of papal criticism on this score.

    When it came to the bishops’ overall mission, Pope Francis made several important points:

    -- First, he said he was speaking not “with my voice alone, but in continuity with the words of my predecessors.” It might seem unnecessary to say, but evidently the pope wanted to make it explicit.

    -- While stating he did not come to “lecture” or judge the bishops, the pope outlined key principles that he considered “helpful for our mission.” The first was that bishops are above all shepherds, and their main task is to reach out to people.

    “It is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ who died and rose for our sake. The ‘style’ of our mission should make our hearers feel that the message we preach is meant ‘for us,’” he said.

    He said bishops also need to “flee the temptation of narcissism, which blinds the eyes of the shepherd, makes his voice unrecognizable and his actions fruitless.”

    -- It helps if bishops are farsighted and shrewd, the pope said. But they also must not invest too heavily in worldly battles, he added.

    “Woe to us, however, if we make of the cross a banner of worldly struggles and fail to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be wounded and consumed,” he said.

    The bishops should avoid the temptations of licking one’s wounds, thinking back on bygone times and devising “harsh responses to fierce opposition,” he said.

    -- The church’s mission, he said, is to promote a culture of encounter. Its method is dialogue, and authentic dialogue reaches out beyond the church’s boundaries, toward those who disagree with the church on some issues.

    The bishops should recognize that the power of love “counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain.”

    “Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”

    -- The bishops’ service to unity is also essential, especially in a world broken by divisions, the pope said. He said the United States' vast material, spiritual, cultural and technological resources "impose specific moral responsibilities" in today's world.

    “The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.”

    The pope closed by asking bishops to be pastors who are close to their people, and to train their priests to do the same. He also encouraged them to continue their ministry to immigrants, especially during an influx of Latin Americans, saying that “no American institution does more for immigrants than your Christian communities.”


  • At final Mass in Cuba, pope calls for ‘revolution of tenderness’

    On the final day of his visit to Cuba, Pope Francis continued to promote his vision of a church that gets out of the sacristy and into people’s lives.

    Celebrating Mass today at Cuba’s popular Shrine of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre in Santiago, the pope said Mary offered a perfect example of faith in action, a response to God’s call to move out of one’s comfort zone.

    “God’s presence in our lives never leaves us tranquil: it always pushes to do something. When God comes, he always calls us out of our house,” the pope said.

    “We are asked to live the revolution of tenderness as Mary, our Mother of Charity, did. We are invited to ‘leave home’ and to open our eyes and hearts to others,” he said. “Our revolution comes about through tenderness, through the joy which always becomes closeness and compassion, and leads us to get involved in, and to serve, the life of others.”

    Faith calls Christians to visit the sick, the imprisoned and the suffering, as well as to “laugh with those who laugh, and rejoice with our neighbors who rejoice,” the pope said. The church needs to go forth from its chapels and sacristies “to build bridges, to break down walls, to sow seeds of reconciliation.”

    This, of course, has been a strong theme of Francis’ pontificate from Day 1.

    In Cuba, the pope seemed much more intent on rallying Christians to live their faith fully than critiquing the government on religious freedom issues. We’ll see if that changes in his final encounter before boarding a plane for Washington this afternoon.

    UPDATE: Weakening of family ties leads to broken societies, pope tells Cubans

    Pope Francis ended his trip to Cuba with a reflection on the state of the family, warning that the weakening of traditional family bonds leads to societies that are divided, broken or “rigidly uniform.”

    The pope spoke at an encounter in Santiago with thousands of Cuban families, who packed the city’s cathedral. He moved slowly but smiled as he greeted the crowd on the fourth day of a 10-day trip that would take him to the United States later in the day.

    The pope, who will preside over a World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and a second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family in October, said it is in the home where people learn to get along, to help each other and to forgive. The shared experiences and spaces of family life are essential for healthy societies, he said.

    “In many cultures today, these spaces are shrinking, these experiences of family are disappearing, and everything is slowly breaking up, growing apart. We have fewer moments in common, to stay together, to stay at home as a family,” he said.

    “As a result, we don’t know how to be patient, we don’t know how to ask permission or forgiveness, or even to say ‘thank you,’ because our homes are growing empty. Empty of relationships, empty of contacts, empty of encounters.”

    The pope said this leads to a weakening of the networks that sustain society.

    “The family saves us from two present-day phenomena: fragmentation (division) and uniformity. In both cases, people turn into isolated individuals, easy to manipulate and to rule. Societies which are divided, broken, separated or rigidly uniform are a result of the breakup of family bonds,” he said.

    After the meeting, the pope gave an impromptu blessing to a cheering crowd gathered outside the cathedral, telling them: “Thank you. You make me feel like I’m at home.”


  • Poverty and mercy: key themes in Cuba

    In Cuba, Pope Francis has not said much about church-state political questions. Instead he is diving deeply into his call for a church that is poor, merciful and forgiving.

    His talks Sunday and Monday have been fascinating, and at times pure Francis – his off-the-cuff riff on “poverty” in an encounter with church ministry personnel was classic.

    But if the pope uses the same language when he comes to the United States, he’s likely to need an official explainer. I’m not sure most people will understand what he means by evangelical poverty and the idea that “wealth makes people poor.”

    “How many souls have been destroyed! Generous souls … that began well and then became attached to that rich worldliness, and ended up badly. In other words, mediocre. They ended up without love,” he told priests, nuns and seminarians Sunday evening.

    “The spirit of poverty, the spirit of detachment, the spirit of leaving everything to follow Jesus. This leaving everything is not something I made up. It’s found various times in the Gospel. In the call of the first ones, who left their boat, their nets and followed him. Those who left everything to follow Jesus,” he said.

    The church, too, has to resist the temptation to accumulate wealth. “Bad accountants are among the best blessings for the church, because they make it free, they make it poor,” he said.

    He echoed that message when talking a little later with young people, saying youths today are “part of the throwaway culture.”

    “All of us know that today, in this empire of the god money, things are thrown away and people are thrown away, children are thrown away, because they are unwanted, because they kill them before they are born, the elderly are thrown away — I’m speaking of the world in general — because they don’t produce anymore. In some countries, there is legal euthanasia, but in so many others there is a hidden, covered up euthanasia. Youth are thrown away because they are not given work.”

    When it comes to the role of the church, the pope emphasized closeness to the people, especially those who are suffering and who need forgiveness. Priests in particular, he said, need to seek out the hungry, the imprisoned and the sick, and make the confessional a place of mercy.

    When someone confesses their weaknesses, the pope told priests, “don’t yell at them, don’t punish them, don’t castigate them. If you have no sin, then you can throw the first stone.” He added: “Please, do not tire of forgiving. Be forgivers. Do not hide behind fear and rigidity.”

    At a Mass Monday in Holguin, Cuba’s third-largest city, Pope Francis returned to the theme of mercy and its capacity to change people. He said Christ’s calling of St. Matthew, a tax collector who became his disciple, showed this transformative power.

    “Matthew is no longer the same; he is changed inside,” he said. “He leaves behind his table, his money, his exclusion. Before, he had sat waiting to collect his taxes, to take from others; now, with Jesus he must get up and give, give himself to others.”

    The church’s attention should be directed especially toward those who feel excluded or abandoned, the pope said.

    “May we learn to see them as Jesus sees us. Let us share his tenderness and mercy with the sick, prisoners, the elderly and families in difficulty.”

    In Havana, the pope also had some interesting words on the concept of church unity. They were part of the text he set aside in his meeting with priests and nuns, but the Vatican published them on its web site.

    Unity is not uniformity, he said, and can never be imposed or forced by decree. On the contrary, it depends at times on open expression of disagreement.

    “Conflicts and disagreements in the church are to be expected and, I would even say, needed. They are a sign that the church is alive and that the Spirit is still acting, still enlivening her. Woe to those communities without a 'yes' and a 'no'! They are like married couples who no longer argue, because they have lost interest, they have lost their love."

  • "We do not serve ideas, we serve people."

    Celebrating his first Mass in Cuba, Pope Francis delivered an interesting homily today that highlighted a couple of key themes of his pontificate.

    He focused first on service to others as the fundamental expression of Christianity. This service is never about self-promotion and never merely about setting up programs, the pope said, but involves encountering real people in their suffering.

    “Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh,” he said. “Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” He was speaking about the Christian approach to life, and his words carried wider meaning in a country that recently began "restructuring" its socialist policies.

    The pope’s second point was the temptation to engage in “service that is self-serving,” or that helps only “our people.” This is a process of exclusion that’s often based on judging others before assisting them, he said.

    I think we’re going to hear a lot about exclusion during this trip, both in Cuba and in the United States. Most of the pope’s critique of the dominant global economic system, for example, is centered on the fact that it excludes so many people from opportunities reserved for the privileged.

    Pope Francis’ homily in Revolution Square was far less political than those delivered by his two predecessors. In 1998, Pope John Paul II bluntly appealed for “great change” in Cuba and urged greater respect for religious and other human rights. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued a similar call.

    Pope Francis stayed away from direct criticism of Cuba’s government and its continuing restrictions on church activities. Perhaps he is saving that for private talks with government leaders, or for other events.

    The pope seemed more intent on explaining how Christians express their faith as citizens, primarily by fighting for human dignity and helping those most in need: “That is why Christians are constantly called to set aside their own wishes and desires, their pursuit of power, and to look instead to those who are most vulnerable.”

    He was, of course, speaking mainly to a Catholic audience at the liturgy. But in attendance was Cuban President Raul Castro and other government officials, and the pope’s closing remarks, which praised and challenged Cuba’s people, seemed aimed at them as well.

    “It is a people that has its wounds, like every other people, yet knows how to stand up with open arms, to keep walking in hope, because it has a vocation of grandeur,” he said.

    He urged Cubans to continue to care for the weakest in society, adding: “Do not neglect them for plans which can be seductive, but are unconcerned about the face of the person beside you.”



  • In Bolivia, a papal speech designed to echo around the world

    Pope Francis delivered a speech Thursday that was not only intended to please his Bolivian audience but to shake the consciences of people around the world. It's worth reading in its entirety (an English translation, provided by Father Thomas Rosica, is below.)  The pope called unfettered capitalism the "dung of the devil" and told his listeners: "Our faith is revolutionary, because our faith challenges the tyranny of mammon." Labor, lodging and land, he said, are "sacred rights" that canno...  Read More...

  • On economic battleground, the pope finds 'radical' ally

    Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein will be a featured speaker at a Vatican conference this week to follow up on Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. In fact, Klein will join Cardinal Peter Turkson Wednesday at a press conference to launch the Vatican event.

    I had heard the news a couple days ago, but almost didn't believe it until I saw the notice posted on the Vatican press office bulletin board today.

    For those unfamiliar with Klein, she is one of the most influential critics of corporate capitalism, and has argued – as the pope did in his encyclical – that many of the root causes of climate change are economic.

    This is from the website of her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate:

    “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”

    The Vatican’s invitation to Klein confirms Pope Francis’ strategy of joining with secular allies on the issue of environmental protection. In April, the pope invited U.N. General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon and more than 100 political and scientific leaders to a similar Vatican summit.

    Klein has been a much more vocal critic of globalized capitalism, challenging, as she puts it, the "unquestioned ideology that sees privatization as always good." Her presence at the Vatican this week is bound to upset some conservative Catholics who are already alarmed about the economic direction of this pontificate.

    Klein sees the conference as a sign of follow-through from the Vatican after the papal encyclical. She told The Guardian: "The fact that they invited me indicates they’re not backing down from the fight. A lot of people have patted the pope on the head, but said he’s wrong on the economics. I think he’s right on the economics."



  • 'Laudato Sì' calls for radical new approach to ecology, global economics

    Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology delivers a strongly worded indictment of the global economic system’s “compulsive consumerism,” and warns that catastrophic consequences can only be avoided through “ecological conversion” at every level of social life.

    Throughout the text of Laudato  (Praise be to you), the pope emphasizes that a true understanding of Christian ethics – as developed from the Old Testament right on through the recent teachings of popes – demands a change from a modern lifestyle that, in many ways, has become unsustainable and unjust.

    The document lays down stark challenges to both policy-makers and individuals, and is particularly tough on the architects of global finance. It is the first encyclical solely authored by the Argentine pope, and the perspective of the global South comes through in every page of the 41,000-word text.

    What emerges in high relief is that the pope sees environmental degradation as a consequence of economic excess and exploitation, a result of profit-driven abuses that will not be resolved simply by free market forces or advances in technology.

    On the contrary, he argues, ecological remedies so far have been piecemeal and ineffective precisely because of this “dominant technocratic paradigm.”

    “We fail to see the deepest roots of our present failures, which have to do with the direction, goals, meaning and social implications of technological and economic growth,” he states. Effective responses must respond to “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

    The pope says moderating the production-consumption model and slowing the “constant flood of new products” is key to restoring ecological balance in the world. The prevailing economic system, he says, has led to destruction of rain forests, over-fishing of ocean waters, industrialized farming and loss of local biodiversity, and mining techniques that strip developing countries of resources and leave behind only problems and pollution.

    The pope blames wealthy countries for their disproportionate use of natural resources, and says that while the world’s poor are often mentioned in international discussions, their struggles seem to be an afterthought. “Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile,” he says.

    Radical economic change is needed to fix the situation, he says.

    “It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster. Put simply, it is a matter of redefining our notion of progress,” he states.

    The encyclical carefully builds on the words of his predecessors, but in its economic critique and its elaboration of an “ecological spirituality,” Pope Francis stakes out new ground. Along the way, he makes his points with characteristic bluntness (emphases are mine):

    -- “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

    -- “All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution…. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

    -- “It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”

    -- “We know how unsustainable is the behavior of those who constantly consume and destroy, while others are not yet able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity. That is why the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth.”

    On the issue of climate change, Pope Francis cites the “very solid scientific consensus” that global warming has been produced or aggravated by human causes. Technology that relies on fossil fuels, he says, needs to be replaced by sources of renewable energy “without delay.”

    He says the effects of climate change, including desertification, rising sea levels and destructive weather patterns, strike the world’s poorest populations most directly. And he warns that more dire consequences may lie ahead.

    “Our concern cannot be limited merely to the threat of extreme weather events, but must also extend to the catastrophic consequences of social unrest. Obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction,” he says.

    The pope dismisses the strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” as a way to reduce greenhouse gases, saying it can simply become a “ploy” that allows richer countries and sectors to maintain excessive consumption. Carbon trading is widely used in Europe and is supported by the International Monetary Fund.

    The pope devotes particular attention to shortage of safe drinking water in many parts of the world. He assails attempts by businesses to “privatize” access to safe drinking water, which should be a basic human right.

    On the much-debated topic of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, the pope says that while there is no conclusive proof that they pose a risk to humans, their safety should continue to be carefully studied. He cites one problem, however, saying widespread use of GM crops tends to diminish the diversity of production and concentrate agricultural land in the hands of a few owners.

    In one section of the encyclical, the pope examines the Christian tradition, which views human life as grounded in three fundamental relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. He says the biblical reference to man’s “dominion” over the earth has been misinterpreted by some to justify unbridled exploitation of resources. The biblical text is more correctly understood as a call to care, protect and preserve creation, he says.

    He emphasizes that safeguarding human life, including human embryos, should be a priority of any true ecological movement, and says concern for protection of nature is “incompatible with the justification of abortion.”

    The pope argues that the Christian spiritual tradition, in encouraging a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, is not really compatible with the modern “obsession with consumption.”

    “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more,’” he states.

    The title of the encyclical comes from the opening of a canticle of St. Francis of Assisi, which reminds people that the earth is like a sister and a mother. This spiritual approach to ecology cannot be written off as mere romanticism, because it affects choices that determine behavior, the pope says.

    In a closing chapter, the pope encourages individuals and communities to take steps immediately – even small, daily actions that have the ability to spread and do much good, such as modifying consumption, separating waste, taking public transportation and turning off lights.

    He also encourages political engagement, saying individual action alone cannot solve the problems of ecological damage. The Christian response, he affirms, must go deeper than the “false or superficial ecology” that believes these problems can be managed by merely tweaking the system.

    “Such evasiveness serves as a license to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen,” he says.

    The encyclical includes an interesting reflection on the Internet. Pope Francis appears to believe that online media have contributed to an overload of superficial information and “contrived emotion” that have little to do with real experiences of nature or other cultures.

    “Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences,” he says.

    The full text of the English translation of the encyclical is here.  Read More...

  • Francis at the two-year mark: Early achievements and persistent obstacles

    Pope Francis’ pontificate hits the two-year mark this week, and it’s a delicate moment for his program of bureaucratic house-cleaning and pastoral revitalization. The pope has set new directions and new priorities, reflecting his vision of how the Vatican should operate and how the church should evangelize. I think he’s seen real success in several areas, but he’s also encountered serious obstacles.

    Here is a brief summary:

    -- Financial reforms at the Vatican. With the recent consolidation of the Secretariat for the Economy, the pope has put in place a system of financial safeguards that is unparalleled in Vatican history. His reforms have effectively cleaned out hidden accounts and rogue budgets, and thankfully lessened Italian influence over Vatican finances in general.

    But the fierce infighting over the Economy secretary, Cardinal George Pell, along with other turf battles that have simmered in the background, only illustrate that the culture of power struggles persists inside the Vatican walls. That culture is the real problem, and I see no sign that it is disappearing.

    -- Reform of Roman Curia offices. The planned streamlining of the Vatican bureaucracy is at least halfway to the finish line, and eventually we’ll see fewer agencies and greater coordination, especially among communication agencies. That’s all to the good.

    It’s equally clear, however, that the pope has no intention of challenging the “system” in the Roman Curia, by which I mean a network of powerful administrative departments, headed by cardinals, where decision-making is linked to clerical identity and lay people function in auxiliary roles.

    The pope has called several times for an attitude of service in the Curia, but it appears to me that few if any structural changes are being contemplated that would end careerism at the Vatican.

    -- The pope as a communicator. By speaking plainly and spontaneously, without the usual Vatican filters, Pope Francis has revolutionized papal communication and, I would argue, papal teaching. It’s not just that he’s willing to converse freely with journalists and visitors; he has made this kind of direct discourse, often in interviews and off-the-cuff sermons, a primary method of instructing the faithful.

    Spontaneity, however, has brought with it a wider margin for misspeaking and misinterpretation. And the wars of interpretation over the pope’s words are being fought, rather predictably, along familiar battle lines by conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church.

    -- “Synodality” and collegiality. By challenging the Synod of Bishops to have truly open discussions about a series of pastoral problems (including but not limited to divorced and remarried Catholics), I believe the pope is trying to tackle collegiality from the ground up – beginning with how bishops relate to each other. How the bishops might share greater responsibility with the pope in church governance and pastoral care is a related question, but one that so far has barely been posed.

    Keep in mind that the pope is caught in a bit of a paradox. There’s no doubt Pope Francis wants to govern more collegially and involve the bishops in any major pastoral changes. But he’s working with a generally conservative hierarchy put in place by his two predecessors. For many of them, the very topics that need a fresh pastoral approach are considered “off limits.” In other words, the pope’s own pastoral initiatives may not survive the collegiality test today.

    -- Papal popularity. We read last week that Pope Francis’ popularity rating in the United States is 90 percent. Global media interest also remains sky high. There is much applause for the pope’s willingness to tackle social and environmental issues like climate change, and for his more recent statements that Catholic morality and theology are pointless without mercy and without direct contact with suffering humanity.

    For many, these words are a welcome change from the doctrinal litmus-test approach of recent decades. But have the pope’s words been translated into energy and engagement in local parishes around the world? Because that’s what Francis has in mind. If the net result is merely a collective “like”, then that’s not good enough for him.

    In some ways, energizing Catholics remains the biggest challenge facing Pope Francis. And in that regard, here’s another paradox he’s dealing with: The pope said at the outset that he wanted to move the church away from self-referential debates and preoccupation with its own structures, and move it toward engagement with the world. Yet in his first two years, interest in his pontificate has been largely focused on these very things: structural reforms and pastoral policy debates.

    As the church looks ahead to the next two (and more) years of Pope Francis, here’s a thought to keep in mind, a “mission statement” expressed in the pope’s own document on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”):

    I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.

  • A papal call for mercy, and a warning against a 'closed caste' church

    Pope Francis today delivered an impassioned defense of what has become a leitmotif of his pontificate – the church of mercy that reaches out to the marginalized vs. the church of rules that closes itself into a “closed caste.”

    The pope’s homily was addressed to a group of new cardinals gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. But one had the impression that it was also aimed at in-house critics who have questioned some of Francis’ statements and who have warned against an over-emphasis on mercy at the expense of doctrinal truth.

    The pope said the Gospel account of Jesus’ curing of the leper was, in a sense, a model for how the church must operate with compassion to “reintegrate the marginalized” – including fallen-away Catholics – even when it provokes criticism.

    “Jesus does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized by any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity,” the pope said.

    The pope said the modern church, too, stands at a crossroads of two ways of thinking: “We can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” The thinking of the “doctors of law,” he said, would remove danger by casting out the sick or sinful person. But God’s way is to show mercy and accept this person, turning condemnation into salvation.

    That has always been the church’s way, too, he said. This means the church must “leave her four walls behind” and not only welcome people who knock at its doors, but also seek out those on the “outskirts” of life, including the sick, the suffering and the spiritually alienated. It also means “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world,” he said.

    The pope told the cardinals: “Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honor!”

    He asked them to help make sure the modern church turns to the outcast, resisting the temptation to become “a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it.”

    They should see Jesus, he said, in everyone who is excluded – the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the persecuted, and even in “those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith.”

    “Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” he said at the close of his remarks.

    The homily was a capsule version of the vision that inspires so many of Pope Francis’ actions to date, including his consideration of new policies for divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, or his efforts to make the Vatican bureaucracy more responsive to real-world problems.

    With most of the world’s cardinals in attendance, the pope made it clear that this vision of the church’s mission is not something he invented, but is rooted in the words and actions of Christ.


  • Pope Francis has found cardinals who share his vision of the church

    Most of the 20 new cardinals created today by Pope Francis never thought they’d be wearing the cardinal’s red hat. Most of them never wanted to be a cardinal.

    And that, perhaps, is the most important defining quality of the pope’s choices, as he shifts the College of Cardinals away from careerists and toward pastors who, as true shepherds, “live with the smell of the sheep.”

    Sure, geography is part of the pope’s plan. By choosing cardinals from such far-flung places as Tonga, Myanmar and Cape Verde, he is expanding the global mix in an institution that has been dominated for centuries by Europe.

    The pope is also choosing prelates from small dioceses, places that have never had a cardinal before. I think this is a deliberate move to end the perception that cardinals should be the most powerful church leaders from the most populous and “important” archdioceses.

    But what’s really striking about the new cardinals is that they seem to embody Pope Francis’ vision of the church as a merciful mother, a promoter of justice and a bearer of good news, directly involved in the lives of those who suffer. By most accounts, the pope’s choices are bishops who are close to their people.

    Uruguayan Archbishop Daniel Sturla Berhouet, for example, was doing pastoral work in the slums of Montevideo when he learned the pope had made him a cardinal. Reaching young people in the poorer barrios of the city, he said, is his top priority.

    Panamanian Bishop Jose Lacunza Maestrojuan of David, another of Francis’ choices, is a social activist who has helped mediate disputes over mining concessions on indigenous reserves. He has described his primary mission as “to work among the poor, with the poorest, that is, the indigenous people.”

    In Mexico, Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia said the example of Pope Francis has led him and other bishops to speak more forcefully on issues like drug violence and immigration.

    The first-ever cardinal from Cape Verde, Arlindo Gomes Furtad, has said the church needs to be a teacher with the heart of a mother, reaching out to broken families with “practical incentives and welcoming gestures.”

    In Italy, the pope skipped over larger dioceses like Turin and Venice when he named new cardinals. Instead, he chose Archbishop Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona, known for his pastoral energy, human warmth and lack of pretension, and Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, who has worked closely with the immigrant community in Italy.

    In selecting cardinals, it seems clear that Pope Francis has found a way to identify people who can keep their sense of self-importance in check. Lest there be any doubt, he wrote to the new cardinals and told them, “Keeping oneself humble in service is not easy if one views the cardinalate as an award, like the culmination of a career, a dignity of power or of superior distinction.”

    In his homily at today's consistory, the pope cautioned that church leaders are sometimes tempted by pride and self-centeredness, and by irritability with their people and their colleagues, or, even worse, by pent-up anger. The antidote, he said, is found in St. Paul’s words, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated.”

    The pope added something that no doubt resonated with the new batch of cardinals, on the link between love and justice: “Those called to the service of governance in the Church need to have a strong sense of justice, so that any form of injustice becomes unacceptable, even those which might bring gain to himself or to the Church.”


  • Pope opens cardinals' meeting, says he's determined to bring reform to Roman Curia

    Pope Francis delivered a brief but significant talk to open a two-day meeting of cardinals, convened for a progress report on Curia reform.

    At a time when the pace of the reform project is slowing and resistance has increased inside the Vatican, the pope underlined his “determination” to follow through on plans to streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, establish transparency and end the power struggles and careerism inside the Roman Curia.

    He reminded his audience that two years ago, in meetings ahead of the conclave that elected him, the majority of cardinals pushed strongly for these reforms.

    “The goal is to favor greater harmony in the work of the various agencies and offices, so that there is more efficient cooperation, carried out in that absolute transparency that builds true synodality and collegiality,” the pope said.

    “Certainly, to reach that goal is not easy. It requires time, determination and above all the cooperation of everyone,” he said.

    Pope Francis also underlined that merely structural reforms at the Vatican – which have been the focus of the work so far – are only a means to an end. That’s an important point: the pope wants to change the culture in the Curia, not just the office nameplates.

    The real purpose of these reforms, he said, is to better witness the Gospel (yes, even in Vatican affairs), to make evangelization more effective, to promote an ecumenical spirit and to “encourage a more constructive dialogue with all.” In short, he wants a simpler Vatican bureaucracy so that it can better keep the faith and spread the faith.

    He said that means “perfecting” the identity of the Roman Curia, which he described as helping the pope in his pastoral duties “for the good and for the service of the universal church and particular churches.”


  • Pope Francis: Church urgently needs to offer space to women

    Evidently, Pope Francis does not share Cardinal Raymond Burke’s concern about an overly “feminized” church.

    Addressing a Vatican conference on women today, the pope said there was an urgent need to offer space to women in the life of the church, taking into consideration the “changed cultural and social sensibilities.”

    “It is desirable, therefore, for a feminine presence that is more capillary and incisive in the community, so that we can see many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in accompaniment of individuals, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection,” he said.

    Not surprisingly, the pope made no mention of women priests. He has previously said the door is closed to that possibility.

    Cardinal Burke made headlines a month ago when he said that Catholic parish and liturgical activities had become so influenced by women and so feminine that “men do not want to get involved.”

    Pope Francis said it was important for women to be full participants in church and social life, and not just feel like guests.

    He offered a special thanks to the many women who work with families, in religious education and other pastoral programs, and in social and economic services.

    “You women know how to embody the tender face of God, his mercy, which is translated more by a willingness to give one’s time than to occupy spaces, to welcome rather than to exclude,” he said.

    The pope said society, at least in the West, had wisely moved away from seeing women as subordinate to men. At the same time, he said, it was a mistake to try to impose a model of “absolute equivalence” between men and women. He said the proper relationship is an equality that recognizes and appreciates the differences between the sexes.

    The pope also condemned violence against women, saying the female body was often attacked and disfigured, even by those who ought to be “guardians and life companions.” Domestic violence was a topic of discussion at the meeting, which was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

    “The many forms of slavery, commercialization and mutilation of the woman’s body challenge us to work to defeat this form of degradation that reduces it to a pure object to be sold off on various markets,” the pope said.

    He offered a special thought for the many women living in poverty and on the margins of society, in conditions of risk and exploitation.


  • Pope Francis asks bishops for their 'complete cooperation' with Vatican sex abuse commission

    Pope Francis has written to the world’s bishops and the heads of religious orders, urging them to take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect children from sexual abuse by clerics and provide psychological and spiritual assistance to victims.

    Families need to know the church is “making every effort to protect their children,” the pope said.

    “Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse children,” he said.

    The letter was released Thursday at the Vatican, the day before the start of a three-day meeting of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, which the pope established in 2013. The pope recently added new members to the commission, which includes two sex abuse victims.

    Francis asked bishops and religious superiors to give their full cooperation with the Vatican commission, especially in exchanging best practices and developing programs of education, training and response to sexual abuse.

    He also insisted on full compliance with a 2011 Vatican document that called on bishops’ conferences around the world to draw up guidelines for handling sexual abuse of minors by clerics. Once norms are established, he added, the conferences should establish practical means to guarantee that they are being followed.

    The pope said his meeting with sex abuse victims at the Vatican last summer had deeply moved him and left him even more convinced that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.”

    He called specifically on bishops and superiors of religious orders to establish programs that provide psychological assistance and spiritual care to victims. He said pastors should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones.

    “Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness,” he said.



  • Ten years after John Paul II's death, focus in Poland shifts to Francis

    I’ve been in Warsaw for the last few days, doing interviews for the launch of the Polish edition of The Vatican Diaries. As expected, there were many questions about Pope John Paul II (and about Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is seen as the protector of the late pope’s legacy.)

    The most common question was how John Paul II could be a saint, considering the sex abuse scandals that came to light only late in his pontificate. One of the chapters of my book details the painfully slow Vatican response to accusations against Legion of Christ founder Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, who was given strong support by Pope John Paul. Only in late 2004 did the Vatican reopen an investigation that eventually confirmed Maciel’s sexual abuse of seminarians and a lifetime of lies.

    Clerical sex abuse remains a current topic in Poland, where some 27 priests have been convicted in recent years, in cases that have drawn much publicity and generated much criticism of the hierarchy.

    But my Polish interviewers also inevitably came around to Pope Francis – his agenda, the resistance he faces and his chances for success. It was in Poland that I realized that it was 10 years ago this month that John Paul II's illness took a serious turn for the worse, leading to his death several weeks later. For many younger Poles, he is a figure from the past, someone they never knew. Pope Francis is the name on everyone’s lips.

    In Poland as elsewhere, there’s been open criticism of Pope Francis and some of his more controversial statements by conservative commentators. These are primarily Catholics who felt empowered under Pope Benedict and his Catholic identity focus, and who feel disoriented under Francis and his “who am I to judge” approach. I’m convinced they are a minority, but they are a minority with a voice.


  • New cardinals from the church's 'periphery'

    With today’s announcement of 20 new cardinals, Pope Francis has moved decisively toward making the College of Cardinals a truly global institution.

    The cardinals come from 14 countries on five continents, including Cape Verde, Myanmar, Panama, New Zealand and even the Kingdom of Tonga, a Pacific archipelago that is home to a mere 15,000 Catholics.

    They will receive their red hats at a consistory in Rome in mid-February. The list of appointees included no one from the United States or Canada. Pope Francis, in fact, has yet to appoint a cardinal from the United States, which today has 18 cardinals, a relatively high number.

    There are several things to note in the pope’s selections:

    -- By choosing prelates from eight dioceses that have never had a cardinal, Francis is clearly shaking up the geographical mix of a group known as the church's "senate." In effect, the pope is removing the expectation of red hats that have attached to many established major dioceses for centuries. This new policy – enunciated explicitly today by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi – sets in motion further globalization for the future: expect fewer Europeans, and more cardinals from the Catholic “periphery.”

    -- Of the 15 new cardinals who are under age 80, and therefore able to vote in a conclave, the pope chose two Italians. That means Italy would continue to have great influence in a potential papal election, with more than one-fifth the number of voting cardinals. But as he did last year, the pope selected Italians from smaller dioceses, passing over traditional cardinalate sees like Venice and Turin. Once again, the effect is to remove the customary expectation of a red hat.

    -- Only one new cardinal comes from the ranks of the Roman Curia: French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, who recently succeeded Cardinal Raymond Burke as head of the Vatican’s top tribunal. The number of Vatican officials among voting-age cardinals has dropped under Pope Francis. After February, they will make up about 27 percent of the total, compared to about 35 percent in the conclave that elected Pope Francis.

    -- The pope demonstrated that the limit of 120 voting-age cardinals is a guideline, not a hard and fast rule. After the next consistory, the church could have 125 cardinals under age 80. Pope Francis has chosen, like his predecessors, to stay close to the 120 ceiling. But there’s no reason why, in the future, he could not simply decide that the fastest way to increase geographic diversity in the College of Cardinals is to increase the number of its members.


  • Pope's Christmas gift to Roman Curia: a harsh diagnosis of careerism, self-interest

    Pope Francis did not play Santa Claus today when he addressed the officials of the Roman Curia in their annual pre-Christmas get-together. Instead, he issued a blistering critique of "curial illnesses," ranging from the "terrorism of gossip" to the search for worldly profit.

    It was another sign that this pope is trying to change the culture inside the Vatican, and not simply reform its bureaucratic structures.

    Here is the pope's list of what he described as 15 of the most common illnesses and temptations that are found in the Roman Curia:

    1. Feeling oneself as “immortal,” “immune” or even “indispensable,” a sense of superiority that results from a “pathology of power” and narcissism. To put things in perspective, the pope advised making visits to cemeteries to read the names of the once-powerful.

    2. Working too hard, forgetting to take time for rest, reflection and spiritual revitalization.

    3. Mental and spiritual petrification, causing one to lose touch with people and develop a “heart of stone.”

    4. Excessive planning and an overly pragmatic approach to one’s mission, turning apostles into “accountants” and closing off the action of the Holy Spirit.

    5. Poor coordination with colleagues, with the loss of a sense of communion and a team spirit.

    6. “Spiritual Alzheimer’s,” in which the primary encounter with the Lord is forgotten and progressively replaced by obsession with one’s own projects. These are people, the pope said, who build walls around themselves with their own habits and activities.

    7. Rivalry and arrogance, when humility gives way to selfish interests, and when honors and awards become a primary objective.

    8. “Existential schizophrenia,” a hypocrisy that comes from spiritual emptiness and that often strikes those who leave pastoral service for strictly bureaucratic activities. The pope said these people proclaim severe truths to others but often lead hidden, dissolute lives.

    9. The “terrorism of gossip,” an illness that begins perhaps with idle chatter and gradually takes over one’s personality, sometimes leading to the “cold-blooded murder” of the good name of colleagues. “This is the illness of cowards who lack the courage to speak directly, so they speak behind one’s back,” he said.

    10. Deifying one’s boss, in the hope of gaining promotion or favor. These are wretched and selfish people thinking only of their own career advancement, the pope said, but they are often abetted by their superiors, who reward such flattery.

    11. Indifference to others, often exhibited when information is kept for oneself rather than shared with colleagues, or when one takes joy in a colleague’s misfortune.

    12. Long-faced, theatrical severity with others, who are deemed to be inferior in some way. The pope said such arrogance and pessimism have no place in the life of an apostle. “A heart full of God is a happy heart that radiates and infects with joy everyone around him,” he said.

    13. The accumulation of material goods, which only slow down the journey to holiness.

    14. The “closed circle” mentality, in which belonging to a select group is more important than service to the church and to Christ. The pope called this disease a type of cancer that can harm the church from within.

    15. The search for worldly profit, in which positions of service to the church are used to obtain power and wealth. “This is the disease of people who seek insatiably to multiply powers and to that end are capable of vilifying, defaming and discrediting others, even in newspapers and magazines,” the pope said.

    Ever since his election, Pope Francis has been asking officials of the Roman Curia to make a serious examination of conscience about their attitudes and practices. By raising these issues in such forceful terms today, he was telling them that he intends to follow through on his designs.  Read More...

  • Vatican asks for pre-synod consultations that avoid strictly 'doctrinal' approach

    It looks like Synod 2015 may be as interesting as Synod 2014.

    A Vatican preparatory document for next year’s second session of the Synod of Bishops on the family is seeking wide input from the faithful, posing 46 questions and asking that bishops conferences do not answer them with strictly “doctrinal” formulations.

    The document, released Dec. 9 at the Vatican, said the pre-synod consultation should involve every level of the church, including academic institutions, lay movements and other associations.

    UPDATE: English version now available here.

    It said that in preparing for the second synodal session, bishops should remember that Pope Francis has called for a pastoral approach that reflects the “culture of encounter” and goes outside the church’s usual environment, in order to act as a “field hospital” of mercy.

    The questions touch on a number of controversial issues discussed during the synod’s first meeting last October, including sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics, church teaching on homosexuality and birth control.

    The document explicitly asked bishops to show “proper realism” in seeking answers to the questions, avoiding an approach that “is merely one of applying doctrine, and that does not respect the conclusions of the extraordinary synodal assembly, and would lead their reflection away from the path that has already been traced.”


  • Pope Francis on Cardinal Burke, the synod, Curia reform and more

    Pope Francis has a new interview out, addressing controversies over the recent Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke and plans to reform the Roman Curia.

    On Cardinal Burke, the pope said his recent departure from a Vatican tribunal should not be seen as punishment for the cardinal’s outspoken remarks during the October synod. The pope said he needed a “smart American” to serve as patron of the Knights of Malta, and that Burke thanked him for the reassignment.

    One of the most interesting passages in the interview came when the pope defended efforts to relax restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics – a contested issue at the recent synod. The pope said the question goes beyond reception of Communion; it also touches on their other potential roles in the church, including that of godparents. Right now, these people seem to be de facto excommunicated, he said.

    Pope Francis was interviewed by Argentine journalist Elisabetta Piqué, whose book Francis: Life and Revolution is one of the best biographies of the pontiff. The full texts can be read at the site of the Argentine newspaper La Nacion in four parts focusing on key topics: the Roman Curia and Cardinal Burke, the synod on the family, the church and politics in Argentina and the recent decision to change the commander of the Swiss Guards. (The first two parts are available in English and Spanish.)

    Here are some highlights.

    On resistance to his ideas surfacing among other church leaders:

    Resistance is now evident. And that is a good sign for me, getting the resistance out into the open, no stealthy mumbling when there is disagreement. It´s healthy to get things out into the open, it's very healthy. … It all seems normal to me, if there were no difference of opinions, that wouldn't be normal.

    On Cardinal Burke:

    One day Cardinal Burke asked me what he would be doing as he had still not been confirmed in his position, in the legal sector, but rather had been confirmed "donec alitur provideatur." And I answered, "Give me some time because we are thinking of a legal restructuring of the G9." I told him nothing had been done about it yet and that it was being considered. After that the issue of the Order of Malta cropped up and we needed a smart American who would know how to get around and I thought of him for that position. I suggested this to him long before the synod. I said to him, "This will take place after the synod because I want you to participate in the synod as dicastery head." As the chaplain of Malta he wouldn't have been able to be present. He thanked me in very good terms and accepted my offer, I even think he liked it. Because he is a man that gets around a lot, he does a lot of travelling and would surely be busy there. It is therefore not true that I removed him because of how he had behaved in the synod.

    On changes in the Roman Curia, the pope said economic reforms were well underway and that the Vatican bank was now “operating beautifully, we did quite a good job there.” But he said the streamlining of other Vatican agencies will probably not be completed in 2015:

    No, it´s a slow process. The other day we got together with the Dicastery heads and submitted the proposal of joining Laypersons, Family, Justice and Peace Dicasteries. We discussed it all, each one of us said what he thought. Now it will be forwarded back to the G9. You know, reforming the Curia will take a long time, this is the most complex part.

    The head of a dicastery such as the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, the liturgical dicastery or the new dicastery encompassing Laymen, Family and Justice and Peace will always be a cardinal. This is best because dicasteries are very close to the Pope. But dicastery secretaries do not necessarily have to be bishops because a problem we have is when we have to change a bishop-secretary, where do we send him? We need to find a dioceses, but sometimes they are not fit for one, they´re good at the other job.

    The pope warned against misinterpreting what the recent Synod of Bishops said on homosexuals:

    Nobody mentioned homosexual marriage at the synod, it did not cross our minds. What we did talk about was of how a family with a homosexual child, whether a son or a daughter, goes about educating that child, how the family bears up, how to help that family to deal with that somewhat unusual situation. That is to say, the synod addressed the family and the homosexual persons in relation to their families, because we come across this reality all the time in the confessional: a father and a mother whose son or daughter is in that situation. This happened to me several times in Buenos Aires. We have to find a way to help that father or that mother to stand by their son or daughter.

    On divorced and remarried Catholics:

    In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution. The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godfathers to any child being baptized, mass readings are not for divorcees, they cannot give communion, they cannot teach Sunday school, there are about seven things that they cannot do, I have the list over there. Come on! If I disclose any of this it will seem that they have been excommunicated in fact! Thus, let us open the doors a bit more. Why cant they be godfathers and godmothers? "No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godson?" The testimony of a man and a woman saying "my dear, I made a mistake, I was wrong here, but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on." Anything more Christian than that? And what if one of the political crooks among us, corrupt people, are chosen to be somebody's godfather. If they are properly wedded by the Church, would we accept them? What kind of testimony will they give to their godson? A testimony of corruption? Things need to change, our standards need to change.

  • A Latin American pope takes his own approach to Europe's problems

                    Pope Francis addresses the European Parliament

    In some ways, Pope Francis’ visit to the European Parliament this week evoked similar encounters by his predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. There were Big Speeches (no doubt written with input from the Vatican's Secretariat of State), a defense of religious and spiritual values, and a call for cooperation on the European continent. In a passage quoting Pope Benedict, Francis reminded European leaders of the continent’s “religious roots” and warned of the risk of “forgetfulness of God.”

    Yet there were a few distinctive differences about this visit, too. One thing that struck me was that Pope Francis did not dwell so much on the past. For John Paul II and Benedict, Europe was the continent where for centuries Europe had shaped the culture, and now that culture was rejecting its Christian identity. Both popes denounced the “de-Christianization” of Europe and blamed an overreaching secularism. They launched “re-evangelization” of the continent’s Christians as a remedy. They strongly supported European unity, as long as Christian values was a key ingredient in the glue that held it together.

    Pope Francis seemed less interested in fighting theoretical battles with secularism, or in trying to restore the church’s lost cultural and political influence in Europe. Nor did he present Christians as victims of discrimination by secularists. Pope Benedict had critiqued what he called modern hostility and prejudice against Christianity in Europe, framing it as a religious freedom issue. Pope Francis did not go down that road. He spoke about religion and society being called to “enlighten and support one another.” His language was far less accusatory.

    Pope Francis certainly did not go easy in outlining problems in Europe. But these issues were generally immediate and concrete ones – like youth unemployment, the hardships of immigrants and the loneliness of the elderly – and not philosophical arguments. As Pope Francis often does, he zeroed in on economics as the determining factor in the day-to-day difficulties of modern life. He sees the consumerist “throwaway culture” as one of the greatest threats to human dignity, and spoke about it to European leaders. This is something he believes people can relate to more easily than intellectual arguments about secularism.

    I think Pope Francis is more focused on building bridges than winning philosophical arguments. A poll earlier this year said Europeans gave Francis a remarkable 89 percent approval rating. If nothing else, that tells the pope that he has a large potential audience on the continent.


  • A signal on removal of bishops?

    A single sentence in a papal document issued today may signal that Pope Francis is willing take a stronger hand in removing some bishops from office.

    The one-page document deals primarily with the age of a bishop’s retirement. But it also states: “In some particular circumstances, the competent Authority (the pope) may consider it necessary to ask a bishop to present the resignation of his pastoral office, after letting him know the motives for such a request and after listening attentively to his justifications, in fraternal dialogue.”

    The power of a pope to sack a bishop has always been presumed, but here it is spelled out. It comes after Pope Francis has already removed a Paraguayan bishop from office over pastoral controversies, and accepted the resignation of a German bishop in the wake of a spending scandal. The Vatican is actively investigating the pastoral leadership of at least two other prelates, including Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, Mo., who was convicted two years ago by a civil court on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse by a diocesan priest.

    A Vatican spokesman quickly underlined that today’s document contained “nothing truly new,” but was a forceful restatement of existing norms. But surely there was a reason it was issued.

    In recent months, several Vatican officials have emphasized that church law envisions the possibility of a bishop losing his office for abuse or negligence in ministry. Specifically, some officials have said bishops need to be held accountable for their mistakes in the handling of sex abuse cases.

    A note: Over at his canon law blog, Dr. Edward Peters says that “Roman requests (demands?) for episcopal resignations are occurring much more often these days,” although they did not begin with Pope Francis. Peters said the fact that this is occurring without any recognizable canonical process raises serious questions.


  • Popes, evolution and the Big Bang

    Pope Francis recently said evolution and the Big Bang theory can be compatible with faith in God – a statement that was hardly new, but predictably made news.

    The idea that evolution and a divine creator are not mutually exclusive has long been found in the teachings of popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII and his 1950 encyclical, “Humani Generis.” Even so, the mere mention of the word “evolution” by a pope can set off alarm bells. I remember that when Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that evolution was “more than a hypothesis” and had been widely accepted by scientists, some Catholics simply couldn't believe it.

    Perhaps the most complete treatment of evolution came in a 2004 document published by the International Theological Commission, which said evolution makes sense – but only because “God made it so.” That document accepted the basic science behind evolution: that the universe was born 15 billion years ago in a “big bang,” that the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, that all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism and that man emerged about 40,000 years ago with the development of a larger brain.

    A historical footnote is that the man usually credited as the “father” of the Big Bang theory was a Belgian Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, who was also an astronomer and physics professor. Lemaitre’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by Pope Pius XII, who had a keen interest in cosmology and who knew Lemaitre through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In speeches to the academy, in fact, Pius XII seemed to endorse the Big Bang precisely because he thought it offered scientific evidence of the divine creation of the universe – a “Let there be light” moment. According to contemporaries, after a papal speech along those lines in 1951, Lemaitre spoke with the pope and asked him to stay away from theological endorsements of scientific theories – and Pius took his advice to heart.


  • Pope Francis makes an important move at the synod

    UPDATE: This post is amended to reflect the fact that the six papal nominees will be helping write the synod's final relatio, which will be handed to the pope at the end of the assembly.

    The Vatican just announced that Pope Francis has named six additional prelates to help write the final relatio for the Synod of Bishops. At the risk of oversimplifying, they all seem to be on the pope’s wavelength when it comes to promoting pastoral mercy.

    They will assist Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primary drafter of the relatio, and two other synod officials, in the task of summing up the spirited synod debate in a document that will form the basis for future discussion.

    Sources in Rome view the relatio as the key document going forward, and there is particular interest in how it treats some of the more controversial issues at the synod, including proposals to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments.

    The papal appointees to the drafting group are:

    Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture.
    Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C.
    Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and one of the pope’s top theological advisors.
    Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Mexico, president of CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ council.
    Archbishop Peter Kang U-Il of South Korea.
    Father Adolfo Nicolás Pachón of Spain, superior general of the Jesuit order.


  • Curia rumblings about a pope who won't be filtered

    There’s been a lot of media attention to Pope Francis’ now-famous phone call to an Argentine woman who is civilly married to a divorced man, reportedly telling her she could receive Communion.

    While in Rome this week, I’ve made some soundings inside the Roman Curia, and found concern among Vatican officials in two areas. First, they’re worried about the doctrinal and pastoral implications of the pope’s supposed remarks, and the risk of raising expectations for a change in church policy that may never occur.

    Second, and more broadly, they’re concerned that the Vatican is losing control over papal communication. In that sense, the phone call was a tipping point: an institution that has spoken for centuries in a formal, calibrated hierarchy of expression is now headed by a man who chats on the phone, delivers soundbites to reporters and improvises daily sermons.

    That explains the unusual statement from Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, who announced to journalists a few days ago that the pope’s phone call – indeed, any papal phone call – did not form part of the Magisterium, the official teaching of the church. “Consequences relating to the teaching of the church are not to be inferred from these occurrences,” was the way he put it.

    Father Lombardi’s statement was probably drafted by the Secretary of State’s office, which used to be the communications gatekeeper at the Vatican, but which today finds itself increasingly on the sidelines. Quite often, Pope Francis does not go through the usual filters anymore.

    The Old Guard at the Vatican tends to view many of the pope’s interviews, Tweets and off-the-cuff remarks as expressions of lesser consequence. His morning Mass homilies make headlines almost every day, but – reportedly at the pope’s request – are not being collected for publication in the permanent Vatican record, the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (they are extemporaneous talks, so there’s no complete text.)

    None of this less formal output is considered part of the “capital M” Magisterium. But for most Catholics, that’s a distinction without a difference. They don’t care whether comments like “Who am I to judge?” find their way into the Vatican’s official archives. All they care is that the pope said it.

    In the case of the Argentine woman, the fact that Pope Francis would even make such a call bothers some officials at the Vatican. On one level, they say, it creates confusion, because no one is sure exactly what the pope said. The pope should know by now that any private conversation like this will eventually come out in some unsanctioned manner (in this instance, on the Facebook page of the woman’s husband.)

    And as one Vatican monsignor put it, why should the pope be talking to her at all? Shouldn’t he be referring her to her spiritual advisor, or asking the local bishop to follow up?

    If the gist of the pope’s call was accurately relayed – that the woman could receive Communion – that’s seen by some Vatican conservatives as crossing the Rubicon.

    In this case, the woman had been told by her pastor that she could not receive Communion unless her husband received an annulment and the two were married in the church. Didn’t the pope undercut the authority of priests everywhere with his phone call? How are priests to respond when divorced Catholics come to them and declare: “But Father, the pope said it’s OK?”

    It’s clear that Pope Francis wants the church to find a better pastoral solution to the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, and all indications are that this fall’s Synod of Bishops will propose some changes – perhaps, as outlined by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a penitential practice that would allow divorced Catholics to receive Communion, with the understanding the church could tolerate, though not accept, second unions.

    That idea has generated much debate among bishops and cardinals, and enthusiasm among many Catholics. But it is not playing so well inside the Vatican. “If that happens, we’ve crossed the line into heresy,” one official told me.

    I think Francis has some prep work to do in his own backyard.  Read More...

  • Love and mercy: the unity theme of the two-pope canonization

        Pilgrims approaching St. Peter's Square for the canonization

    Today’s canonization of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II drew 800,000 people to Rome. I spoke with a small fraction of the massive crowd that filled the streets near the Vatican, but every one of them agreed: Two popes, two saints, two more reasons to be happy.

    Much of the commentariat – and I include myself in that class -- has found issues to explore in this double canonization: the fast-tracking of John Paul II, the waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII, the politics of saintmaking and the ongoing tensions over the Second Vatican Council.

    I’ve maintained that the double canonization is a unifying move by Pope Francis, an attempt to build a bridge between constituencies in the church who identify with the “liberal” John XXIII or the more “conservative” John Paul II.

    I still believe that’s true. But among those in today’s crowd, and probably throughout the global Catholic population, that kind of analysis was not all that relevant.

    “The were both good people, holy men. John XXIII was a man of vision. John Paul II was a man of action. But they had the same intention – to bring the church closer to the people,” said Rosemary Fabregas, a Catholic from San Francisco who sat in front of a Jumbrotron screen outside St. Peter’s Square.

    An Italian pilgrim, asked about the saints’ differences, put it this way: “Differences? I don't know. The important thing is that they were both very spiritual and they both loved the poor.”

    Pope Francis’ homily echoed their words. Francis did not delve into the politics of Vatican II, or the yin/yang factor some have found in this dual canonization. Instead, he said John XXIII and John Paul II demonstrated a common witness to Christian hope and joy.

    Both of the new saints, Francis said, “saw Jesus in every person who suffers and struggles.” Both were men of courage, and “bore witness before the church and the world to God’s goodness and mercy.”

    “They were priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful … the mercy of God was more powerful,” Pope Francis said.

    Pope Francis said Vatican II tied the two men together, too. Through the council, he said, both popes helped renew and update the church so that it corresponded more closely with its “pristine features,” as a “community which lived the heart of the Gospel, love and mercy, in simplicity and fraternity.”

    Francis said John XXIII showed an exquisite “openness to the Holy Spirit” when he convened the council. In his own day, John Paul II became “the pope of the family,” a theme that is still at the center of church discussions ahead of the 2014/2015 Synod of Bishops, the pope said.

    Pope Francis left aside the interpretations of Vatican II, and the debate on its teachings. Instead, he let the lives of these two saints take center stage. In this sense, it was a unifying event.

    The theme of continuity was reinforced by the appearance of Pope Benedict XVI, who was a concelebrant at the Mass, though he did not stand at the altar. His arrival a few minutes before the liturgy drew prolonged applause from a public that has not forgotten the retired pontiff.

    It was Pope Francis who encouraged Benedict not to spend the rest of his days hidden away in his Vatican residence, but to get out more. For this event, in particular, it would have been impossible to conceive of Benedict sitting in his room while two of his predecessors were being proclaimed saints.

  • The debate over canonizing two popes

                   John Paul II and John XXIII

    The double canonization Sunday of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, is a first in church history, and it’s prompted a debate among commentators: Has the church rushed too fast to declare John Paul a saint, especially in view of his record on clerical sex abuse cases? Is the addition of John XXIII to the canonization roster merely a political balancing act by Pope Francis? And should popes be canonized at all – is it really possible for the church to make a dispassionate judgment on the holiness of men who sat on the throne of Peter and were called “Your Holiness” in life?

    The record-setting speed of John Paul II’s canonization does, indeed, raise some questions. The “Santo subito!” (Sainthood now!) banners in St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of the Polish pope reflected the sentiments of many faithful who thought his deep spirituality, evangelizing energy and strong defense of human rights made him a saint for our times.

    Yet what pushed his cause through so quickly was support at the highest levels of the hierarchy. At that same funeral, the man who would be elected as John Paul’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told the faithful: “We can be sure that our beloved pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” In effect, that’s like declaring someone a saint – all that was left was to make it official. And to speed things up, Pope Benedict waived the normal five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.

    As time has passed, however, and the contours of the sex abuse scandal have become more defined, John Paul’s record has come in for criticism. In particular, critics have focused on the Polish pope’s long support for the late Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was later unmasked as a sexual abuser of his own seminarians, a man who led a double or triple life, kept mistresses and fathered children. For decades, the Vatican turned a blind eye to accusations against Maciel; John Paul’s defenders have always said the pope was not aware of the evidence against Maciel. That was the line taken last week by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the priest who guided John Paul’s sainthood process. Oder told reporters the Vatican saintmakers had investigated the Maciel case and concluded: “There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”

    It should not be forgotten that John Paul II was the pope who established harsh penalties for priests who sexually abused minors, approved changes that made it easier to defrock abusive priests and denounced such abuse as an “appalling sin” and a crime.

    The debate over John Paul’s record on sex abuse revolves on issues of governance and management, and here is where the Vatican and critics seem to be on different pages. Most people view canonization of a pope as a canonization of his pontificate. But in recent years, the Vatican has repeatedly suggested that sainthood for a pope is more about personal holiness than papal job performance. In that sense, declaring Pope John Paul a saint is not the same as endorsing every decision he ever made, or his management style. He is being held up to the faithful as someone who lived the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way, not necessarily as “Pope John Paul the Great.” As Pope Benedict once put it, “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.”

    The decision to canonize John XXIII at the same time reflects several factors. First, Pope Francis is clearly inspired by John XXIII’s pastoral style of governance, his direct style of communication and his emphasis on mercy over doctrine. As Massimo Faggioli points out in his excellent new book, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy, both John and Francis came from poor families and brought with them to the Vatican an emphasis on the church’s attention to the poor and suffering.

    A primary factor in Pope Francis’ decision is the Second Vatican Council, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. By adding John XXIII, who convened the council, Pope Francis moved the focus of this canonization away from John Paul II and toward Vatican II.

    Some have portrayed the move as a political one, aimed at balancing the “liberal” John XXIII, who opened the church to the world, and the “conservative” John Paul II, who pulled the church back to more traditional practices and identity. I think that’s a partial reading. While it’s true that John Paul set some limits to the innovations that followed Vatican II, he also embodied those changes in ways that upset Catholic traditionalists: he celebrated liturgies that often adopted non-Roman elements; he wrote hard-hitting encyclicals on social and economic justice, critiquing capitalism; he built bridges to science, endorsing the theory of evolution and saying the church had erred in condemning Galileo; he was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue and pray in a mosque; he presided over mea culpa ceremonies apologizing for past wrongs, including the excesses of the Inquisition and the crusades, and the moral failings of Christians during the Holocaust. In short, there’s plenty of evidence that, in many ways, John Paul II embraced the spirit of Vatican II.

    In canonizing two diverse protagonists of the Second Vatican Council, I think Francis is trying to move past the interpretive battles over Vatican II, and is saying that sainthood is bigger than differences in papal policies.

    One of the arguments against canonizing popes is that process turns into the hierarchy canonizing itself. Certainly, a papal sainthood cause brings with it a lot of political baggage, and there’s a risk that Vatican factions might use canonization to silence criticism of a previous pope.

    Ironically, it was John Paul II who wanted more “ordinary” saints, and for years he tried to get the Vatican’s saintmakers to find lay people and married couples to canonize. This weekend, however, the sainthood spotlight is shifting back to the top of the hierarchy.  Read More...

  • The Vatican commission on sex abuse takes shape

    Marie Collins, an abuse survivor, named to Vatican panel

    Pope Francis today named eight members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, including an Irish victim of clerical sexual abuse.

    This core group of the commission, which includes four women, has been asked to further define the scope of the panel's responsibilities and recommend additional members.

    The Vatican said the commission would promote “a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.”

    The commission includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Catholic experts from seven other countries. Most are from Europe, but the Vatican said additional members would be found from other continents. Among the eight are specialists in human rights, church and civil law, moral theology and psychology.

    The Irish commission member, Marie Collins, is a well-known sex abuse survivor who has actively campaigned for investigation of sex abuse by priests. She was recently critical of a statement by the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland, which questioned whether some priests who had made “mistakes” early in life should continue to be excluded from ministry.

    Here is the list of the members announced by the Vatican, and a statement by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:

    The Holy Father Francis has instituted the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which was announced on Dec. 5, 2013, and called to be a part of it:

    Dr. Catherine Bonnet (France)

    Mrs. Marie Collins (Ireland)

    Prof. the Baroness Sheila Hollins (United Kingdom)

    Card. Sean Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap (U.S.)

    Prof. Claudio Papale (Italy)

    Her Excellency Hanna Suchocka (Poland)

    Rev. Humberto Miguel Yañez, SJ (Argentina)

    Rev. Hans Zollner, SJ (Germany)

    Their principal role will be to prepare the Statutes of the Commission, which will define its tasks and competencies. Other members will be added to the Commission in the future, chosen from various geographical areas of the world.

    Brief biographies of the members can be found here.

    Comment by Father Lombardi:

    As Blessed John Paul II declared, "People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young…. So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church" (Address of John Paul II to the Cardinals of the United States, 23 April 2002).

    In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as we commit ourselves to the safeguarding of minors, we need "to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes" (Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Irish Bishops, 28 October 2006).

    Continuing the work undertaken by his predecessors, and having heard the advice of a number of Cardinals, other members of the College of Bishops, and experts in the field, and having duly deliberated, Pope Francis now is forming a Commission for the safeguarding of minors.

    Pope Francis has made clear that the Church must hold the protection of minors amongst Her highest priorities. Today, to carry forward this initiative, the Holy Father announces the names of several highly qualified persons who are committed to this issue.

    This initial group is now called to work expeditiously to assist in several tasks, including: participating in the deliberations concerning the Commission’s final structure; describing the scope of its responsibilities; and developing the names of additional candidates, especially from other continents and countries, who can offer service to the Commission.

    Certain that the Church has a critical role to play in this field, and looking to the future without forgetting the past, the Commission will take a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large.

    In this way, and with the help of God, this Commission will contribute to the Holy Father’s mission of upholding the sacred responsibility of ensuring the safety of young people.  Read More...

  • A pope who wants to be 'normal'

    Pope Francis’ latest interview, published today by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, featured more of his characteristic pastoral populism and a tolerant tone on several moral issues. His defensive comments on clerical sex abuse will no doubt raise the question: Does the pope think this issue is really behind us?

    Here are some highlights:

    -- The pope said he liked to get out and be among people, but he cautioned against creating “a certain mythology about Pope Francis.” “When for example it’s said that he goes out from the Vatican at night and feeds the homeless on Via Ottaviano. That never even occurred to me…. To paint the pope as some kind of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps well and has friends like everyone else. A normal person.”

    -- Francis said he had sometimes asked the advice of retired Pope Benedict: “The emeritus pope is not a statue in a museum…. Benedict is the first and perhaps there will be others. We don't know. He is discreet, humble and doesn’t want to be a bother. We talked about this and we decided together that it would be better if he saw people, got out and participated in the life of the church…. I thought of grandparents, who with their wisdom and counsel give strength to the family and don’t deserve to end up in a nursing home.”

    -- Pope Francis distanced himself from the church’s past use of the concept of “non-negotiable values” on certain moral and ethical questions related to human life and sexuality: “I never understood the expression 'non-negotiable values.' Values are values, period. I can’t say that among the fingers of a hand, one is less useful than the other. So I don't understand in what sense there can be negotiable values.”

    -- On civil unions, the pope indicated some margin of tolerance: “Marriage is between a man and a woman. The lay states want to justify civil unions in order to regulate diverse situations of cohabitation, motivated by the need to regulate economic aspects among persons, for example in assuring medical care…. We need to look at the different cases and evaluate them.”

    -- The pope said the 1968 encyclical against birth control, Humanae Vitae, was “prophetic” in its defense of morality and its opposition to population control programs, but he said this teaching needs to be applied carefully in pastoral situations. “The issue is not changing the doctrine, but going deeper and making sure that pastoral action takes into account that which is possible for people to do. This, too, will be discussed in the Synod.”

    -- Asked about clerical sex abuse, the pope called such cases “terrible” but defended the church’s actions to safeguard children. “The cases of abuse are terrible because they leave very deep wounds. Benedict XVI was very courageous and opened the road. The church has done much along this road. Perhaps more than all the others.” He said statistics show that most violence against children takes place in family or neighborhood environments. “The Catholic Church is perhaps the only public institution to have acted with transparency and responsibility. No one else has done more. And yet the church is the only one to be attacked.”

    -- Concerning his strong critique of modern capitalism, the pope said he was not bothered by those who have accused him of Marxism: “I’ve never shared a Marxist ideology, because it’s not true, but I’ve known many good people who profess Marxism.” He added that the Gospel clearly rejects the “cult of well-being” as a form of idolatry. And while modern globalization has saved some people from poverty, the pope said, it has “condemned many others to die of hunger.” The problem with economic globalization as practiced today is that “the human person is no longer at the center, only money,” he said.  Read More...

  • Pope says church must accompany those in failed marriages, not condemn them

    Here’s Pope Francis today on what the church should do when a marital relationship falls apart:

    “When this love fails – because many times it does fail – we need to feel the pain of this failure and accompany those who have experienced this failure in their love. Not condemn them! Walk with them! And not treat their situation with casuistry.”

    I think the pope is using the term “casuistry” here to refer to a legalistic, rule-based approach. In any case, his message was clear: the church’s approach should be merciful and understanding.

    The comment is especially interesting as an internal debate heats up among Vatican officials and others in the hierarchy over the correct pastoral response to Catholics who have divorced and remarried civilly without an annulment.

    Earlier this week, German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated his view that pastoral policies must be in line with doctrine, specifically the doctrine on the permanence of marriage.

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family is expected to take up the issue in October.

    The pope made the remarks at his morning Mass. Vatican Radio now has its English version up here.

    Related: In his address to cardinals a week ago, Cardinal Walter Kasper said that while the church cannot change its teaching on the permanence of marriage, it could "tolerate that which is impossible to accept," i.e., a second union. He suggested a penitential path that would accompany divorced Catholics back into full communion with the church -- in effect, he said, "a pastoral approach of tolerance, clemency and indulgence." The Catholic News Service report on his talk is here.

  • The path forward for Pope Francis and his reforms

    The PBS Frontline folks asked me to write a piece analyzing the challenges facing Pope Francis and his reform project as his pontificate nears the one-year mark. You can read it here.

    In brief, I believe the pope's financial reforms at the Vatican will be the easiest to enact, despite pockets of resistance. The structural reforms at the Roman Curia will take more time, and for me a key issue is whether Francis is willing to bring in lay people at the decision-making level, which would do much to inhibit the climate of clerical careerism at the Vatican.

    The larger questions concern the church's mission and its role in society. The new pope wants to move the focus from identity-building to spiritual outreach and "healing wounds," as he puts it. That approach seems to resonate with many ordinary Catholics, but I think less so with the current generation of bishops and priests.

    At the Synod of Bishops on the Family in October, we will see whether bishops are willing to take an honest look at the gap between Catholic practice and church teaching on questions of marriage and sexuality. We'll also see if Francis wants to make the synod an element of more collegial governance.


  • Courage, creativity urged as cardinals begin talks on family issues

                      Cardinal Walter Kasper

    Pope Francis this morning opened a two-day discussion of cardinals on the family, saying the church’s pastoral response to modern problems must be marked by intelligence, courage and love.

    Here’s the key quote from the pope’s talk to about 150 cardinals gathered at the Vatican:

    Our reflections must keep before us the beauty of the family and marriage, the greatness of this human reality which is so simple and yet so rich, consisting of joys and hopes, of struggles and sufferings, as is the whole of life. We will seek to deepen the theology of the family and discern the pastoral practices which our present situation requires.

    May we do so thoughtfully and without falling into “casuistry”, because this would inevitably diminish the quality of our work. Today, the family is looked down upon and mistreated. We are called to acknowledge how beautiful, true and good it is to start a family, to be a family today; and how indispensable the family is for the life of the world and for the future of humanity. We are called to make known God’s magnificent plan for the family and to help spouses joyfully experience this plan in their lives, as we accompany them amidst so many difficulties, including with a pastoral approach that is intelligent, courageous and full of love.

    That last phrase about a courageous and compassionate pastoral policy was added extemporaneously by the pope.

    Briefing reporters afterward, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said that in referring to “casuistry,” the pope meant that the cardinals should not “fragment” their discussion by focusing on particular situations over a more general vision.

    Lombardi also summarized some key points made by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who delivered a two-hour-long address to introduce the themes of the discussion. Kasper spoke about the need to connect God’s design for the family in the order of creation to the reality of the family today. On one hand, the church has to be able to transmit the joy and the positive values of the family to society, and in this sense the family should be a privileged means of evangelizing, he said.

    But the cardinal said the church also needs to look closely at the tensions faced by modern families, including alienation between men and women, and problems faced by women and mothers.

    Cardinal Kasper said a key concept in their reflections on the family should be the “law of graduality,” which recognizes that people come to accept the church’s teachings in a process of spiritual growth and maturation. He noted that this does not mean “graduality of the law,” but it requires time and patient accompaniment.

    The cardinal said the church’s pastoral task today was not simply to repeat: “The doctrine of the church is this,” but to return to the roots of the doctrine, which is the Gospel, and find creative pastoral approaches that respond to new problems.

    Father Lombardi said Cardinal Kasper spoke about the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics, citing the need to find a solution that took into account both pastoral compassion and church law. The cardinal indicated that a penitential period with the sacrament of Reconciliation was a possible path toward a solution for such difficult situations.

    The cardinals’ discussion comes eight months ahead of a Synod of Bishops on the Family. Their meeting was closed-door, and there were no plans to publish Cardinal Kasper’s text, Lombardi said.


  • Decision time on Vatican reforms? "Pazienza"

                   Pope Francis with his advisory group of cardinals

    I’m in Rome, where Pope Francis’ “Group of 8” cardinal-advisors are meeting this week to discuss prospects for administrative and economic reforms at the Vatican.

    As Francis’ one-year mark approaches, many are expecting to see the pope’s reform agenda take concrete shape in structural changes, new policies and bureaucratic streamlining.

    But judging by the comments of Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, the week is likely to pass without major decisions on reforms.

    That kind of lengthy timeline is not a surprise to those who have followed Vatican affairs – Pope John Paul II’s Curia reform effort took 10 years to prepare, and it was a relatively minor touch-up of the Vatican’s network of offices.

    But I think the wider audience will soon be asking, What’s the hold-up?

    Part of the answer is that Pope Francis has named several advisory bodies, in addition to existing ones, to help him in the reform process. Their tasks sometimes overlap, and that complicates things.

    This week and next week, for example, the Vatican is experiencing a virtual gridlock of commissions, councils and consistories. There’s the commission on administrative and economic reforms and a separate commission on the future of the Vatican bank, both of which have reported to the Council of 8. Tomorrow, the “Council of 15,” an advisory body of cardinals established by Pope John Paul II to monitor financial affairs, will meet with the Council of 8. Thursday and Friday, a special consistory of cardinals will discuss themes of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family, and next week the synod’s secretariat will hold a two-day meeting. The Council of 15 will hold its own session next week, too.

    For reporters asking when decision-time might arrive, Father Lombardi was very cautious, noting that all these entities are advisory. Essentially, Pope Francis will decide when to decide.

    Meanwhile, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, who with 18 others will become a cardinal at a special liturgy Saturday, has been actively taking part in the meetings of the Group of 8. No one would be surprised if the pope makes Parolin a permanent member of the group, which would mean that the Secretariat of State would be weighing in on every proposed reform.

    Let’s not forget that the Vatican has also hired outside consulting agencies to help simplify and coordinate its bureaucratic structures, especially in communication, and has turned to other financial management consultants to review Vatican financial practices. Their input also must be evaluated.

    At today’s briefing, Lombardi cast doubt on predictions that the major reform decisions could be made by late April, when the Council of 8 is expected to meet again in Rome.

    If I had to predict, I’d say that the framework for reforming the Vatican’s economic affairs and in particular the Vatican bank will come first, and changes in Roman Curia offices will take shape much later.

    (UPDATE: On Wednesday, Father Lombardi said the two commissions looking at financial affairs handed in sets of proposals to the pope, who will now study them. That's further evidence that Francis wants to move more quickly on the financial reforms.)

    Meanwhile, the Synod of Bishops has a fixed date, Oct. 5-19, and it is expected to take up some controversial topics, including the issue of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Father Lombardi emphasized that the cardinals’ two-day meeting this week on these topics would not “pre-empt” the synod, but was merely a free discussion without proposals or recommendations.

    Much has been made of the fact that Cardinal Walter Kasper, who long ago recommended a degree of pastoral flexibility for divorced Catholics, will be giving the opening talk at the cardinals’ meeting. I have no doubt that participants will also hear a strong defense of the current policy, which prohibits divorced Catholics who have remarried civilly without an annulment from receiving the sacraments. For many cardinals, the issue boils down to the defense of marriage as indissoluble.

    One member of the Group of 8, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, suggested in a recent interview that part of Curia reform might mean bringing in a married couple to head the Pontifical Council for the Family. Father Lombardi said he knew of no concrete proposal to do that, but he said there were a lot of ideas floating around.


  • One year later: How Benedict's decision changed the church

    One year ago, Pope Benedict announced his resignation. I had just returned to Rome ahead of the publication of my book, and some of my journalistic colleagues thought I'd been tipped off. Not exactly. I had been emailing some of those same colleagues in previous weeks, wondering whether the pope might be preparing to resign. But when it actually happened, I was as shocked as anyone.

    Looking back, I think Benedict's decision stands out for its courage and humility. I was among those who foresaw potential problems with "two popes" -- one retired, one active -- but experience has proved me wrong on that. The church has not suffered divided allegiances. On the other hand, there has been heightened sensitivity, at the Vatican and among many Catholic faithful, to any criticism of Benedict's pontificate. In view of Pope Francis' great popularity, finding fault with Benedict has become the third rail of Vatican commentary. I suspect it will take some time before that disappears.

    I wrote a brief reflection here on the anniversary of Benedict's announcement for the blog Il Sismografo, a valuable clearinghouse for online news about the Vatican.


  • Pope's cardinal choices signal geographic shift, but no earthquake

    Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

    Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

    Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

    He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

    The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

    Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

    Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

    Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

    A look at today’s appointments:

    -- Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

    Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

    As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

    -- The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

    -- The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

    -- Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

    Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

    Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

    Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

    He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

    The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

    Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

    Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

    Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

    A look at today’s appointments:

    -- Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

    Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

    As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

    -- The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

    -- The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

    -- Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, far more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

    Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

    Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

    Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

    He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

    The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

    Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

    Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

    Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

    A look at today’s appointments:

    -- Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

    Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

    As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

    -- The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

    -- The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

    -- Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, far more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

    Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

    Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

    Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

    He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

    The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

    Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

    Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

    Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

    A look at today’s appointments:

    -- Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

    Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

    As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

    -- The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

    -- The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

    -- Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

    Pope Francis’ first batch of cardinal appointments registered a geographical shift toward Latin America, Africa and Asia, but without bringing major changes to the College of Cardinals in its size or make-up.

    Announced by the pope today in Rome, the 19 new cardinals include 16 under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Three over-80 cardinals were also named, including Blessed Pope John XXIII’s secretary, 98-year-old Archbishop Loris Capovilla. No U.S. cardinals were named.

    Pope Francis had the freedom to break with tradition when it came to naming cardinals. As pope, he could have raised the number of voting age-cardinals substantially, allowing for a more immediate introduction of geographical balance in a College dominated by Europeans.

    He could have rewritten the rules so that the red hat was not obligatory for top Roman Curia officials. He could have introduced lay cardinals. He could have taken this opportunity to give the College a wider role in church affairs.

    The fact that he chose not to make such radical changes reflects several factors, I think. First, Francis probably did not want to be seen as revamping the very institution that elected him only 10 months ago. If deeper changes are needed, they can easily come later in his pontificate.

    Second, he may be convinced that a shift toward more pastoral leaders and fewer bureaucrats in the College of Cardinals is something that can be accomplished gradually. Over the next five years, he will have an opportunity to name at least 40 additional cardinals.

    Third, the College of Cardinals may not be all that crucial to the reforms Pope Francis has in mind for the Vatican and the church at large. At present, a cardinal’s most important task is voting in a conclave. Although known as the church’s “Senate,” the cardinals really aren’t convened very often in Rome, and there is no indication Pope Francis plans to change that.

    Being a cardinal does not by definition bring greater influence in most central church decisions. Traditionally, cardinals have dominated membership in Roman Curia agencies, but it remains to be seen if that will continue under Francis.

    A look at today’s appointments:

    -- Five of the 16 voting-age cardinals are residential bishops in Latin or Central America, and four more are from Africa or Asia. That’s the shift I spoke about above.

    Because the pope continued his predecessors’ custom of handing out red hats to leading Vatican administrators, four of the 16 voting-age cardinals are Roman Curia officials. That helped keep the College’s geographical balance firmly in the Old World: six of the 16 come from Europe (four of them from Italy, which retains the highest number of cardinal electors.)

    As expected, among the Vatican cardinals is the new secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin. Unexpected was the pope’s selection of Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; that may well be a sign that the pope foresees a much more important role for the synod in the months and years to come.

    -- The pope stretched the numerical limit of 120 voting-age cardinals, but only by a few months. After the consistory to formally create the cardinals is held in February, there will be 122 cardinals under age 80, but that number goes down to 120 by the end of May. (Of course, the presumption is that no conclave will be held before then.)

    -- The Vatican said the pope’s choice of cardinals for Burkina Faso and Haiti reflected his concern for people struck by poverty. He also chose two prelates from places that do not traditionally have a cardinal, Perugia in Italy and Cotabato on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. This practice, too, if continued in future appointments, could help redistribute the cardinal population around the world.

    -- Many Catholics will note that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is, once again, missing from the list of new cardinals. No doubt the thinking was that more cardinals from the Third World means fewer from Europe. But Archbishop Martin, more than other residential archbishops, has shown tremendous courage and honesty in addressing the sex abuse scandal, and his appointment would have sent an important signal.

  • Pope to Curia: An end to the role of 'inspector and inquisitor'

    Pope Francis’ meeting today with officials of the Roman Curia was important for what was said and what wasn’t said.

    The annual Christmas encounter between the pope and his bureaucratic support system is often a time for “big” speeches that outline papal agendas, and what better occasion for Pope Francis to explain his big project of Curia reform?

    That didn’t happen. Instead, in a short speech, the pope made three points that, while offering some praise for the performance of the Roman Curia, also seemed to challenge the reigning attitudes there.

    First, the pope spoke of the need for professional skill and competence. “When professionalism is lacking, there is a slow slide toward the area of mediocrity,” he said. Tasks become routine and communication closed, while awareness of the bigger picture is lost.

    Incompetence and lack of communication, of course, have been two of the biggest criticisms of the Roman Curia in recent years – criticisms that were aired in the cardinals’ meetings that took place ahead of last spring’s conclave.

    Second, the pope emphasized that the Roman Curia is at the service of the church – the whole church and every local Catholic community, not just the pope. When this attitude of service is lacking, he said, “the Curia structure grows into a heavy bureaucratic customs office, an inspector and inquisitor that no longer allows the action of the Holy Spirit and the development of the people of God.”

    Ouch. And this was a Christmas greeting.

    The pope identified a third crucial element for Roman Curia officials, holiness of life, which he said was “the most important in the hierarchy of values.” And he repeated a remark he’s made elsewhere, that he’s convinced there are “saints” in the Curia, men and women who serve with faith, zeal and discretion in a spirit of pastoral service.

    He added that holiness has an enemy: gossip, which he said unfortunately tends to be an “unwritten rule” of the Curia environment. He suggested that they all become “conscientious objectors” to gossip, which damages people as well as institutions.


  • Cardinal Burke dropped from key Vatican agency

                          Cardinal Raymond Burke

    Pope Francis’ plan to reform the Roman Curia is primarily a two-pronged approach: changing the bureaucratic structures and changing the members of Vatican agencies.

    Today we saw yet another sign that the new pope wants people in synch with his more pastoral vision of the church, and in particular with his views on what makes a good bishop.

    U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke has been dropped from the Congregation for Bishops, an office that wields tremendous influence in shaping the world’s hierarchy. Burke has been a kind of folk hero to conservative Catholics, in particular for his statements criticizing Catholic politicians who support legal abortion. Moreover, he has said that bishops who refuse to withhold Communion from such politicians are weakening the faith.

    It was significant that the new American named today to the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, has publicly defended his decision not to deny Communion in such situations.

    The change means that Cardinal Burke will no longer be among the approximately 30 members of the congregation who oversee the vetting process for bishops’ nominations.

    Just last week, Cardinal Burke appeared to take issue with Pope Francis’ low-key approach on some topics. The pope said earlier this year that the church cannot keep hammering only a few issues, including abortion and gay marriage. Asked about this by the Catholic network EWTN, Burke expressed some perplexity at the pope’s comments and said the church “can never talk enough” about abortion and marriage; he said abortion today is “literally a massacre of the unborn.”

    It will be interesting to see if Cardinal Burke hangs onto his job as head of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s highest tribunal. The cardinal frequently gives interviews, and his Vatican position has given his statements much more resonance in the media.

    Pope Francis retired others out of the Congregation for Bishops, too, mainly for reasons of age. Dropping Cardinal Burke from the congregation was more unusual because he is a relatively young 65.  Read More...

  • Pope says he won't be naming women cardinals

    The idea that Pope Francis might appoint women cardinals was always a long shot, and now it’s officially dead in the water. In an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, the pope was asked about the possibility and responded:

    “I don’t know where this idea sprang from. Women in the Church must be valued not 'clericalized'. Whoever thinks of women as cardinals suffers a bit from clericalism.”

    That would appear to rule out lay cardinals altogether.

    Evidently the pope is eager to take aim at clericalism in the church at some levels, but is not willing to upend tradition when it comes to the College of Cardinals. I still think he may make other significant changes when he names new cardinals in coming weeks, like expanding the College and choosing more non-Curial members.

    This interview is not as interesting as previous journalistic give-and-takes with Pope Francis. In some of his responses, the pope almost seems defensive, trying to explain some of his previous statements and deflating some expectations.

    On the issue of economic justice, he explains his critique of the current global economy in his recent document on evangelization:

    There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the “trickle-down theories” which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.


  • Why Pope Francis is Time's "Person of the Year"

    Today Time magazine named Pope Francis “Person of the Year” for 2013.

    Why I’m not surprised:

    Francis is a truly global figure, not just because he’s the head of a global religion but because of his radically different vision of the church and the papacy. As he put it, he sees the church first of all as a “field hospital” that has the primary task of healing people’s wounds. He favors dialogue over doctrine, closeness to the people over clericalism, mercy over judgment and joyful witness over cultural warfare. All this has struck a chord among contemporary Christians and non-Christians.

    Catholics, to their surprise, have watched the pope take up the Vatican II agenda again, breathing new life into concepts of collegiality and lay participation. He’s even willing to survey Catholics when it comes to next big Vatican powwow on family issues.

    From the standpoint of the news media, Francis is a perfect “person of the year” – a great communicator, combining plain-spoken preaching with gestures that communicate volumes, whether it be washing the tattooed foot of a young woman on Holy Thursday or embracing a man with a severe facial disfigurement at his general audience.

    The pope’s attention to the world’s poor and marginalized is both personal and political. He’s visited with immigrants, refugees, prisoners and unemployed youths, and beefed up the Vatican’s own charity office, while denouncing the excesses of capitalism as a “new tyranny.” When a pope tells the world that “the culture of prosperity deadens us,” it is rightly seen as a challenge to the global economic system.

    On issues of justice and peace, Francis wants to draw renewed attention to the Catholic Church’s impressive body of social teaching. True, he is not recommending a detailed political program. But he is proposing ethical principles that have political consequences. At the same time, he’s underlined the power of prayer, leading prayer initiatives for the cessation of fighting in Syria and for an end to world hunger.

    Clearly, the pope wants to reclaim the church’s moral influence on the world stage. To do this, he knows he has to rebuild church credibility, and he’s taken that task on with energy. His council of cardinals to reform the Roman Curia, his various commissions to clean up Vatican finances and, most recently, his Vatican-level commission on clerical sexual abuse are all part of a serious effort to address chronic problems that have undermined the church’s moral voice.

    These are huge undertakings, in response to equally huge challenges.

    Finally, a big part of what makes Francis such a good choice for “person of the year” is his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The first papal resignation in modern history set the stage for a conclave that surprised everyone – well, just about everyone – by electing someone who has set the church on a new course.

    At this point, Francis is being recognized more for the hopes he’s engendered than his accomplishments. But as the cover of Time confirms, he has definitely set important changes in motion.

    UPDATE: Here's the official Vatican reaction today from spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:

    This fact is unsurprising, considering the resonance and very widespread attention given to the election of Pope Francis and the beginning of his pontificate. It is a positive sign that one of the most prestigious acknowledgements in the field of the international press has been attributed to one who proclaims spiritual, religious and moral values in the world, and who speaks effectively in favour of peace and greater justice.
    With regard to the Pope, for his part, he does not seek fame and success, since he carries out his service for the proclamation of the Gospel and the love of God for all. If this attracts men and women and gives them hope, the Pope is content. If this nomination as "Person of the Year" means that many have understood this message, at least implicitly, he will certainly be glad.

  • Pope Francis' document delivers wake-up call on evangelization

    Over the last eight months, Pope Francis has revealed his fresh vision of the church’s role in bits and pieces – a homily here, a press conference there and an occasional conversation related by a third party.

    In a document released today titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), the pope offers a much more complete look at his approach to the church’s primary mission of evangelization in the modern world.

    It is a remarkable and radical document, one that ranges widely and challenges complacency at every level. It critiques the over-centralization of church bureaucracy, poor preaching and excessive emphasis on doctrine, while encouraging pastoral creativity and openness, even calling for a much-needed “pastoral conversion” in papal ministry.

    Francis urges pastors and faithful to "abandon the complacent attitude that says: 'We have always done it this way.' I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities."

    Along the way, the document delivers a stinging condemnation of the excesses of free-market capitalism and its “trickle-down theories” that have failed to deliver economic justice. More than ever, the pope says, the church needs to stand with the world’s poor and its peacemakers.

    Papal documents are usually tough to digest, but this one is a must-read for anyone trying to understand Pope Francis and his papal agenda. It offers real insight into a number of crucial topics, in language that is both easily understood and captivating.

    I’m still studying the 51,000-word text, but here are some highlights:

    -- Evangelization today demands an "ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred." The pope declares: "I dream of a 'missionary option,' that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self- preservation."

    -- On the need for joy in evangelizing: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter…. An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”

    -- On being close to the people: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”

    “A church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are open…. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”

    -- The role of the bishop, Pope Francis says, is to foster communion and “point the way” to the faithful, but at times to “simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence.” And that goes for the pope, too: "It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'"

    “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.... The papacy and the central structure of the universal church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.”

    The pope notes the possibility of a greater role for bishops’ conference, saying: “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church’s life and her missionary outreach.”

    -- The church needs to preach salvation, not doctrine. An imbalance occurs, the pope says, when the church speaks “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.”

    Evangelization must be an invitation to respond to God’s love and to seek the good in others, he says.

    “If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”

    -- On the need to keep the doors to the sacraments open: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

    “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.”

    -- The church’s internal “wars” -- the tendency to form groups of “elites,” to impose certain ideas and even to engage in “persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts” – are all a counter-witness to evangelization. “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”

    -- On “excessive clericalism” that keeps lay people away from decision-making in the church: “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.”

    This has implications both for understanding the all-male priesthood and for respecting women’s legitimate rights in the church, the pope says: “The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general…. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”

    His other remarks about women will no doubt provoke questions about follow-through -- for example, that "we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church" taking into account the "feminine genius," and that "pastors and theologians" will have to study "the possible role of women in decision- making in different areas of the church’s life."

    -- “Cultural diversity is not a threat to church unity.” Pope Francis, in fact, seems to hint at greater openness to diversity, saying that European culture does not have a monopoly on liturgical and other expressions of the faith. “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.”

    -- On the church’s closeness to the poor: “In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor.”

    The pope says economic injustice today requires deep structural reforms.

    “Today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? … Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape…. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading.”

    We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded."

    -- The pope is not just critiquing an economic system, but its effect on the spiritual lives of the faithful: "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience."

    -- The document strongly defends unborn children, "the most defenseless and innocent among us," and says the church cannot be expected to change its position on the question of abortion: "It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty."

    -- The pope’s document lays out the contours for what the church calls “new evangelization,” but the text includes a caution about turning this into a grandiose and impractical program: “How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals! But this is to deny our history as a church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifice, of hopes and daily struggles, of lives spent in service and fidelity to work…. Instead, we waste time talking about ‘what needs to be done’… We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people.”

    Evangelization, he says, is primarily about reality, not ideas: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people."

    The document is called an “apostolic exhortation” and that’s what it does: it exhorts, it lays down principles and it points to new paths – in some cases, insists on new paths – but it does not offer a detailed program of action. The pope clearly wants the whole church involved in filling in the details, which should make the coming months and years very, very interesting.  Read More...

  • New cardinals, and new opportunities for change

    Pope Francis is going to name his first batch of cardinals in a few months, a move seen as part of the slow and methodical process of reshaping the church’s hierarchy more or less in the new pope’s image.

    The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said today that the pope will preside over a consistory to create the cardinals on Feb. 22. The consistory is expected to be preceded by a separate meeting of the College of Cardinals, presumably to discuss impending changes in the Vatican bureaucracy.

    By February, there will be at least 14 “openings” for cardinals under the age of 80, who can vote in a conclave.

    It’s always impressed me how quickly a pope can put his mark on the College of Cardinals and influence the eventual election of his successor. There are numerical reasons for this: the voting age cardinals are a small group, limited to 120 members, and at present they have an average age of 72.

    If Pope Francis remains in office as long as Pope Benedict did – eight years – that means he will have named well over half the 120 voting cardinals in the next conclave.

    But a pope doesn't have to wait eight years to reshape the College of Cardinals, and I’m hoping Francis will introduce the kind of deep reforms here that he has promised elsewhere in the church’s life.

    The College of Cardinals is a human institution, not a divinely mandated clerical Senate, and throughout its approximately 1,000-year history it has been remodeled and reformed many times. The title of “cardinal” is an honorific, not a sacramental order, and the rules about who could be named a cardinal have changed many times.

    “Lay” cardinals existed for centuries, although strictly speaking they were men who were in minor orders but without having been ordained as deacons, priests or bishops. The current code of canon law says all cardinals must be bishops, but exceptions have been made to that rule in recent years (the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, for example.)

    There’s been talk recently about naming a woman cardinal. It’s not a new idea, actually. I remember that during the 1994 Synod of Bishops, an African bishop said naming a woman cardinal would be a prophetic gesture that demonstrates the importance of women in the life of the church. It didn’t take long for the Roman Curia and others to squash the idea.

    But creating lay, and women, cardinals is only one of the possibilities open to Pope Francis:

    -- He could, and probably should, substantially increase the number of cardinals. There is really no other easy way to break the dominance of the Roman Curia cardinals (currently they represent more than one-third of voting-age members) and European cardinals (who are more than half the voting-age members.) In the age of global Catholicism, there’s no good reason why Latin America, the most populous Catholic region in the world, should have only 15 cardinals voting in a conclave, while Europe has 57.

    -- The pope can lower “red hat” expectations in many European archdioceses and, in particular, in Roman Curia offices. As part of his restructuring of the Vatican’s bureaucracy, he can rewrite the rules so that most Vatican departments no longer need to be headed by a cardinal. It’s a prestige thing in Rome, and unnecessary.

    -- Pope Francis may also want to give the College of Cardinals some real responsibility other than electing a pope. Up to now, occasional meetings of the cardinals have produced very little creative thinking or input. That could change, especially with new and younger membership.

  • Déjà vu on divorced and remarried Catholics?

                    Archbishop Gerhard Müller
    Today’s Osservatore Romano featured a lengthy article reaffirming the church’s ban on sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    Written by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the article reads like a pre-emptive strike on new efforts to promote pastoral flexibility on the issue.

    Given that Pope Francis has himself spoken of the need to take a new look at the situation of divorced and remarried, and has convened a Synod of Bishops for 2014 to discuss this and other issues, it’s legitimate to wonder where the church is really headed: substantial change or another dead-end debate.

    The archbishop makes several important points:

    -- He underlines that, in his view, this is not simply a pastoral question but a doctrinal issue that involves the church’s theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage. He states categorically that the Orthodox practice of allowing second or third marriages under certain circumstances “cannot be reconciled with God’s will” – which is interesting, considering that Pope Francis himself has referred to the Orthodox practice without explicitly repudiating or endorsing it.

    -- Muller pointedly rejects the argument that the individual conscience can be the final arbiter on whether a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic can receive Communion. Again, there seems to be a contrast in tone with Pope Francis’ own recent remarks on the duty to follow one’s conscience.

    -- In what appears to be a remarkably direct response to Pope Francis’ call for “mercy” as the framework for dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics, Archbishop Muller says that “an objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive.”

    Here is the more complete passage of the article:

    A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy. Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology. The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father.

    In short, Archbishop Muller leaves little or no room for pastoral flexibility on re-admitting divorced Catholics to the sacraments of confession and Communion. He backs up his arguments with teachings of recent popes and with the doctrinal congregation’s own instruction on this question in 1994.

    The one area where Muller offers an opening is in suggesting that “marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously” because Catholic couples don't really understand the sacrament or the indissoluble nature of marriage. In other words, get an annulment.

    “If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals,” he writes.

    Pope Francis spoke about the same issue in July, saying that many people marry without realizing that it’s a life-long commitment. Francis, however, added that the legal problem of matrimonial nullity needs to be reviewed, because “ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this.”

    All of this may sound like déjà vu to anyone who’s been around the Vatican in recent decades.

    I remember that in the 1990s, bishops attending Vatican-sponsored synods suggested more flexibility on reception of sacraments by Catholics in irregular unions. They were supported by some theologians, who argued for a review of scriptural and traditional reasons for the ban on sacramental participation.

    In 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, responded in a lengthy essay, strongly defending the church’s rules. His arguments were similar to those put forward today by Archbishop Muller. The essential content of the marriage norms, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “cannot be watered down for supposed pastoral reasons, because they transmit revealed truth.”


  • Next synod will take a new look at family issues

      Francis and his advisory council discussed the synod's future

    Pope Francis has decided to devote the next Synod of Bishops to family pastoral issues, setting the stage for a far-ranging discussion that is likely to touch on questions concerning divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and annulments.

    The synod will take place in October of 2014, and by then we may see other changes in the synod’s format that give its deliberations more weight.

    The Vatican announcement today was accompanied by an unusual statement by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, that seemed to be a clear signal to German bishops to hold off on pastoral innovations for divorced Catholics until the synod is held.

    Yesterday, the German Archdiocese of Freiburg outlined a new pastoral plan, involving prayer and conversation with pastors, that could allow some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

    The church’s longstanding policy is that Catholics who divorced and remarried without obtaining an annulment may not receive Communion because they are not in harmony with the indissolubility of marriage.

    Father Lombardi said today that family pastoral questions should be discussed “under the guidance of the pope and the bishops.”

    “In this context, for local persons and offices to propose particular pastoral solutions could risk generating confusion. It is good to underline the importance of conducting a journey in the full communion of the ecclesial community,” the spokesman said.

    It appears the Vatican is putting the brakes on the German bishops. And it’s not the first time. In 1994, three German bishops allowed Communion to Catholics who were divorced and remarried civilly, until the Vatican intervened to stop the practice. Following a dialogue with the bishops, the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation eventually sent a letter to the world’s bishops confirming that such Catholics may not receive the sacrament.

    I spoke today with Father Lombardi, who said it made little sense for a single archdiocese to stake out a new policy on such an important issue when the universal church was preparing to discuss it at length. He also said that after the 2014 synod, technically an "extraordinary" session, there could be a follow-up ordinary session of the synod on the same theme.

    Extraordinary synodal assemblies are called to discuss matters that require a "speedy solution." This one will take place in Rome Oct. 5-19, 2014, and the full theme will be "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."  Read More...

  • Francis caps a wild week with a warning against `worldliness'

       Pope Francis greets disabled children in Assisi

    It’s been a busy week at the Vatican: a date set for the canonization of two popes, a stunning new papal interview, a meeting of the pope’s “Group of 8” cardinal advisors and an important visit by the pope to the birthplace of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

    When it comes to the future direction of the church and the reforms planned by Pope Francis, do we know anything more today than we did a week ago?

    Yes, we do.

    Despite Vatican cautions about expecting too much too soon from the Group of 8, we know after their first three-day meeting in Rome that they’re focusing on some key areas of reform:

    -- The Roman Curia is in for an overhaul, not a tune-up. The cardinals and the pope want a rewriting of “Pastor Bonus,” the document that regulates the Vatican bureaucracy. The emphasis will be on the Curia’s identity as a network of service instead of a central church authority. The new constitution will likely modify the role of the secretary of state, tying this office more closely to papal ministry and creating a new “moderator of the Curia” to coordinate activities of other Vatican agencies.

    -- The Synod of Bishops will likely be revamped, too. It appears Francis wants to use the periodic synods at the Vatican as a way to implement what he’s called greater collegiality and “synodality,” implying a sharing of decision-making authority. Sometime in coming days, we should be learning how the new assemblies will work, as well as the theme for the next synod (which the pope has hinted will focus on the human being and the family in the light of the Gospel.)

    -- The role of the laity in the governing of the church is going to be a major topic of thought and discussion going forward in these meetings. The cardinals made a point of this, reflecting the concerns of their own faithful, and Pope Francis seems receptive. I expect the pope will bring lay people to decision-making positions in the Vatican for the first time – which also means bringing women to these positions for the first time. (Up to now, the Vatican has insisted that the power to make legally binding decisions is tied to holy orders.)

    -- The cardinals raised some issues related to reform of Vatican financial institutions, but are awaiting the recommendations of specific advisory commissions appointed by the pope. After fresh accusations of financial impropriety this week regarding APSA, the Vatican’s investment agency, that work acquired new urgency. Meanwhile, this week saw publication of the Vatican bank's first annual report, considered a milestone on the path toward great transparency.

    We now have a clearer idea of the timeline in the reform process, too. The Group of 8 scheduled additional meetings for December and February, but the Vatican emphasized that its work was expected to be completed “quickly.” I think that by the one-year mark of Francis’ election, the pope wants to have some key changes in place. All of this shows the wisdom of appointing a panel of eight cardinals instead of a larger and more unwieldy consultative group.

    Pope Francis’ latest newspaper interview, a conversation with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, also shed more light on the pope’s vision of the church’s mission and his own ministry. His critique of the “Vatican-centric” view of the Roman Curia and his characterization of papal courtiers as a “leprosy” no doubt sent more shudders through the ranks of Vatican bureaucrats.

    This interview strengthened expectations that Francis will share governing authority, and that he will emphasize dialogue as the dominant means of evangelization. One of his most telling comments was that “very little was done” to implement the Second Vatican Council’s call for engagement with modern culture. Francis sees himself as the pope who will finally run with Vatican II, in a way his predecessors have not.

    Today’s visit to Assisi spotlighted Francis’ wider message to the church, warning against a “spirit of the world” that compromises Christian witness. Standing in the room where St. Francis stripped off his rich clothes and dedicated his life to poverty, the pope said, “This is a good occasion to invite the church to strip itself of worldliness.”

    “There is a danger that threatens everyone in the church, all of us. The danger of worldliness. It leads us to vanity, arrogance and pride,” he said.

    Meeting with a group of poor people served by Catholic charities, the pope said that many of them had been “stripped by this savage world, which doesn't provide work, which doesn't help, to which it makes no difference that children die of hunger.”

    Here, too, we caught a glimpse of things to come. Francis is going to have a lot to say about economic justice, and I don’t think it will simply be a rehash of previous papal encyclicals. I expect we’re going to see gestures, decisions and words that will challenge economic systems and shake individual consciences.

    This momentous week began with the decision to canonize Popes John Paul II and John XXIII next April 27. Pairing the two was an unexpected decision by Pope Francis a couple of months ago, and I think he’s setting the stage for an event designed to underline church unity. Although the two popes had different approaches and appealed in different ways to groups of Catholics, by declaring them both saints Francis will accentuate the qualities that transcend those differences.


  • In new interview, Francis takes aim at 'Vatican-centric' view

    “Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”

    Once again, Pope Francis has delivered a dose of candor, on topics ranging from reform of the Vatican bureaucracy to his favorite saints. And once again, he’s done it by going outside the usual (filtered) Vatican channels of communication – in this case, in a conversation with an Italian newspaper editor who happens to be a nonbeliever.

    The remark about the papal “court” will deservedly make headlines. It should be noted that Francis was not impugning the entire Roman Curia, which he said has another defect: “It is Vatican-centric. It sees and looks after the interests of the Vatican, which are still, for the most part, temporal interests.”

    “This Vatican-centric view neglects the world around us. I do not share this view and I'll do everything I can to change it. The Church is or should go back to being a community of God's people, and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God,” he said.

    There were several other striking comments in this latest chapter of The Real Francis:

    -- The church’s evangelization must be carried out through dialogue, not proselytism, which the pope called “solemn nonsense.” This is a man unafraid of putting Christian beliefs out for critical discussion, convinced that “to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas” is part of a process that will attract people and ultimately lead toward “the Good.”

    -- The church’s credibility rests in its ability to listen to the people, and understand their “needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.”

    “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace,” he said.

    -- The pope made it clear that the Second Vatican Council is his road map – and he recognizes that 50 years after Vatican II, not enough has been done to implement its call for dialogue.

    “Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”

    -- As on previous occasions, Francis dropped some strong hints that he will govern in a less authoritative and more collaborative way, using synods of bishops to share governing authority. His appointment of an advisory group of eight cardinals was a step in that direction, he said.

    “This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal. When Cardinal Martini talked about focusing on the councils and synods he knew how long and difficult it would be to go in that direction. Gently, but firmly and tenaciously.”

    -- Saint Francis of Assisi, whose birthplace the pope will visit later this week, will be his model.

    “(Saint Francis) dreamed of a poor Church that would take care of others, receive material aid and use it to support others, with no concern for itself. Eight hundred years have passed since then and times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary, poor Church is still more than valid. This is still the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached about.”

    -- The pope revealed that he meditated deeply before accepting the papacy, asking the cardinals if he could spend a few minutes in the room next to the balcony that overlooked St. Peter’s Square, where tens of thousands were waiting.

    “My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go way and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo countersigned it and then on the balcony there was the ‘Habemus Papam.’”

    -- Finally, in beginning a face-to-face dialogue with Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, the pope made it clear that he was not simply conducting an intellectual exercise with one of Italy’s best-known atheists.

    In his own gentle way, he reached out to Scalfari, probing the journalist’s beliefs and asking him at one point: “Do you think we are very far apart?”

    The two will no doubt meet again. I think the pope will continue to conduct this very public conversation with the idea of inspiring similar bridge-building efforts throughout the church.  Read More...

  • Two popes, two saints, two questions

    Pope Francis today chose April 27, 2014, as the canonization date for Popes John Paul II and John XXIII, a move that sets the stage for one of the most unusual and significant events of modern church history.

    Proclaiming as saints two of his predecessors taps into some deep populist sentiments among Catholic faithful. Yet it also raises questions about the saintmaking process and the relationship between sainthood and papal performance.

    The date chosen by Pope Francis makes sense. From a practical point of view, it gives Polish pilgrims in particular an opportunity to travel to Rome at a time of year when roads will presumably be free of snow and ice. April 27 is also Divine Mercy Sunday, which Pope John Paul made a church-wide feast to be celebrated a week after Easter. The pope died on the vigil of Mercy Sunday in 2005.

    Last July, Pope Francis approved a second miracle attributed to Blessed John Paul II’s intercession, clearing the way for his canonization. At the same time, in a surprise move, Francis proposed that Blessed John XXIII be canonized at the same time, even though a similar second miracle was lacking.

    Francis had a number of reasons for taking this unusual step. For one thing, the church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. For another, the new pope has clearly found inspiration in the vision and style of John XXIII, the much-loved Italian who was pope from 1958-63.

    I’m convinced the pope also wants the dual canonization to be a unifying event, demonstrating that diverse models of holiness have a home in the Catholic Church.

    But the canonizations inevitably raise questions, as well. One is procedural: in most cases, the church’s saintmaking norms call for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

    If a pope simply waives the miracle requirement (and no one is questioning his right to do so), what does it say about other pending sainthood causes? Are we reaching the point where miracles are no longer needed as a divine seal of holiness?

    I spoke recently about this issue with Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who formerly headed the Vatican’s sainthood congregation. He told me the miracle requirement was not disappearing.

    “Of course, sainthood exists independent of a miracle. But it’s still a valuable confirmation of holiness,” he said. The waiving of the second miracle for John XXIII was simply the exception that proves the continuing validity of the rule, he said.

    An even thornier question is to what extent, if any, canonization endorses or exalts a pope’s decisions as head of the universal church. In 2009, when the cause of Pope Pius XII was being hotly debated, the Vatican addressed this issue, saying that while the sainthood vetting process must take into account the historical context in which a person lived, it was “not a judgment on the historical effects of all his operative choices.”

    Likewise, Pope John Paul II once said that in beatifying or canonizing a pope, “the church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made.”

    Nevertheless, for many Catholics, the church will be canonizing “John Paul the Great” and not simply a very holy man. His role in the demise of communism, his global travels, his political skills and his development of the church’s teaching authority, in the minds of many, are all part of what made him a saint.

    On the other hand, critics who fault the Polish pope for his handling of the priestly sex abuse scandal are bound to question the wisdom of this canonization.

    I expect that in coming months we’ll hear the Vatican explain that these popes are being held up as models of virtue and holiness, and not inducted into a papal “hall of fame.”

    Historical note

    The custom of proclaiming popes as saints was strong in the early church, an era in which many pontiffs were martyred. Of the first 50 popes, 48 were declared saints. That trend stopped in the Middle Ages, and over the last 700 years only two popes have been proclaimed saints.

    It seems that recent popes are on a much faster track to sainthood, a trend inspired in part by Pope Paul VI, who launched the sainthood causes of Pius XII and John XXIII at the end of the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII was beatified in 2000. John Paul II was beatified in 2011.

    At present, the causes of Pius XII and Paul VI have advanced to the point where they await only a miracle for beatification, the major step before canonization. The cause of Pope John Paul I is also being studied at the Vatican.

  • Interview offers a 360-degree look at Pope Francis

    In a wide-ranging interview with Jesuit publications, Pope Francis said today’s church needs to “heal wounds” by proclaiming the Gospel and moving away from the “small-minded rules” that have sometimes dominated its message.

    The interview, published in the United States by America magazine, is well worth reading in its entirely. It gives a more complete picture of the Argentine pope, including his spirituality, his goals as pope and some interesting self-criticism.

    Asked what the church needs most today, the pope said it was “the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”

    “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else,” he said.

    “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all,” he said.

    Francis said his primary role as pope was “discernment” and promised that this would be done with consultation. This is not something he always did as a young Jesuit provincial, he said, and his authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led to trouble.

    At the Vatican, he said, he wants to offer consistories of cardinals and synods of bishops a real chance for input, which means giving them “a less rigid form.” That’s the idea behind the “group of eight” cardinals he’s named to consult on Curia reform, he added.

    “I do not want token consultations, but real consultations,” he said. In particular, he said the Synod of Bishops in its current form is not dynamic and could learn lessons in collegiality from Orthodox brethren.

    As for the Roman Curia, the pope indicated that many problems and complaints brought to Rome’s attention can and should be dealt with by local bishops. “The Roman congregations are mediators; they are not middlemen or managers,” he said. Nor should they be “institutions of censorship,” he said.

    Pope Francis emphasized that the Catholic faithful, as the people of God, are “infallible in matters of belief.” He spoke of the “common sanctity” witnessed in daily life: “a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread, the sick, the elderly priests who have so many wounds but have a smile on their faces because they served the Lord, the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity.”

    In this sense, he said, the church is “the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity.”

    The Ignatian idea of “thinking with the church” involves a dialogue between all its members, he said. “We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

    As he told reporters on his return flight from Brazil in July, the pope said the church “cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”

    “This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context,” he said.

    “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time,” he said.

    Francis said the way the church teaches in the modern world is crucial to the success of evangelization, which must focus on the essentials.

    “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently….We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel,” he said.

    Asked the about importance of the Second Vatican Council, the pope said its fruits have been enormous, particularly in the area of liturgy.

    He said the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to grant wider use of the Tridentine Mass was “prudent,” but added that there was a worrying risk of exploiting the old liturgy ideologically.

    All this confirms what we've seen and heard in bits and pieces over the last six months: that this pope has a new vision of papal ministry and is unafraid to put it into practice.


  • In letter to newspaper, Pope Francis broadens dialogue with non-believers

    Pope Francis’ skills as a communicator were on display today in two very different forms, one that made headlines and one that moved people to tears.

    The headline in the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, “Dialogue open with non-believers,” ran above a lengthy papal letter -- under the simple byline “Francesco” – addressed to the newspaper’s director, Eugenio Scalfari, an atheist who had posed several questions for the new pope earlier in the year.

    In effect, Francis laid out a road map for dialogue with all those who do not find themselves in the Christian faith, a dialogue the pope said should be “open and without preconceptions.” After explaining how his own faith was rooted in a personal encounter with Christ, the pope argued that Christ was a figure of openness not exclusion, whose followers should be motivated by a spirit of service and not arrogance. For the believer, he said, dialogue is not secondary but an “indispensable” expression of faith.

    Francis then responded directly to some of Scalfari’s questions, including whether God forgives those who do not believe and who do not seek faith. His answer focused on the primacy of the individual conscience.

    “Given that – and this is the fundamental thing – the mercy of God has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the person who does not believe in God is in obeying one’s own conscience. There is sin, even for someone who has no faith, when one goes against the conscience. To listen and to obey it signifies, in fact, making a decision in front of what is perceived as good or as evil. And on this decision the goodness or the wickedness of our actions comes into play,” the pope said.

    Francis then turned to the question of absolute versus relative truth, and said the terminology required some fine-tuning. “To begin with, I would not speak, not even for believers, of an ‘absolute’ truth, in the sense that absolute is that which is unbound, freed from every relationship.” For Christians, he said, the essential truth is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – which is itself a relationship, a path that requires humility and openness.

    “That doesn’t mean the truth is variable and subjective, on the contrary. But it means that truth is given to us always and only as a path and a life,” he said. In discussing things like truth, the pope said it was necessary to back away from terminology that closes off dialogue and places everything in opposition.

    The pope closed his letter with a pledge to continue dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers, in a way that promotes a clearer understanding of the church’s mission.

    “The church, believe me, despite all the slowness, the unfaithfulness, the errors and sins that it may have committed and may still commit in those who constitute it, has no other meaning and goal than that of living and witnessing Jesus.” The church, he said, quoting the Gospel of Luke, aims “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”

    This was a remarkable papal bridge-building effort that, as Francis said in the letter, is inspired by “the Second Vatican Council, desired by John XXIII” and by the actions of succeeding popes. It’s already created a buzz in Italy, and is further evidence that this pope feels as comfortable expressing himself in the columns of a newspaper as in formal papal documents.

    The pope’s non-headline encounter took place at the tail end of his weekly general audience, and in a sense was routine: he took about 25 minutes to bless and converse with sick people and their caretakers. I’ve watched other popes do this, too, but Francis seems to have a special feeling for the sick and an ability to make them feel special. Maybe it’s his unhurried pace, his willingness to lean in and listen to them for minutes at a time, his ability to carry out conversations with people who may be partially paralyzed, disabled or, in one case, strapped into a portable respirator. He accepted their gifts with a big smile and comments, and this was clearly a big moment for many of them.

    He held one elderly woman’s hand for what seemed like an eternity, listening to her story with patience. Whatever she told him brought a smile to his face.

    This, too, is communication Francis-style and it has a deep impact on those who witness it. It seemed like the perfect complement to the pope’s newspaper essay.  Read More...

  • As pope meets Curia, new secretary of state makes waves

    As Pope Francis presided over a meeting of Roman Curia department heads today, his new pick for Secretary of State was making news on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Archbishop Pietro Parolin, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, said among other things that the church’s tradition of priestly celibacy was not dogma and was therefore open to discussion. And he said that while the church was not a democracy, it needs to reflect the democratic spirit of the times and ad...  Read More...

  • Pope rejects pursuit of military solution in Syria as Vatican convenes diplomats

                 Archbishop Dominique Mamberti

    I'm at the Vatican this week, where Syria is the number one topic of discussion and concern.

    We just learned that in a letter sent yesterday to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pope Francis urged international leaders to “lay aside the futile pursuit of a military solution” in Syria.

    It was the latest in a series of Vatican statements signaling opposition to President Obama’s planned attack on Syrian government forces and urging instead a renewed international-backed effort at diplomacy and negotiation.

    The pope wrote to Putin because the Russian leader is chairing a G20 summit that Obama is attending, but also perhaps because Russia has been a supporter of the Syrian regime headed by Bashar Hafez al-Assad, and therefore may have some influence with the Syrian leader.

    Francis condemned the “senseless massacre now unfolding” in Syria, and said the international community cannot remain indifferent to the suffering of the country’s civilian population. But he said the path to follow was dialogue, because “violence never begets peace.”

    The pope’s letter was made public today after a meeting of ambassadors summoned by the Vatican for an urgent discussion of the Syrian situation. Addressing the diplomats, the Vatican’s foreign affairs minister, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, expressed outrage at the recent chemical weapons attack in Syria that left more than 1,400 people dead and called for clarification in identifying those responsible.

    He cited Pope Francis’ recent condemnation of the attack: “There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable!” The Obama administration has blamed the Syrian regime for the attack.

    Mamberti said the short-term priority in Syria is to stop the violence, and he warned of “unforeseeable consequences” if the fighting continues. He then listed several essential principles that need to be part of a just solution in Syria:

    -- Renewal of dialogue between all parties in Syria.

    -- Preservation of Syria’s unity and territorial integrity.

    -- Protection of all minorities, including Christians, in the future Syria, as well as respect for religious freedom.

    Mamberti also expressed the Vatican’s growing concern about the presence of “extremist groups” in Syria, often from other countries, and said opposition forces should keep their distance from such extremists and openly reject terrorism. This was a point also raised by several of the 71 ambassadors present for the discussion that followed, according to a Vatican spokesman.

    When it comes to the issue of a U.S. attack on Syrian government forces, there isn't much debate going on at the Vatican: everyone here seems to think it would be a very bad idea.

    The message from the pope and others is that a U.S. bombing of Syria would not bring peace any closer, would increase suffering in the country, would worsen the flow of refugees, would risk sparking a wider war and could further endanger the Christian community and other religious minorities in Syria.

    Pope Francis has called for a universal day of prayer and fasting for peace on Saturday, an appeal that’s struck a chord among other religious leaders, including Muslims in the Middle East.

    But it’s clear the pope also wants to make sure the Vatican’s diplomatic voice is heard, and thus his letter to Putin and the convocation of ambassadors.

    All this echoes 2003, when Pope John Paul II convened diplomats and strongly warned against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There are important differences, of course – the United States is not planning an invasion of Syria – but many Vatican officials still point to Iraq as proof that military intervention often opens new chapters of suffering instead of resolving conflicts.

    When the United States and other Western powers took military action in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was significant support at the Vatican for international “humanitarian intervention” aimed at disarming the aggressor in the wake of ethnic cleansing and what Pope John Paul II called “crimes against humanity.”

    But Vatican sources said this week that what Obama has in mind in Syria does not fit the definition of “humanitarian intervention.” Nor is a plan for peace being put forward. And that’s why, in this moment, prayer and fasting are seen not just as a symbolic response, but as a way to promote a new vision and a new international approach to Syria. (For a perceptive treatment of this issue, see Drew Christiansen’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday.)

    Along with Middle East and U.S. bishops, several Vatican and church officials have weighed in on the Syrian question in recent days.

    Bishop Mario Toso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said armed intervention in Syria could easily extend the fighting to other countries, a situation that “has all the ingredients to explode in a war of global dimensions.”

    Religious orders have enthusiastically supported the pope’s initiatives, and the superior general of the Jesuits, Father Alfonso Nicolas, took the unusual step of categorically rejecting the plan to attack Syria. “I have to admit, I don't understand what right the United States or France has to act against a country in a manner that will undoubtedly increase the suffering of a population that has already suffered enough,” he said.

    The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has raised doubts about the United States’ attribution of the chemical attack to the Syrian government, saying that many find it “difficult to understand” why the Assad regime would cross the so-called “red line” of chemical weapons use when he appeared to be winning against the rebels.


  • Cruising the Mediterranean, landing in Rome

      Pope Francis among Naples Christmas creche figures

    Your blogger has been missing in action lately, but I have a good excuse. I've been lecturing on board the Prairie Home Companion 2013 Cruise from Barcelona to Venice, speaking daily about the Vatican, the new pope, life in Rome and other Italian topics on which I'm the designated house expert. (I know, it’s a tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it.)

    I'd never been on a cruise ship before, and I have to say this one was a winner. Garrison Keillor, who did two shows every evening in the main showroom, loaded the boat with so much entertainment that it was hard to know where to turn. Richard Dworsky led the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band. Guitarists Pat Donohue and Dean Magraw, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, the great piano player and clarinetist Butch Thompson, singer Heather Masse and another singer, Hilary Thavis – yes, our daughter – were just some of the folks on board. So was Fred Newman, a genuinely funny guy who commands an arsenal of sound effects.

    In one of the most hilarious acts, Sue Scott and Tim Russell staged an “interview” with retired Pope Benedict by an Italian talk show hostess. The idea that a retired pope could do the talk show circuit is not, of course, impossible, but the portrayal of Benedict subjecting himself to inane celebrity treatment hit my funnybone.

    One of our cruise stops was Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, and I shepherded a small group to a Sunday papal blessing. I have to say I’m used to following the pope on a TV monitor as an accredited journalist in the press room. But on this Sunday my press badge was replaced by a cruise excursion sticker. I stood in St. Peter’s Square with about 50,000 others, watching as a tiny figure in white appeared at the window of an apartment complex he has chosen not to inhabit. Listening to Pope Francis talk, one can easily understand his popular appeal. The gate may be narrow, he said, but everyone is called to salvation, especially sinners. The road to salvation is not supposed to be a torture chamber. As I told cruise passengers who didn't speak Italian, his basic message seemed to be: Live the just life, but don't beat up on yourselves when you fall short. The APHC passengers seemed fascinated by Pope Francis, which is probably why my “Vatican Decoded” talk was standing-room-only and had to be repeated twice during the cruise.

    We disembarked in Venice and now I’m in Rome for a couple of weeks, to present the Italian edition of my book, The Vatican Diaries, and to lay the groundwork for my next project. I’m hoping to bump into the pope somewhere along the way.


  • 'Who am I to judge?' marks new tone on homosexuality

    It’s amazing how five simple words – “Who am I to judge?” – can change perceptions and open doors.

    The words came from Pope Francis to reporters on his plane back to Rome following a weeklong trip to Brazil, and the topic was homosexuality.

    The pope's remarks were telling, both for what he said and what he didn't say.

    I was not on the plane, but my former colleague Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service was on board:

    "A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will – well, who am I to judge him?" the pope said. "The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn't this (homosexual) orientation – we must be like brothers and sisters."

    Amid the media attention that inevitably followed, it’s important to note that although the pope was responding to a question about an alleged “gay lobby” in the Vatican, his comment was not specifically about gay priests.

    Some media have portrayed the pope as saying he would not judge priests for their sexual orientation, which would seem to call into question the Vatican’s 2005 document that ruled out ordination for men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies.” Based on the pope’s actual words, I think that’s a stretch.

    In fact, what the pope said – as he himself pointed out – is essentially affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that gay men and women “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”

    What the pope didn't discuss with journalists was the catechism’s line that the homosexual inclination is itself “disordered.” That was the basis for the Vatican’s ban on gay priests. Francis didn’t disown that particular teaching, he just didn't mention it.

    It’s an important shift in emphasis. And Pope Francis is clearly trying to reach out to those who have been alienated by the church’s statements about homosexuality in recent years.

    Although comparison between Pope Francis and Pope Benedict is not always fair, I think in this case it’s instructive. When asked about the church’s teaching on homosexuality in a book-length interview in 2010, Pope Benedict responded that gay men and women deserve respect, but added:

    "This does not mean that homosexuality thereby becomes morally right. Rather, it remains contrary to the essence of what God originally willed.”

    Pope Benedict went on to say that homosexuality among the clergy was “one of the miseries of the church” and that “homosexuality is incompatible with the priestly vocation.”

    “Who am I to judge?” sends a very different message.

    UPDATE: Here's a translation of the relevant portion of the Q and A aboard the papal flight. The English translation was done by Father Tom Rosica of Salt + Light TV, on the basis of an Italian transcript provided by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi:

    The Question to Pope Francis from Ilse, a journalist on the Papal flight

    Ilse: I would like to ask permission to pose a rather delicate question.  Another image that went around the world is that of Monsignor Ricca and the news about his personal life.  I would like to know, your Holiness, what will be done about this question.  How should one deal with this question and how does your Holiness wish to deal with the whole question of the gay lobby?

    The Pope’s Answer

    Regarding the matter of Monsignor Ricca, I did what Canon Law required and did the required investigation.  And from the investigation, we did not find anything corresponding to the accusations against him.  We found none of that.  That is the answer.  But I would like to add one more thing to this: I see that so many times in the Church, apart from this case and also in this case, one  looks for the "sins of youth," for example, is it not thus?, And then these things are published.  These things are not crimes.  The crimes are something else: child abuse is a crime.  But sins, if a person, or secular priest or a nun, has committed a sin and then that person experienced conversion, the Lord forgives and when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets and this is very important for our lives.  When we go to confession and we truly say “I have sinned in this matter,” the Lord forgets and we do not have the right to not forget because we run the risk that the Lord will not forget our sins, eh?  This is a danger.  This is what is important: a theology of sin.  So many times I think of St. Peter: he committed one of the worst sins denying Christ.  And with this sin they made him Pope.  We must think about fact often.

    But returning to your question more concretely: in this case [Ricca] I did the required investigation and we found nothing.  That is the first question.  Then you spoke of the gay lobby.  Agh… so much is written about the gay lobby.  I have yet to find on a Vatican identity card the word gay.  They say there are some gay people here.  I think that when we encounter a gay person, we must make the distinction between the fact of a person being gay and the fact of a lobby, because lobbies are not good.  They are bad.  If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge that person?  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this point beautifully but says, wait a moment, how does it say, it says, these persons must never be marginalized and “they must be integrated into society.”

    The problem is not that one has this tendency; no, we must be brothers, this is the first matter.  There is another problem, another one: the problem is to form a lobby of those who have this tendency, a lobby of the greedy people, a lobby of politicians, a lobby of Masons, so many lobbies.  This is the most serious problem for me. And thank you so much for doing this question. Thank you very much!  Read More...

  • A pope who likes to shake things up

    What to make of a pope who tells young Catholics to go back to their dioceses and “make a mess!”

    Or, allowing for ambiguity in translation, “stir up trouble!” or “shake things up!”

    However the words were rendered into English, one thing was clear: Pope Francis believes that the old ways of the church are not enough in today’s world, that it needs new approaches, a shake-up – which of course is what the pope is trying to do at the Vatican, as well.

    Here’s how the Vatican officially translated the pope’s remarks, delivered off-the-cuff to Argentinian pilgrims at World Youth Day in Brazil:

    “I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out ... if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the church cannot be an NGO. May the bishops and priests forgive me if some of you create a bit of confusion afterward. That’s my advice. Thanks for whatever you can do.”

    That’s a radical message from a pope, and yet it was perfectly in line with Francis’ effort to move the church out of the sacristy and into the street, away from theological debates and toward real-life encounters with the suffering and marginalized.

    Throughout his seven days in Brazil, the pope tried to do just that. He lunched with young people and heard their confessions, prayed with inmates and visited recovering drug addicts, embraced the sick at a local hospital, chatted with a poor family in a Rio de Janeiro slum and challenged the world’s powerful to end social and economic inequality.

    The pope communicated solidarity in small ways that caught people’s attention, too: asking trash pickers to join him on the papal platform for the Stations of the Cross, for example, or arriving in a simple grey sedan instead of an armored limousine.

    His meetings and gestures humanized the church’s social teaching, making it less abstract. In one pastoral setting after another, the pope himself came across more as a figure from the Gospel than an official from Rome.

    For those and other reasons, Pope Francis can look at his first foreign trip as a success on many fronts.

    -- He critiqued what he called a “culture of selfishness and individualism,” saying that an economic model based on material gain has been unable to feed the hungry or make people truly happy. That’s a message that seemed to resonate with young people, especially when the pope took aim at the corruption and economic injustice that’s helped spawn recent protests in Brazil.

    -- The pope implicitly addressed the challenge raised by Pentecostal and evangelical communities, which have attracted many Brazilian Catholics over the last 30 years. He did so primarily by showing attention to spiritual needs of the suffering – the kind of attention many say they have not found in the Catholic Church.

    On another level, Francis’ insistence on the Gospel of the poor stood in marked contrast with the “prosperity theology” espoused by some Brazilian Christian preachers.

    And while he spoke of an “exodus” of Catholics in recent decades, the pope made clear that his evangelization strategy is not so much about restoring the Catholic Church’s numbers, but revitalizing its energy throughout Latin America and the world. As he told young people at the closing Mass, “The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you.”

    -- He gave some strong marching orders to Catholic ministers and pastoral workers, telling them to promote a “culture of encounter” with those outside the church: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people!”

    And taking a page from his own playbook, the pope encouraged ministers to reject intellectualism and speak the language of simplicity. He spelled it out bluntly: “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying.”

    -- Francis connected with the young – but reminded them to keep in mind the elderly. It was clear that the pope sees young people in the church as part of a larger community, not as an isolated subset that needs a special “marketing” approach by the hierarchy.

    He emphasized that young people need to appreciate the experience and wisdom of elders, who are often forgotten by society. In this way, he introduced a new theme into World Youth Day: that the young and the old are sometimes victims of our modern economy, which treats both categories as disposable. "We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us," he said.

    -- In his speeches, the pope had little or nothing to say about hot button issues like abortion, birth control, gay marriage or sexual permissiveness. But at the closing Mass, he asked to personally bless a baby girl born with anencephaly, a condition in which a large part of the brain is missing. Most children with the condition do not survive or are aborted. The pope’s gesture, in the view of Vatican officials, spoke much louder than a speech about abortion.

    -- The 76-year-old pope’s high energy level during the trip, especially his enthusiasm in crowd settings, put to rest any concerns about his age or health.

    As he heads back to Rome, the success of this trip is going to segue into tough challenges. When September rolls around, he’ll go from a long honeymoon into a season of expected results on a wide variety of issues, including Curia reform, the Vatican bank, collegiality and governance.

    At some point, he’ll be expected to spell out some details behind the popular phrases like “going to the outskirts” to evangelize. Does that mean building bridges to disaffected Catholics? Opening up the sacraments for those who are divorced and remarried? Bringing more lay men and women in to decision-making positions at the highest church levels? Asking bishops and priests to give up some of the material privileges they enjoy?

    We’ll see in coming months if he takes his own advice and shakes things up at the Vatican. And we’ll see if he makes a bit of a “mess” along the way.

  • "Here there are many 'masters' of the pope"

    It's clear to everyone by now that Pope Francis likes to pick up the phone and call old friends. Argentine journalist Jorge Milia was on the receiving end of a recent call from his former teacher, Jorge Bergoglio, and Milia's report on that conversation makes for fascinating reading. (Hat tip here to my Italian colleague Lucio Brunelli.)

    Milia recounts that in their phone conversation, Pope Francis spoke endearingly about Pope Benedict, whom he calls "el viejo" -- literally, "the old man," but a term that carries with it affection and respect.

    "Today I was with el viejo, and we talked a lot. It's a pleasure for me to exchange ideas with him.... You can’t imagine the humility and wisdom of this man,” the pope told me.

    “Well, then keep him close to you,” I replied.

    “I wouldn't even consider giving up the counsel of a person like this, it would be foolish on my part!”

    Milia tells Francis that people view him as more approachable than his predecessor, and that Francis gives the impression that people can come up and speak to him. The pope replies:

    “And why not? Certainly, they should be able to do that! It’s my duty to listen to them, to pray with them, to hold their hands so they feel that they’re not alone.”

    But the pope adds that not everyone around him at the Vatican can easily accept this.

    “It’s not easy, Jorge, here there are many ‘masters’ (padroni) of the pope, and with a lot of seniority in years of service.”

    The pope went on to say that every change he’s introduced so far has cost him great effort. He said the most difficult battle was in maintaining some management of his own agenda of activities, instead of having it imposed on him. For that reason, he said, he chose not to live in the formal papal apartment, because many popes have become “prisoners” of their secretaries.

    “I am the one who decides who to see, not my secretaries…. Sometimes I cannot see who I’d like, because I need to see who asks for me.”


  • Pope Francis takes aim at the 'globalization of indifference'

            Pope Francis greeted by immigrants and residents on Lampedusa

    Pope Francis made his first papal trip this morning, a brief stop on the Italian island of Lampedusa, an immigration portal and a place where many immigrants’ hopes have ended in tragedy, disappointment or detention.

    He said Mass for a huge crowd of people, and his homily introduced a concept we’ll probably hear more about in months and years to come – the “globalization of indifference.”

    His text is well worth reading. Here is the main part:

    Immigrants dying at sea, in boats which were vehicles of hope and became vehicles of death. That is how the headlines put it. When I first heard of this tragedy a few weeks ago, and realized that it happens all too frequently, it has constantly come back to me like a painful thorn in my heart. So I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated. Please, let it not be repeated!


    This morning, in the light of God’s word which has just been proclaimed, I wish to offer some thoughts meant to challenge people’s consciences and lead them to reflection and a concrete change of heart.

    "Adam, where are you?" This is the first question which God asks man after his sin. "Adam, where are you?" Adam lost his bearings, his place in creation, because he thought he could be powerful, able to control everything, to be God. Harmony was lost; man erred and this error occurs over and over again also in relationships with others. "The other" is no longer a brother or sister to be loved, but simply someone who disturbs my life and my comfort. God asks a second question: "Cain, where is your brother?" The illusion of being powerful, of being as great as God, even of being God himself, leads to a whole series of errors, a chain of death, even to the spilling of a brother’s blood!

    God’s two questions echo even today, as forcefully as ever! How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.

    "Where is your brother?" His blood cries out to me, says the Lord. This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us. These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace; they were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death. How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God! Once again I thank you, the people of Lampedusa, for your solidarity. I recently listened to one of these brothers of ours. Before arriving here, he and the others were at the mercy of traffickers, people who exploit the poverty of others, people who live off the misery of others. How much these people have suffered! Some of them never made it here.

    "Where is your brother?" Who is responsible for this blood? In Spanish literature we have a comedy of Lope de Vega which tells how the people of the town of Fuente Ovejuna kill their governor because he is a tyrant. They do it in such a way that no one knows who the actual killer is. So when the royal judge asks: "Who killed the governor?", they all reply: "Fuente Ovejuna, sir". Everybody and nobody! Today too, the question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me. Yet God is asking each of us: "Where is the blood of your brother which cries out to me?" Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: "poor soul…!", and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!

    Here we can think of Manzoni’s character – "the Unnamed". The globalization of indifference makes us all "unnamed", responsible, yet nameless and faceless.

    "Adam, where are you?" "Where is your brother?" These are the two questions which God asks at the dawn of human history, and which he also asks each man and woman in our own day, which he also asks us. But I would like us to ask a third question: "Has any one of us wept because of this situation and others like it?" Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – "suffering with" others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep! In the Gospel we have heard the crying, the wailing, the great lamentation: "Rachel weeps for her children… because they are no more". Herod sowed death to protect his own comfort, his own soap bubble. And so it continues… Let us ask the Lord to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this. "Has any one wept?" Today has anyone wept in our world?

    Lord, in this liturgy, a penitential liturgy, we beg forgiveness for our indifference to so many of our brothers and sisters. Father, we ask your pardon for those who are complacent and closed amid comforts which have deadened their hearts; we beg your forgiveness for those who by their decisions on the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies. Forgive us, Lord!

    Today too, Lord, we hear you asking: "Adam, where are you?" "Where is the blood of your brother?"


  • A pair of popes headed toward sainthood

    Today, the popes came in pairs.

    First, Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict met in the Vatican Gardens, where together they blessed a new statue of St. Michael the Archangel – a project approved by Benedict and brought to conclusion under Francis.

    Next, the Vatican released what was termed Pope Francis’ “first encyclical,” Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), a text that was written primarily by Pope Benedict before his retirement. Although signed by Francis, the encyclical is clearly Benedict’s in style and substance.

    And then the Vatican confirmed canonization plans – not only for Blessed Pope John Paul II, which had been expected, but also for Blessed Pope John XXIII. It’s not yet certain that the two popes will be declared saints together, but remarks by a Vatican spokesman seemed to suggest that may happen before the end of the year.

    The action on John XXIII was unusual because it illustrated that the Vatican is willing to bend its own rules, specifically a procedural norm that calls for approval of two miracles before canonization – a first miracle before beatification and a second one before canonization.

    For Blessed Pope John Paul II, that second miracle was studied at length and given final approval today. It involved a Costa Rican woman who recovered inexplicably from a brain aneurysm after prayers to John Paul.

    But for Pope John XXIII, who was beatified in 2000, no second miracle was on the horizon. Nevertheless, the Congregation for Saints’ Causes recommended that Pope Francis proceed to canonization of John XXIII, and the pope agreed, subject to confirmation by a consistory of cardinals.

    There are several likely reasons for waiving the second miracle requirement for the canonization of Pope John XXIII, and the first is timing. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, noted the ongoing 50th anniversary of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, convened by John XXIII. The spokesman added that John XXIII was much loved throughout the church, and that “none of us has any doubts about John XXIII’s virtues.”

    It’s hard to believe that this decision does not reflect Pope Francis’ priorities, and his eagerness to revitalize the spirit of dialogue and interaction with the world that was characteristic of Vatican II and John XXIII.

    Canonizing the two popes together would also create a broad-based, unifying event for the Catholic Church at the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate. It would show that sainthood, like the church, has room for very different models of holiness. On a more practical level, I think dual canonization would mute some of the criticism of John Paul II, particularly by those who believe he did not do enough to counter clerical sex abuse.

    As for the Vatican breaking its own rules, there’s no doubt that Pope Francis can dispense with the second miracle requirement, just as Pope Benedict dispensed with the five-year waiting period before the beatification of John Paul II.

    But the move is bound to raise questions about how the Vatican’s saintmaking procedures are applied, especially in view of Father Lombardi’s remark that discussion will continue about the need for miracles in the canonization process. The church generally used to require four miracles before canonization. That was reduced to two under Pope John Paul II, and some are now arguing that one might be enough.


  • Settling in for a fascinating journey

    The first 100 days of a pope are not like the first 100 days of a president or prime minister or a CEO. A pope thinks long-term, and is under less pressure to put forward a series of short-term goals or programs. Most of the issues facing a pope transcend the pragmatic and the political. They require careful thought, prayer and consultation, not a string of policy statements.

    For journalists, though, 100 days is a marker that requires evaluation and commentary. It was certainly the hot topic at the Catholic Media Conference this week in Denver, where I gave a talk this morning to several hundred Catholic communicators.

    So what do we know about Pope Francis after 100 days in office? We’ve had no important documents, few significant appointments and no earth-shaking reforms of the Roman Curia.

    But we do have a healthy dose of papal thinking and papal preaching – on everything ranging from clerical careerism to sweatshop employment. And we have a number of papal gestures that speak volumes to people inside and outside the church.

    I don't want to recap Pope Francis’ 100-day “greatest hits” here. Instead, I’d like to identify a few core characteristics and directions that seem to be emerging:

    1. Francis has relocated the papacy outside the Roman Curia.

    First, choosing to live in the less formal Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments has turned out to be a crucial decision, because geography counts at the Vatican. The papal apartments are surrounded by Roman Curia offices, deep inside the Apostolic Palace, and Francis would have been much more isolated there. He is a people person, after all.

    Second, the pope has named a group of eight cardinals – now to be expanded to nine – to advise him on matters of church governance and Roman Curia reform. Only one is a member of the Roman Curia. Nothing said more clearly that Francis intends to rely less on Vatican insiders and more on the world’s bishops when it comes to governing.

    Third, much of the pope’s preaching has come in morning Masses at the Vatican guesthouse, in off-the-cuff homilies that are brief, insightful and sharply worded. The Vatican bureaucracy doesn't even consider these homilies part of the pope’s real Magisterium, and has yet to publish full texts. One reason, I think, is that unlike formal papal speeches, these extemporized talks don’t go through the usual bureaucratic machinery. They are less controlled by the Curia.

    2. Francis has begun his “reform” of the Vatican by evangelizing.

    The people who attend the pope’s morning Masses are groups of Vatican officials and employees, and his words are directed at them in a particular way. In that sense, Pope Francis’ reform of the Vatican has already begun. Not in the way the world was expecting, through high-profile appointments of Roman Curia heads – though that will come in due time. Instead, the pope is evangelizing the Vatican. He’s laying the spiritual groundwork for reform, by preaching the Gospel in his own back yard. For him, “new evangelization” begins at home.

    3. The pope’s vision of the church’s role is less about internal identity and more about external influence.

    He wants the church to be present in people’s lives. For priests, that means getting out with their faithful and sharing their problems – as he put it in his memorable and earthy phrase, pastors should have “the odor of sheep.” For bishops, it means an end to careerism (today he told nuncios that when evaluating candidates for bishop, they should avoid ambitious prelates and choose pastors who are close to the people.)

    For lay Catholics, it means being willing to live the Gospel and proclaim it joyfully in word and deed, especially to those who are suffering. Although this takes courage, evangelization is not a burden, and shouldn't seem like one, the pope said.

    4. The pope’s social justice agenda is slowly taking center stage. 

    His sharply worded challenges to the global economic system (“We live in a world where money rules … “We need to flip things over, like a tortilla: Money is not the image and likeness of God.”) indicate that his planned encyclical, “Blessed Are the Poor,” will not be easily spun by the defenders of an unrestricted free-market economy.

    But his economic Gospel is not merely aimed at international agencies and power brokers. He wants the church to embody concern for the poor and suffering, and has cautioned priests and bishops to resist the lure of the business model. “Proclaiming the Gospel must take the road of poverty.” He understands that practicing what one preaches is the key to church credibility in the eyes of many people today.

    5. He has confidence in his own spontaneity. 

    So far, he’s willing to be unscripted in “safe” settings like the morning Mass or an audience with children, but also in “unsafe” settings like his conversation with the officials of the Latin American Conference of Religious. I’ve seen other popes go down this path (even Benedict like to extemporize at first) but top Vatican officials would pretty quickly convince them that a prepared text is better for everyone. It seems to me that Francis has decided otherwise, and I think the reason is that, for him, being a pastor is not the same as being a speechgiver.

    At 100 days, I think we’re beyond the “honeymoon” period. We’re settling into a fascinating pontificat


  • Pope Francis on corruption, 'gay lobby' in Roman Curia

    The pope with officials of Latin American Conference of Religious

    A Chilean website has published a partial account of a conversation in which Pope Francis purportedly confirms the existence of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican, warns of a “restorationist” movement in the church and frankly confesses his own disorganization when it comes to governing.

    The pope is said to have made the remarks in a conversation June 6 with top officials of the Latin American Conference of Religious. The partial text was published Sunday by the Reflexion y liberacion website, and translated today into English by the Rorate Caeli website.

    I asked Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman about the authenticity of the text, and he responded: “The meeting of the Holy Father with the presidency of CLAR was a meeting of a private nature. I therefore have no statement to make on the proceedings or on the content of the conversation.”

    It’s important to point out that the text appears to be more working notes than an actual transcript, with plenty of ellipses. That means that nuances and qualifiers may have been lost along the way.

    Nevertheless, the text appears to echo the tone of Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff comments on other occasions. And it would seem that if anything patently false were reported, the Vatican would not have passed on the opportunity to knock it down.

    Asked about his plans to reform the Roman Curia, the pope is quoted as saying:

    And, yes... it is difficult. In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true... The "gay lobby" is mentioned, and it is true, it is there... We need to see what we can do...

    And later:

    Reform of the Roman Curia almost everyone asked for in general congregations: I am very disorganized, I have never been good at this. But the cardinals of the Commission will move it forward.

    The pope used the term “gay lobby” in the original Spanish, and he appeared to be referencing newspaper reports from last March, which alleged that a network of gay clerics inside the Vatican wielded great influence and was the subject of an investigation ordered by the retired Pope Benedict.

    The account of Pope Francis’ conversation with CLAR officials begins with the pope apparently referring to the Vatican’s recent investigation of U.S. sisters, and the relationship between the doctrinal congregation and religious orders:

    They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder, this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward... Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it.

    The pope identified two particular concerns. First, “restorationist groups” that would take the church backward in its practices, such as measuring spiritual value in the number of rosaries recited.

    Second, he said, a certain pantheism of an educated elite. “I heard of a superior general that prompted the sisters of her congregation to not pray in the morning, but to spiritually bathe in the cosmos, things like that.”

    UPDATE: CLAR officials apologized in a statement today for the publication of what they said was a synthesis of participants' impressions following the meeting with Pope Francis. No recording of the meeting was made, the statement said, and therefore the synthesis was not a verbatim text.

    "It is clear that, based on this, one cannot attribute to the Holy Father, with certainty, the specific expressions contained in the text, but only the general sense," it said.

    Here is the Rorate Caeli translation of the text published by Reflexion y liberacion:

    Audience with Pope Francis

    CLAR, 06.06.13

    "Open the doors... Open the doors!"

    They will make mistakes, they will make a blunder [meter la pata], this will pass! Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing... But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward... Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it. I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up...

    (on his election) I did not lose my peace [of mind - no perdí la paz] at any moment, you know? And this is not from myself, I am of the kind that gets worried, that gets upset... But I did not lose my peace at any moment. This confirms to me that this comes from God...

    (upon mentioning to him the hope that his gestures at this time have brought us, he makes reference to having stayed at Santa Marta) ....these gestures... they have not come from me. They have not occurred to me. It is not as if I had brought a plan, nor that I have made one myself once elected. I do it because I felt this was what the Lord wanted. But these gestures are not mine, there is Someone else here... this gives me confidence.

    I came [to Rome] only with the necessary clothes, I washed them at night, and suddenly this... And I did not have any chance! In the London betting houses I was in 44th place, look at that, the one who bet on me won a lot, of course...! This does not come from me...

    It is necessary to shake things up [flip things over, lit. dar vuelta (a) la tortilla]. It is not news that an old man dies of cold in Ottaviano [Rorate note: referring to the surroundings of via Ottaviano and the Ottaviano Rome Metro station, near the Vatican], or that there be so many children with no education, or hungry, I think of Argentina...On the other hand, the main stock exchanges go up or down 3 points, and this is a world event. One must shake things up! This cannot be. Computers are not made in the image and likeness of God; they are an instrument, yes, but nothing more. Money is not image and likeness of God. Only the person is image and likeness of God. It is necessary to flip it over. This is the gospel.

    It is necessary to go to the causes, to the roots. Abortion is bad, but that is clear. But behind the approval of this law, what interests are behind it... they are at times the conditions posed by the great organizations to support with money, you know that? It is necessary to go to the causes, we cannot remain only in the symptoms. Do not be afraid to denounce... you will suffer, you will have problems, but do not be afraid to denounce, that is the prophecy of religious life...

    I share with you two concerns. One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council... One feels in 1940... An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me; when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: "Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries." Why don't they say, 'we pray for you, we ask...', but this thing of counting... And these groups return to practices and to disciplines that I lived through - not you, because you are not old - to disciplines, to things that in that moment took place, but not now, they do not exist today...

    The second [concern] is for a Gnostic current. Those Pantheisms... Both are elite currents, but this one is of a more educated elite... I heard of a superior general that prompted the sisters of her congregation to not pray in the morning, but to spiritually bathe in the cosmos, things like that... They concern me because they ignore the incarnation! And the Son of God became our flesh, the Word was made flesh, and in Latin America we have flesh abundantly [de tirar al techo]! What happens to the poor, their pains, this is our flesh...

    The gospel is not the old rule, nor this Pantheism. If you look at the periphery; the destitute... the drug addicts! The traffic of people... This is the gospel. The poor are the gospel...

    (upon mentioning the hardship of being in charge of the Roman Curia, and the commission of cardinals who will support him, etc.) And, yes... it is difficult. In the Curia, there are also holy people, really, there are holy people. But there also is a stream of corruption, there is that as well, it is true... The "gay lobby" is mentioned, and it is true, it is there... We need to see what we can do...

    The reform of the Roman Curia is something that almost all Cardinals asked for in the Congregations preceding the Conclave. I also asked for it. I cannot promote the reform myself, these matters of administration... I am very disorganized, I have never been good at this. But the cardinals of the Commission will move it forward. There is Rodríguez Maradiaga, who is Latin American, who is in front of it, there is Errázuriz, they are very organized. The one from Munich is also very organized. They will move it forward.

    Pray for me... that I make mistakes the least possible...

    Aparecida is not over. [Rorate note: the reference is to the 5th General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, held in the Marian shrine of Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. See our lengthy coverage of the meeting in our Aparecida Notes series.] Aparecida is not simply a document. It was an event. Aparecida was a different thing. First, because there was no working draft. There were suggesions, but not a draft. And in the end, there was no document either, but on the eve of the final day, we had 2,300 "notes"... Aparecida moved towards the continental mission. There ends Aparecida, in the push towards mission.

    What Aparecida had that was special was that it was not celebrated in a hotel, nor in a retreat house... it was celebrated in a Marian shrine. During the week, we celebrated the eucharist and there were some 250 people, because it was a regular workday. But on the weekends, it was full....! The people of God joined the Bishops, asking for the Holy Spirit...

    I saw - I name him because I see him more standoffish, more like this, he is good, but he is like that - I saw the Prefect, João [Rorate note: João Braz de Aviz, then-Archbishop of Brasilia, now Cardinal-Prefect of Religious], who went out with his miter, and people got close to him, and they brought the children near, and he greeted them, and hugged them like this... This same bishop then voted. He could not have voted the same way as if he had been in a hotel!

    We had the meeting rooms under the Shrine. So the background music were the chants, the celebrations in the Shrine... This made it very special.

    There is something that concerns me, even though I do not know now to understand it. There are religious congregations, very, very tiny groups, a few persons, very old people... They have no vocations, what do I know, the Holy Spirit do not want them to go on, perhaps they have already fulfilled their mission in the Church, I do not know... But there they are, clinging to their buildings, clinging to money... I do not know why this happens, I do not know how to understand it. But I ask you to be concerned with these groups... The management of money... is something that needs to be reflected upon.

    Enjoy this moment that we live in the Congregation for Consecrated Life... It is a moment of sunshine... Enjoy. The Prefect [Cardinal Aviz] is good. And the Secretary [Abp. Rodríguez Carballo, OFM], that was "lobbied" by you! No, really, being the president of USG [Union of Superiors General], the logical thing was that it would be him! It's better...

    Place all your effort in the dialogue with the Bishops. With CELAM [Latin American Episcopal Conference], with the national conferences... I know there are some who have a different idea of communion, but... Talk, speak with them, tell them...  Read More...

  • 'We live in a world ... where money worship reigns'


    According to an Italian bishop, Pope Francis intends to issue an encyclical on poverty and social justice, titled "Beati Pauperes" ("Blessed Are the Poor.")

    The theme is certainly on the new pope's mind. From today's papal talk to the Pontifical Council for Migrants:

    "In a world where there is so much talk about rights, it seems that the only thing that has rights is money. Dear brothers and sisters, we live in a world where money commands. We live in a world, in a culture, where money worship reigns."

    Bishop Luigi Martella of Molfetta wrote on his website about his recent meeting with Pope Francis, in which the pope spoke about concluding an encyclical begun by his predecessor and issuing one of his own:

    "At the end, he wanted to share a secret, almost a revelation: Benedict XVI is finishing writing the encyclical on faith that will be signed by Pope Francis. Afterward, the pope himself intends to prepare his first encyclical, on the theme of the poor: Beati pauperes! Poverty, the pope explained, not understood in an ideological or political sense, but in an evangelical sense."

    Speaking to diplomats in March, Pope Francis said that fighting poverty, "both material and spiritual," was a key challenge for the international community.

    Bishop Martella said Pope Francis also told him that while he was concerned about Pope Benedict's physical health when the two men met at Castel Gandolfo in March, "today he is doing much better."

    UPDATE: The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, later said it was not true that Pope Benedict is still working on his unfinished encyclical on faith -- apparently the spokesman did not want to leave the impression of a tag-team document in the works, or of an ex-pope still working as a pope. It looks like Francis will simply complete what Benedict started.

  • The pope's financial gospel and the Vatican bank

    Pope Francis prays in the chapel of the Vatican guest house

    UPDATE: Yesterday it was the church and wealth. Today Pope Francis took aim at the shortcomings of the global economic system.

    Addressing several new ambassadors to the Vatican, the pope said:

    "The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

    The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight their distortions and above all the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption."

    The full test is here, and well worth reading. Yesterday, he spoke about the church and money.

    “When a priest, a bishop goes after money, the people do not love him – and that's a sign…. St. Paul did not have a bank account, he worked, and when a bishop, a priest goes on the road to vanity, he enters into the spirit of careerism – and this hurts the church very much – [and] ends up being ridiculous: he boasts, he is pleased to be seen, all powerful – and the people do not like that!”

    The financial gospel of Pope Francis has become a little clearer every day, and these words from his morning Mass today in the Vatican guest house underline his conviction that the church’s pastors need to be true pastors – not business managers, CEOs or investment strategists.

    The line about St. Paul not having a bank account, of course, brings to mind the Vatican bank and its future under the new pope. The bank has had more than its share of problems and scandals over the years, and there’s been speculation that Pope Francis envisions far-reaching reforms or even its suppression.

    Dismantling the bank is not very likely, I believe, in part because of a last-minute decision made by Pope Benedict. Two weeks before he retired, Benedict appointed a new director of the bank, German financier Ernst von Freyburg; the move was seen as an effort to place the institution firmly on the path of reform.

    This week, von Freyburg announced to his staff that the bank would publish its financial accounts before the end of the year and would launch its own website, in steps toward greater transparency.

    A month ago, at the Vatican’s request, European banking regulators said they would expand their evaluation of the Vatican bank’s efforts to prevent money-laundering and the funding of terrorism – another move toward compliancy with international norms.

    There are many who wonder, “Why does the Vatican need a bank?” and even some cardinals have recently posed that question. Some Vatican officials believe it’s a matter of sovereignty, and say that placing Vatican financial operations under the control of foreign banks is not a good idea.

    Others point out that the Vatican bank, known officially as the Institute for the Works of Religion, has always had a function that makes it unique in banking circles. It was established in the late 1800s (under a different name) as a means to help Catholic groups send funds to needy Catholics in another part of the world.

    Religious orders have used the bank to transfer funds to their houses in various countries, and missionaries rely on the bank’s expertise to help them find secure ways to exchange currencies and move money to particular church communities.

    I remember once seeing an African bishop in line at the Vatican bank, holding some benefactors’ bank account numbers in one hand and building plans for a new diocesan center in the other. When his turn came up, he dumped it all in front of the cashier and asked him how he could make one thing lead to the other.

    The Vatican bank has taken significant steps toward transparency over the last few years. Its director, Paolo Cipriani, in a press briefing last year, disclosed that the bank has about 33,000 accounts with assets of about 6 billion euros ($7.4 billion). He said that contrary to rumors, the bank had no secret accounts and no dealings with off-shore banks.

    It’s still too early to tell exactly where Pope Francis will go with the Vatican bank, but it’s clear he wants to underline the function of service and move away from the kind of deals and practices that have landed the bank in trouble in the past.

    As he said in this morning’s homily: “Pray for us that we might be poor, that we might be humble, meek, in the service of the people.”


  • New pope is planning encyclical, first foreign trip

    There's some interesting news (and some non-news) out of the Vatican today.

    First, it looks like Pope Francis will be finishing ex-Pope Benedict's encyclical on faith. The Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said he would not exclude the possibility that Francis' first encyclical would be issued later this year. The spokesman noted that before his resignation, Pope Benedict had already done initial work on an encyclical to mark the "Year of Faith."

    Father Lombardi also said Pope Francis would continue to reside in the Vatican guest house, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, instead of moving into the more formal (and much larger) papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. The pope likes his room at the guesthouse, and apparently enjoys the relative freedom of movement it offers him.

    "At the moment, he doesn't seem to want to change his lodging, although this is not a definitive decision," Lombardi said.

    Pope Benedict, meanwhile, is still scheduled to move into a monastic building located behind the Vatican Gardens, probably sometime in early May.

    It also looks like Brazil will be the only foreign country visited by Pope Francis this year, the spokesman said. He'll travel to Rio de Janeiro in July for World Youth Day. Lombardi's remarks appeared to exclude the possibility that the Argentine-born pontiff would add a stop in his homeland.

    Pope Francis is expected to visit Assisi sometime during the year, as well.

    Meanwhile, an official said there was no substance to recent news reports that the Vatican was preparing a document on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. The denial came from Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.


  • A Pope Francis sampler

    As I’ve written on this blog, Pope Francis has used his morning Mass homilies to deliver eloquent, off-the-cuff reflections on a variety of interesting topics.

    Meanwhile, for more than a month we’ve also had a steady diet of the new pope’s speeches and homilies at more formal events. Gradually, some themes are taking shape and his vision of the church has come into clearer focus.

    These more “official” talks are translated into various languages, which gives people around the world an opportunity to tap into the pope’s thought.

    Here is a sampler of Pope Francis in his own words, on topics ranging from safeguarding the environment to warding off the devil. Below each extract is a link to the original complete text.

    On professing Christ as the foundation of faith:

    We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Léon Bloy comes to mind: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.

    On choosing the name Francis, and the “church of the poor”:

    Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don't forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

    On mercy and how it “changes everything”:

    In the past few days I have been reading a book by a Cardinal — Cardinal Kasper, a clever theologian, a good theologian — on mercy. And that book did me a lot of good, but do not think I am promoting my cardinals’ books! Not at all! Yet it has done me so much good, so much good... Cardinal Kasper said that feeling mercy, that this word changes everything. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient.

    On protecting Creation:

    The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents.

    The church’s duty to keep alive a thirst for the absolute:

    The Church is likewise conscious of the responsibility which all of us have for our world, for the whole of creation, which we must love and protect. There is much that we can do to benefit the poor, the needy and those who suffer, and to favor justice, promote reconciliation and build peace. But before all else we need to


  • Pope Francis on the risk of a 'babysitter' church

       Pope Francis at Mass with Vatican bank employees

    When Pope Francis said Mass this morning for Vatican bank employees, some might have expected a homily on financial ethics.

    Instead, he delivered a brief and insightful reflection on the strength of baptism. Essentially, the pope argued that unless lay Catholics are willing to courageously live and proclaim their faith, the church risks turning into a “babysitter” for sleeping children.

    Pope Francis was speaking to the mostly lay employees of the Vatican bank in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where his morning Masses have become daily teaching moments.

    He referred to the day’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles on the evangelizing efforts of the earliest Christians, who traveled from place to place proclaiming the Gospel.

    “They were a simple faithful, baptized just a year or so before – but they had the courage to go and proclaim,” he said.

    “I think of us, the baptized: do we really have this strength – and I wonder – do we really believe in this? Is baptism enough? Is it sufficient for evangelization? Or do we rather ‘hope’ that the priest should speak, that the bishop might speak ... and what of us? Then, the grace of baptism is somewhat closed, and we are locked in our thoughts, in our concerns. Or sometimes think: ‘No, we are Christians, I was baptized, I made Confirmation, First Communion ... I have my identity card all right. And now, go to sleep quietly, you are a Christian.’ But where is this power of the Spirit that carries us forward?”

    The pope said Christians today need to “be faithful to the Spirit, to proclaim Jesus with our lives, through our witness and our words.”

    “When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that produces children…. But when we do not, the church is not the mother, but the babysitter, that takes care of the baby – to put the baby to sleep. It is a church dormant. Let us reflect on our baptism, on the responsibility of our baptism.”

    This was a favorite theme of Pope Francis when he was an archbishop in Buenos Aires, and I think we can expect to hear more on the topic in coming weeks and months.

    In a revealing interview in 2011 with the news agency AICA, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was asked about the Catholic laity in Argentina, and he answered with these words:

    “We priests tend to clericalize the laity.We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease.And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap —it is a sinful complicity.”  Read More...

  • Pope Francis passes a curious milestone

                          Pope John Paul I

    Pope Francis is passing a strange milestone today, one that is more on some people’s minds than I would have guessed: his 34th day in office.

    In 1978, Pope John Paul I died 34 days after his election, one of the briefest reigns in church history. His death shocked the world and launched conspiracy theories that the “smiling pope” was murdered by enemies inside the Vatican.

    I was in Rome at the time, and based on what I have learned over the years I remain unconvinced of any supposed plot to remove the reform-minded John Paul I. He had serious health problems, and there’s no good reason to doubt that he died of a massive heart attack.

    But in the popular imagination, the modern Vatican has never completely shed its Borgia-era image. The idea that powerful prelates will stop at nothing to advance their hidden agendas is still very much alive.

    That’s been brought home to me in recent days, as I’ve spoken to various groups on my book-promotion tour on the West Coast. I don't want to make too much of this, but at every stop so far, someone has asked about Pope Francis’ “safety” – as if the pope’s reform plans might inevitably produce an internal, and perhaps fatal, backlash inside the Vatican.

    Sometimes this is asked in a tone of black humor, but I’ve been surprised at how often the questioner is quite serious. I’ve tried to reassure my audiences that, for both practical and moral reasons, they don’t really have to worry about that scenario.

    One reason the question is asked is that Pope Francis reminds many people of Pope John Paul I – in his simplicity, humility and willingness to do things differently at the Vatican. Both popes were elected at a time when many were calling for financial reforms in the Vatican, particularly reform of the Vatican bank.

    Pope Francis has a long road ahead of him when it comes to transforming the Vatican bureaucracy. As he showed over the weekend, when he appointed an eight-cardinal advisory panel on church governance, he knows he’s embarked on a delicate process that will take some time to implement. Clearly, he’s looking well beyond 34 days.  Read More...

  • Advisory group is first big step toward real reform at Vatican

    The new advisory group of eight cardinals established today by Pope Francis marks a giant step toward reforming the Roman Curia and cleaning up the missteps and power struggles that have embarrassed the Vatican in recent years.

    The Vatican’s brief announcement made it clear that the pope wants to take a new look not only at specific reforms of Roman Curia offices but also at general governance of the universal church.

    In establishing the group, the Vatican said, the pope was “taking up a suggestion that emerged during the General Congregations preceding the conclave.”

    Several aspects here are noteworthy:

    -- The group includes only one Roman Curia official and seven residential archbishops from outside Italy. That means that instead of turning to the usual suspects when it comes to Curia reform (insiders who “know the terrain”), Pope Francis is branching out and making this a project of the universal church. The group includes at least one cardinal from every continent.

    -- By forming such a group, the pope has signaled that he wants to look at bigger issues of governance and organization at the Vatican, and not merely make cosmetic changes. Instead of shifting the pieces around the chessboard, Pope Francis may choose to redesign the board completely.

    Already, rumors are percolating through Rome about how a revamped Secretariat of State might work. Others have suggested that major Vatican offices could be combined.

    -- The group is small enough to work. A larger group would have been unwieldy, but eight cardinals (and one secretary) can convene and reach consensus more easily. Their first official meeting is scheduled for Oct. 1-3, but the Vatican statement hinted that their work has already begun when it said the pope has already been in contact with the cardinals.

    -- The decision demonstrates collegiality in action. Pope Francis has shown that when it comes to such an important project, he recognizes he’s going to need help from fellow bishops.

    Speaking to reporters, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, underlined that the new group was consultative, not decision-making, and that it did not diminish the role of the Roman Curia. That remark seemed designed to reassure Curia cardinals, who probably recognize that on the issue of Vatican reform, Pope Francis is planning an overhaul not a tune-up.

    Here are the members of the advisory group as announced by the Vatican:

    Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State;
    Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile, Chile;
    Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India;
    Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany;
    Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo;
    Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley O.F.M., archbishop of Boston, USA;
    Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia;
    Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, S.D.B., archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in the role of coordinator; and
    Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, in the role of secretary.


  • Cardinal Kasper: Pope Francis has launched 'new phase' on Vatican II

                      German Cardinal Walter Kasper

    Cardinal Walter Kasper has an important piece in today’s Osservatore Romano, saying that Pope Francis, with his focus on poverty and social justice issues, has launched a new phase of implementation of the Second Vatican Council.

    Cardinal Kasper makes a strong argument that the council’s journey of renewal is not over and that the decades of discussion over its teachings should lead to new “practical consequences.”

    Pope Francis, he said, has pointed the way with his emphasis on a church that becomes poor and serves the poor.

    “In this sense, Pope Francis from the first day of his pontificate has given what I would call his prophetic interpretation of the council, and has inaugurated a new phase of its reception. He has changed the agenda: at the top are the problems of the Southern hemisphere,” Cardinal Kasper wrote.

    It’s useful to remember that it was Pope John XXIII who presented the image of “the church of all, and in particular the church of the poor” shortly before opening Vatican II in 1962.

    Cardinal Kasper said Pope Francis’ election had also underlined a related point: that the church's make-up has changed greatly since the time of the council.

    “At the beginning of the last century, only a quarter of Catholics lived outside Europe; today only a quarter live in Europe and more than two-thirds of Catholics live in the Southern hemisphere, where the church is growing,” he said.

    Cardinal Kasper also noted that Pope Francis appears to be open to a more collegial exercise of papal authority. The role of the pope as a unifying figure in the church should not lead to an “exaggerated centralism,” Kasper said.

    “Therefore it was very significant that Pope Francis made reference to the bishop of Rome who presides in charity, echoing the famous statement of Ignatius of Antioch. This is of fundamental importance, not only for the continuation of ecumenical dialogue, above all with Orthodox churches, but also for the Catholic Church itself,” he said.

    Cardinal Kasper made several other interesting points in the lengthy article, which so far is available only in Italian:

    -- The spirit of optimism toward progress in the world and the sense of journeying toward new frontiers, which marked the beginning of Vatican II, are long gone, the cardinal said.

    “For most Catholics, the developments put in motion by the council are part of the church’s daily life. But what they are experiencing is not the great new beginning nor the springtime of the church, which were expected at that time, but rather a church that has a wintery look, and shows clear signs of crisis,” he said.

    That doesn't mean Vatican II is no longer relevant, he said, but that “the church needs to take seriously the legitimate requests of the modern age. It needs to defend the faith against pluralism and postmodern relativism, as well as the fundamentalist tendencies that run from reason.”

    -- Kasper credited Pope Benedict XVI with promoting a balanced approach to Vatican II, and said the retired pope had a goal of “renewal in continuity.”

    At the same time, the cardinal seemed to respond to a talk given by Pope Benedict two weeks before his resignation, in which Benedict said a dominant misinterpretation of the council had “created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy.”

    Kasper said some critics still consider Vatican II as “a disaster and the greatest calamity in recent times.” But the cardinal said it was wrong to presume that “everything that happened after the council also happened because of the council,” and that the critics need to look more closely at more general social trends of that era.

    -- One reason Vatican II documents have “an enormous potential for conflict” is that compromise language was adopted on many crucial issues, opening the door to selective interpretation in one direction or another, Kasper said.

    -- Overall, Vatican II teachings have given new impetus to life in dioceses, parishes and religious communities, especially through liturgical renewal, new spiritual movements, better knowledge of Scripture and dialogue with non-Catholics, he said.  Read More...

  • On the road with 'The Vatican Diaries'

     A talk at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle

    This week brings another change of scenery and a change of pace. I’m on a book tour on the West Coast, beginning in Seattle and continuing to Portland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and Denver.

    This is new territory for me, in more ways than one. Here are some first impressions:

    -- Interest in the Vatican has once again been revived by the election of a new pope. At a book event yesterday at Elliott Bay Book Company, the Q&A period went on for quite some time, with several questions focusing on whether Pope Francis wants to change things – and if he does, whether he’ll be “allowed” to do so.

    There’s a general impression out there that no matter what a new pope’s good intentions, he’s going to run up against resistance from inside the Vatican. My own take is that while that’s undoubtedly true, this pope seems to know that he’s calling the shots. If he faces opposition to some of his ideas, he won’t be a shrinking violet.

    -- Financial issues are key to restoring Vatican credibility. I can’t tell you how many readers and interviewers have asked about the Vatican bank and its problematic history. I’m convinced that suppressing the bank and finding a new way to move church funds around the world would send an immediate signal that Pope Francis is serious about cleaning up financial mismanagement.

    -- There are some doubts whether the news media’s interest in the new pope will last. I had an interesting discussion about this during an interview this morning with Tom Tangeny of KIRO-FM’s Seattle Morning News.

    Certainly Francis is enjoying a honeymoon period in which every act, however small or symbolic, has generated attention and, for the most part, appreciation. But the pope’s focus is clearly on the Gospel, Jesus Christ and spiritual wisdom, and those are not headline-generating themes for a news market that demands novelty and drama.

    What will keep Francis in the news cycle are connections between Catholic teaching and real-world issues like social justice, ecology and economic policies. I expect the pope to make those connections and, perhaps, to punctuate them with actions and gestures that sometimes speak louder than encyclicals.

    -- People still read books. Yes, even books about the Vatican. They are hungry for information that goes beyond the headlines, and especially for profiles of real people who work behind the scenes.


  • A headline and a non-headline: The pope's 'mini-Magisterium'

    Pope Francis prays at the guest house chapel

    There was Big News and little news out of the Vatican today.

    The Big News grabbed the headlines: Pope Francis told the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation that he should “act decisively” with regard to cases of sexual abuse by priests, “continuing along the lines set by Benedict XVI.”

    This should be done “first of all by promoting measures for the protection of minors, as well as in offering assistance to those who have suffered abuse, carrying out due proceedings against the guilty, and in the commitment of bishops' conferences to formulate and implement the necessary directives in this area that is so important for the Church's witness and credibility.”

    “The Holy Father assured that victims of abuse are present in a particular way in his prayers for those who are suffering.”

    I’m not even sure what all this means. The first thing to note is that the information came in a statement by the doctrinal congregation after the papal audience. The second thing is its defense of the retired Pope Benedict and his handling of abuse cases.

    More specifically, the reference to the “commitment” by bishops’ conferences to “formulate and implement” necessary directives touches on unfinished business. In 2011, the doctrinal congregation issued a circular letter that required every bishops’ conference in the world to develop guidelines on handling allegations of abuse. It would be interesting to see a progress report on that project.

    The little news

    The lesser news from the Vatican came, as usual, in Pope Francis’ homily at his morning Mass in the Vatican guest house.

    Today’s theme was the name of Jesus. The pope related a story from his days as archbishop in Buenos Aires:

    "A humble man works in the curia of Buenos Aires. He has worked there for 30 years, he is the father of eight children. Before he goes out, before going out to do the things that he must do, he always says, 'Jesus!' And I once asked him, 'Why do you always say' Jesus '?' 'When I say' Jesus '- this humble man told me - I feel strong, I feel I can work, and I know that He is with me, that He keeps me safe.'”

    The pope continued: “This man never studied theology, he only has the grace of baptism and the power of the Spirit. And this testimony did me a lot of good too, because it reminds us that in this world that offers us so many saviors, it is only the name of Jesus that saves.”

    Pope Francis went on to say that “in order to solve their problems many people resort to fortune tellers and tarot cards. But only Jesus saves and we must bear witness to this! He is the only one.”

    I find these morning homilies fascinating, a kind of mini-Magisterium. They are not really part of the pope’s official pronouncements, but thankfully Vatican Radio is there to report on them.

    The other day the pope spoke about how important it was to resist the temptation of constant complaining in the face of life’s disappointments. A few days earlier, he talked about the destructive power of gossip.

    I hope someone is transcribing these sermons. They are always linked to the readings of the day, and seemed designed to provide food for thought at a very accessible level. Frequently, they underline how pastors can learn from people who have never had formal theological training.


  • Creating space for a fresh papal calendar

      Pope Francis visits the excavations beneath St. Peter's

    I was happy to see that Pope Francis took some time for himself on Easter Monday and visited the excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica. This was not simply a tourist stop, of course, but a visit to the roots of the papacy – St. Peter’s tomb was discovered there in the late 1940s.

    As a former student of archeology, I hope Francis also makes his way to a smaller but equally impressive Roman necropolis in a northeastern corner of Vatican City. As I described in my book, it was unearthed in 2003 when the Vatican was trying to build a 900-unit underground car park (and thus became a bone of contention, so to speak.)

    It seems rather incredible, but previous popes have not really taken guided tours of these fascinating places. At most, they managed quick visits.

    Part of the problem is that a pope’s time is no longer his own. From Day 1, he is presented with a long catalogue of requests for audiences, a to-do list of messages, speeches and liturgies, and proposals for Vatican initiatives.

    Much of a modern pope’s calendar has been filled in even before he is elected. This is due in large part to the very active pontificate of John Paul II, who established dozens of annual events that require a papal audience, message or speech. The program has grown by accretion, and it’s probably time to re-evaluate whether all this is really needed.

    There are many Italian Catholic groups, for example, that have a standing meeting with the pope. World leaders of any stripe are generally received by popes, no matter how productive or unproductive such encounters may be. It’s logical that Rome parishes host the pope on occasional visits – it is his diocese, after all – but does a pope really have to visit so many Italian cities? (Pope Benedict made 30 such visits during his reign.)

    As I’ve written elsewhere, the format for the “ad limina” visits that take up so much of a pope’s working day could probably use an overhaul, in order to make them less formal and more productive, and increase the involvement of lay faithful.

    Francis seems willing to take a new look, and create some space for different types of encounters. He is wisely beginning by familiarizing himself with his new environment, and he doesn't have to go far afield – the tomb of Peter lies about 200 feet from his residence in the Vatican guest house.

    In coming days, I wouldn't be surprised to see him wander over to the nearby Vatican shelter for the homeless, where Missionaries of Charity provide meals and housing for more than 70 people each day.


  • New pope offers a lesson for 'new evangelization'

      Pope Francis blesses the city and the world on Easter

    Reading Pope Francis’ recent homilies and talks, I find myself wondering whether the Vatican’s “new evangelization” project might benefit from his simple, direct approach to questions of faith.

    The new pope has an invitational way of presenting Christianity, illustrated well in his homily at the Easter vigil, when he spoke about Christ’s victory over death and sin, “over everything that crushes life and makes it less human.”

    Like the women who found Christ’s empty tomb, he said, modern men and women should be willing to be surprised by God.

    “How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness… and that is where death is,” the pope said.

    “Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.”

    In Vatican-speak, the “new evangelization” program involves a “renewed first proclamation of the Gospel,” and is designed in part to re-educate Catholics in the faith. In that sense, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which runs more than 800 pages, has been described as a “summary” of what Catholics want to communicate to others.

    This approach has always struck me as Magisterium-heavy. I think most people respond better to spiritual promptings than encyclopedic arguments for faith, and the new pope seems to be tapping into that.


  • Making the church less 'self-referential'

         Francis washed and kissed the feet of inmates

    With every act of his pontificate, Pope Francis seems to be demonstrating exactly what he meant when he told cardinals that the church needs to be less “self-referential” and more present in every environment of modern society.

    The debate over washing the feet at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper had become one of those “self-referential” issues. The controversy was whether both men and women could have their feet washed; some argued that Jesus was instituting the priesthood with his 12 male disciples on that occasion, and that the “men only” rule made ritual sense.

    Pope Francis, as we know, washed and kissed the feet of 12 young inmates in a Rome prison at the Thursday liturgy. Among them were two young women and two Muslims. He explained that washing the feet was above all an act of humble service, and said it illustrated simply that “we need to help one another.”

    “These young people will help me be more humble, to be a servant, as a bishop should be,” he said.

    In other words, rather than drawing boundaries around this Catholic rite, he found a perfect way to make it accessible and understandable to all.

    This is a smart way to evangelize. It’s not a smart way to woo traditionalists, as the reaction from some quarters has made clear – but that does not seem to be among the new pope’s priorities.


  • A Latin American pope who's sticking to Italian

     Italian remains the lingua franca at Vatican events

    One rather surprising feature of Pope Francis’ first two weeks in office is that he’s chosen to speak almost exclusively in Italian.

    This is a man who, according to the Vatican, is fluent in five languages – Spanish of course (he is Argentinian), as well as Italian, English, German and French. Yet at his first general audience this week, he skipped the traditional summary of his talk in various languages and stuck to italiano.

    No one’s sure yet if this represents a change in communication policy or an easing into the role of pope. Luis Badilla, a Vatican Radio journalist who runs a popular blog called Il Sismografo, speculated that perhaps in his first days, the pope has not had time to prepare multi-lingual versions of his remarks.

    There are other possible explanations, too. One is simplicity, which seems to be one of the guiding principles of this pontificate. Speeches or greetings that jump around in five or six languages require advance planning and editing, typically involving linguistic sections of the Secretariat of State.

    Another reason is flexibility. Pope Francis frequently departs from his prepared text, and he clearly feels comfortable doing this in Italian, but not in all the other languages.

    Some believe his exclusive use of Italian reflects his emphasis on the pope's identity as "bishop of Rome."

    On a practical level, the pope is aware that most of those listening at general audiences or other major events in Rome are Italian speakers, and that anything really important will ultimately be translated into other languages. Italian remains the common language at the Vatican, for Roman Curia employees, journalists and anyone else who needs to know what’s going on.

    And although previous popes, in particular Benedict XVI, John Paul II and Paul VI, made an effort to make remarks in multiple languages, the fact is that those comments were often difficult to hear or understand amid the cheering in the audience hall or through the loudspeakers in St. Peter’s Square.

    If you asked people what the pope talked about at his general audience – which I sometimes did as a reporter – most foreigners in attendance didn't really know. They knew that he had given them a blessing in their language.

    If the pope does stick to Italian, it could be that he’ll undo what has become a truism at the Vatican: that a modern pope has to be a polyglot.


  • The pope's 'reform' project has already begun

      At the Domus, Francis often sits in the back of the chapel to pray

    Pope Francis’ reform of the Vatican has already begun.

    Not in the way the world was expecting, through high-profile appointments of Roman Curia heads – though that will come in due time.

    Instead, the pope has embarked immediately on what might be called “re-evangelization” inside the Vatican walls.

    He dropped in today after a Vatican employees’ Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and spoke about the value of work, thanking them for their service and asking them for their prayers because “I am a sinner, too.”

    This morning, celebrating Mass for a smaller group of Vatican employees and officials at the Vatican guest house, he gave a short homily on the destructive power of gossip. He said speaking ill of others is a “dark joy” that Christians should resist.

    At other liturgies inside the Vatican – attended by everyone from Vatican City garbage-collectors to bank employees – the new pope has spoken about the need for people to open their hearts to those around them and show charity in everything they do.

    Even in what might be considered his most formal speech to an audience that included Vatican higher-ups, an address March 15 to cardinals, he emphasized that their friendship and sense of unity rely in great part on “a climate of mutual openness.”

    Pope Francis came into the Vatican with a mandate to change the way its bureaucracy functions (or disfunctions), in the wake of scandals, leaks and power struggles that have embarrassed the church. It seems to me that he’s taking that task seriously, by laying the spiritual groundwork for change.

    He’s approaching the various Vatican environments not so much as the new boss, but as the new pastor.

    I think that’s one big reason why he’s decided to continue to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guest house, instead of moving into the formal papal apartment. In the Domus, he’s a few steps away from St. Peter’s, as well as the Vatican City governor’s office, and his morning liturgies are accessible to Vatican employees.

    In the Apostolic Palace, the pope would have been surrounded by Secretariat of State offices and the usual filters. In effect, the Domus provides a much better pastoral base for evangelizing the Vatican.


  • Pope Francis to stay in Vatican guest house

    Word comes from the Vatican today that, as speculated here last week, Pope Francis is opting to stay in the Vatican guest house rather than moving into the papal apartment  in the Apostolic Palace -- at least for now. The reasons seem clear: Francis likes simplicity, and his quarters at the Domus Sanctae Marthae are much more simple than the 10-room apartment on the other side of St. Peter's Square.   Read More...

  • A prominent convert leaves the church

                  Magdi Allam

    A prominent Muslim-born journalist baptized by Pope Benedict XVI, Magdi Allam, has announced he’s leaving the church because it is too “weak with Islam.”

    Allam, writing on his Web site, said the “euphoria over Pope Francis” and the rapid way Pope Benedict was set aside was “the straw that broke the camel’s back” and convinced him to abandon his conversion to Christianity.

    Benedict baptized Allam in 2008 during an Easter vigil service at the Vatican, saying he wanted to inspire other former Muslims to practice Christianity openly. At the time, some of the Vatican’s Muslim dialogue partners said the high profile given to the conversion was a deliberate provocation.

    Allam said that what drove him away from the church most of all was “religious relativism, in particular the legitimization of Islam as a true religion, of Allah as the true God, of Mohammed as a true prophet, of the Koran as a sacred text and of mosques as places of worship.”

    He said it was “authentic suicidal folly” that Benedict had prayed in a mosque in Istanbul, and that Pope Francis, in one of his first speeches, said that Muslims “worship the one, living and merciful God.”

    Allam said he considers Islam an “intrinsically violent ideology.”

    His very public departure from the church must be an embarrassment to Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who personally accompanied Allam on his path to Christianity. Fisichella was later named head of the Vatican’s new Pontifical Council for New Evangelization – presumably the council is using a more productive model of evangelizing than highly politicized “conversions” from other religions.


  • 'Look up toward God, but also down toward others'

            Braided palm fronds went quickly in St. Peter's Square

    Pope Francis made it official at his Palm Sunday Mass today: He’s going to Brazil in July for World Youth Day.

    In his homily in a packed St. Peter’s Square, the pope told young people he was “setting out on a journey with you” that would bring him to Rio de Janeiro this summer.

    “I will see you in that great city in Brazil! Prepare well – prepare spiritually above all – in your communities, so that our gathering in Rio may be a sign of faith for the whole world,” he said.

    Under sunny skies, the pope led his first Palm Sunday procession through the square, as faithful waved palm fronds and olive branches. The Vatican estimated the crowd at 250,000.

    As usual, the pope ad libbed parts of his sermon, at one point quoting his grandmother on the futility of accumulating money in this life because “the burial shroud has no pockets.” In other words, you can’t take it with you.

    He focused on a point he’s made repeatedly in his first 10 days as pope: that a Christian’s life should be marked above all by joy and hope. He said it’s a lesson recalled by Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.

    “Do not be men and women of sadness: a Christian can never be sad! Never give way to discouragement!” he said.

    “Ours is not a joy that comes from having many possessions, but from having encountered a Person: Jesus, from knowing that with him we are never alone, even at difficult moments,” he said.

    Pope Francis said Christ “conquered evil” by dying on the cross, and this should encourage Christians never to be complacent when faced with evil in their own lives. As he has done repeatedly in his first few days, the pope spoke again about the devil.

    “We must not believe the Evil One when he tells us: you can do nothing to counter violence, corruption, injustice, your sins!”

    To make a difference against evil, he added, Christians need to step outside themselves and reach out to others.

    “Let us learn to look up towards God, but also down towards others, towards the least of all!” he said.

    “And we must not be afraid of sacrifice. Think of a mother or a father: what sacrifices they make! But why? For love! And how do they bear those sacrifices? With joy, because they are made for their loved ones.”

    After the liturgy, the pope took an extended ride through the vast crowd in an open jeep, stopping many times to kiss babies, greet their parents and give them a blessing or a thumbs-up.  Read More...

  • What was in the box?

            Francis and Benedict sat facing a large box and two envelopes

    One unanswered question from yesterday’s meeting between Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict: What was in the box?

    The Vatican video showed the two men sitting down for their 45-minute private conversation, facing a table on which a white box was placed. On top of the box were two large envelopes.

    As soon as the image was shown in the Vatican press office, reporters joked that the box must have held the famous Vatileaks dossier, the confidential report prepared for Benedict by three cardinals and left by the ex-pope to Francis.

    If the dossier needed a box that big, things were worse than anyone thought.

    More likely, sources said, was that the box contained correspondence for Benedict – letters, emails and other communication – that arrived after the German pope left office Feb. 28. The Vatican had said that goodbye messages were pouring in for the pope from world leaders and average people.

    Officially, there was no explanation for the cardboard container or the envelopes, which explained why today’s newspaper headlines spoke of the “mystery” box. Some hypothesized that Benedict was handing over all the important documents regarding unfinished projects of his pontificate, including Curia reform, negotiations with the Lefebvrists and his unfinished encyclical on the Year of Faith.


  • A historic meeting as Francis visits Benedict

                 Pope Francis meets with Benedict XVI 

    For the Vatican, today brought another “first” – two popes, one retired and one in office, met, had lunch and presumably talked about the various challenges facing the Catholic Church.

    Pope Francis and ex-Pope Benedict made sure they met in private, respecting Benedict’s wish that he retire to a “hidden” life that would in no way interfere with his successor.

    But in the eyes of the faithful, those concerns were not so important.

    “I came here to see the popes, naturally,” one Italian woman told Italian television as she waited in front of the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, hoping the two would make a joint appearance at the window.

    “The popes” is something the Vatican does not talk about, because of course there is only one pope, Pope Francis. But Francis seemed to have no hesitation in seeking out his predecessor – to thank him, to share some impressions of his first 10 days in office and, perhaps, to ask advice.

    I think one reason Pope Francis made the trip to Castel Gandolfo, where Benedict is temporarily residing, is that since his resignation Feb. 28 the former pope has appeared almost as an exile. He was probably the only ecclesiastical figure in the Rome region who did not attend Pope Francis’ inaugural Mass last weekend, for example; instead, he had to watch it on TV.

    This is Benedict’s intention, and there are valid arguments for a retired pope keeping out of sight and out of mind. An ex-pope who travels the world, gives interviews and pronounces on Vatican affairs could create confusion for Catholics.

    But if Benedict were simply to keep a low profile, writing and speaking with his usual discretion but without trying to make himself “invisible,” it might actually help demystify the figure of a retired pope and make the whole idea more normal.

    The small crowd outside the papal villa, situated in the Alban Hills 17 miles from Rome, cheered as Pope Francis’ helicopter flew over and touched down behind the walls of the compound. From time to time they chanted the Italian names of the two popes: “Francesco” and “Benedetto.”

    What they couldn’t see was later described in detail by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, and shown in some video footage released by the Vatican Television Center.

    Benedict, walking very slowly with a cane, embraced Francis warmly as the new pope strode from the helicopter. Both were dressed in white, but Benedict wore a simple cassock while Francis also wore the sash and shoulder-length cape that are part of a pontiff’s specific garb.

    The two got into an official limousine, Francis seated on the right – the pope’s traditional seat – and Benedict on the left.

    Inside the villa, they went immediately to the chapel to pray. Benedict deferred to Francis, asking him to take the place of honor on the front kneeler, but Francis replied, “No we are brothers,” and insisted that Benedict kneel next to him.

    Watching these images in the Vatican press office, I heard more than one person say quietly of Benedict: “He looks older.” And it was true. In just four weeks, the pope emeritus appeared to have grown more frail.

    The two then went inside the library for private talks that lasted 45 minutes. Francis brought Benedict a symbolic gift, an icon of Mary known as the “Madonna of Humility,” and he told the ex-pope: “Allow me to say – I thought of you, and your pontificate.” They clasped each other's hands.

    They were joined for lunch by two papal secretaries, before Pope Francis headed back to the Vatican. A spokesman said that, true to Benedict’s intentions, the two would not come to the balcony of the villa to greet the crowd.


  • Pope to diplomats: Two forms of poverty threaten peace

          Pope Francis addressed the diplomatic corps

    In a few quick strokes, Pope Francis today outlined to the world’s diplomats the mission of his pontificate: combatting spiritual and material poverty, building peace and constructing bridges of dialogue.

    It was a typical Pope Francis audience: a relatively short speech, to the point and easy to understand. Rather than a global tour of trouble spots or an examination of the Vatican’s geopolitical strategy, the pope zeroed in on a few basic principles:

    -- The overriding concern of Vatican diplomacy is “the good of every person on this earth.”

    -- One reason he took the name Francis was because of St. Francis’ love for the poor, which is reflected today in the church’s word worldwide. “How many poor people there are still in the world! And what great suffering they have to endure!”

    -- “But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously.” Spiritual poverty often takes the form of self-interest, which makes building peace much more difficult.

    "There is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others."

    -- The title “pontiff” relates to the pope’s role as “builder of bridges with God and between peoples.”

    “In this work, the role of religion is fundamental. It is not possible to build bridges between people while forgetting God. But the converse is also true: it is not possible to establish true links with God, while ignoring other people.”

    -- Interreligious dialogue should be intensified, especially between Christians and Muslims. Greater outreach is also needed to non-believers, so that friendship will prevail over “the differences which divide and hurt us.”

    -- St. Francis offered important lessons on protecting creation, which the world needs to take to heart. All too often, the environment is “something we exploit greedily, to one another’s detriment.”

    One big change was noticed at today’s encounter: instead of speaking in French, the so-called language of diplomacy, or in various languages, Francis gave his talk in Italian (with translations immediately available.) Evidently it’s a language he feels appropriate to his role as bishop of Rome.

    Mass with garbage-collectors

    Meanwhile, the new pope is finding ways to meet people inside the Vatican. He celebrated his early morning Mass today with Vatican garbage-collectors and gardeners, in the chapel of the Vatican guest house where he's been residing. Yesterday he invited employees of the guest house to the morning liturgy, pausing afterward to chat.


  • Pope Francis in no hurry to move into papal apartment

      The pope's study in his modest quarters at the Vatican guest house

    Rumors are swirling inside and outside the Vatican about where Pope Francis intends to take up residence.

    The initial expectation was that he would move into the formal papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, the building where popes have lived for centuries.

    But Pope Francis appears to be in no hurry. More than a week after his election, he’s still residing in the Vatican’s modern guest house, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, where he eats meals with others in the common dining room and can walk to some of his appointments in the Vatican.

    Yesterday I asked the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, if the pope had decided where to live, and he said, “Let’s wait and see.”

    When the new pope took a tour of the 10-room papal apartment a few days ago, he was said to have remarked, “Three hundred people could live here.” As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, he chose to live in a small apartment instead of the archbishop’s mansion.

    The Vatican earlier talked about the need for some renovation work before the pope moved into the Apostolic Palace. But the apartment received an extensive makeover in 2005 after Pope Benedict’s election, and it’s hard to believe Pope Francis would want to spend more money on redecorating.

    There are arguments for the pope living in the Apostolic Palace, of course. He’s close to the Vatican’s diplomatic nerve center and several other major offices, he’s close to the formal meeting rooms where he receives guests and he has a bird’s-eye view from the window where pilgrims still expect to receive his blessing every Sunday.

    If he were to stay in the Domus, which lies on the other side of St. Peter’s Basilica, he would effectively be out of the loop of the daily papal program, Vatican officials argue.

    There are also rumors that Pope Francis could decide to reside in the empty papal apartment at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which is the pope’s cathedral as head of the Rome Diocese. (My friend and colleague Robert Mickens of The Tablet thinks that would be a great idea.)

    Popes lived at the Lateran Palace for about 1,000 years before moving to the Vatican in the 15th century, and officially it remains the residence of the bishop of Rome. Since Francis has referred to himself as “bishop of Rome” far more often than he’s used the word “pope,” some believe he may make the move.

    The Lateran apartment was refurbished more than 50 years ago for Pope John XXIII, who wanted to use it as a retreat house but never got the chance.

    In my view, the important thing is not so much where the pope lives as how accessible he is to people outside the Roman Curia buffer. Popes – even popes who loved being among the people – tend to become isolated behind several layers of “protection” inside the Vatican. There’s the papal household that protects his privacy, assistants who oversee his schedule, security staff and top Vatican officials who guide his energies toward events that tend to focus on the clerical hierarchy and secular VIPs.

    A pope who wants to be close to the people really has to make an effort to break through the Vatican bubble. Pope John Paul II did so by inviting people – yes, even lay people – to lunch. Pope Benedict XVI, a more private person, made fewer connections.

    As an archbishop, Francis rode the bus and quite naturally mingled with people from all walks of life. As pope, he’s going to have to create new channels of communication if he wants to keep that up.

    UPDATE: One sign that the new pope is doing just that: yesterday he invited 50 Argentinians to party with him at an impromptu celebration in the Domus. That's what I'm talking about.

  • Pope Francis will celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at youth prison

     As cardinal in Buenos Aires, the pope washed the feet of drug addicts in 2008 

    Another big surprise from Pope Francis this morning: he’ll celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper at a Rome prison for minors, and presumably will wash the feet of 12 young inmates during the liturgy.

    Traditionally, popes have celebrated this Mass, which commemorates the Last Supper, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran or St. Peter’s Basilica. As a cardinal in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis would typically celebrate the liturgy in prisons, hospitals or homes for the poor.

    The pope will go to the “Castel del Marmo” Penal Institute for Minors on the outskirts of Rome for the evening Mass, where young men and women under the age of 21 are serving time.

    The institute trains young inmates for employment in such areas as carpentry, tailoring and cooking, as well as a variety of artistic and technical sectors.


  • A traveling pope?

         The pope greets Brazil's president

    Like his recent predecessors, Pope Francis will be a traveling pope.

    It remains to be seen what style he’ll adopt in these journeys. The joke going around the Vatican press office is that the pope – and reporters – may be flying easyJet from now on.

    The Brazilian president said today the pope told her he would come to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in July and then visit Aparecida, site of Brazil’s biggest Marian shrine. The Vatican did not immediately confirm her report.

    If the pope does travel to Brazil, no one would be surprised if he adds a stop or two in his native Argentina.

    But given Pope Francis’ expressed wish to help create “a church that is poor,” some are wondering whether the costs of such visits may lead to changes in the way they’re carried out.

    This is a pope, after all, who on the night of his election called home to Argentina to suggest that pilgrims there skip the trip to Rome for his inauguration, and make a gift to charity instead.

    Papal trips involve significant expenses for travel, organization and construction of altar sites and other structures, as well as spending for security by the host country. To give just one example, hosting Pope Benedict at his two stops in the United States in 2008 was estimated to have cost at least $12 million.

    One can imagine Francis looking at the plans and budget items for such trips, and thinking about how much money could be saved.

    Whether he could actually find a cheaper way to travel is a good question. Typically, popes fly Alitalia charter planes, and about 50 reporters tag along in coach class.

    Alitalia likes to put on a good show, and this can lead to incongruous moments. As I wrote in my book, on papal flights to Africa the airline always seemed to serve the caviar and Champagne just as we were overflying Chad, one of the poorest countries on earth.

    I suppose a pope could fly commercial aircraft, and make sure the venues for papal events are kept as simple as possible. But there aren’t too many other cost-cutting measures one can imagine on such voyages.

    What seems certain is that traveling is now part of the modern pope’s job description. Pope Benedict was a reluctant traveler, but he ended up making 25 trips outside Italy, nine of them outside of Europe.

    Pope has a special interest in this event

    Vatican officials expect Pope Francis’s trip to Brazil to ignite great enthusiasm among Latin American Catholics. For one thing, of course, this is the first Latin American pope, and the whole continent will give him a homecoming welcome.

    Another reason is that World Youth Day is usually a showcase for Catholic energy, and there’s every expectation that young people are going to love this pope with the populist touch.

    The pope has his own special interest in this event, according to the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. After her private meeting this morning with Pope Francis, she told reporters that he wants to highlight in Brazil the church’s commitment to the poor, and the need to protect the most fragile sectors of society.

    She said the two leaders discussed young people and their problems, including drug problems like crack cocaine. Use of crack has reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, with an estimated 1 million users today, experts say.

    “For him it’s very clear that the youth are crucial for building the future of humanity.
    He hopes there will be a massive participation at World Youth Day. He’s very enthusiastic about it,” Rousseff said.

    All this may make the World Youth Day trip a unique opportunity – and worth the cost – in the eyes of the new pope. Yesterday after his inaugural Mass, almost every government delegation extended an invitation to the pope to visit. We’ll see if other dates and places are added to his 2013 calendar.

    Istanbul and Jerusalem

    During his encounter with Pope Francis today, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople invited the pontiff to visit Istanbul on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30), either in 2013 or 2014. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of a joint visit to Jerusalem next year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting there between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, the ecumenical patriarch of the time.


  • Highlights of pope's talk on ecumenical, interreligious dialogue

                  Bartholomew I of Constantinople

    This morning Pope Francis addressed representatives of other Christian churches and other religions who came to Rome for his inaugural Mass. It was a pretty standard speech, with some interesting points of emphasis that reflect the new pope’s agenda.

    Here are a few highlights:

    -- He addressed the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, as “my brother Andrew.” The reference was to St. Andrew, the patron saint of the Orthodox patriarchate, just as St. Peter is the patron saint of the Catholic Church.

    -- He said the best service Christians can give to ecumenism is to witness their faith “freely, joyfully and courageously.” This is especially needed in a world marked by divisions and rivalries, he added.

    -- The pope, who as a cardinal in Argentina had excellent relations with Jewish leaders, underlined the “special spiritual bond” between Christians and Jews and pledged to continue dialogue.

    -- Greeting Muslims, he said the followers of Islam “worship the one, living and merciful God, and invoke him in prayer.”

    -- The pope outlined particularly fruitful terrain for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue: in protecting the environment, in working for social justice and, above all, in cultivating a thirst for the absolute in a world where the human person is often “reduced to what he or she produces and what he or she consumes.”

    -- The pope’s only mention of violence came when he spoke about the “efforts in recent history to eliminate God and the divine from the human horizon,” an apparent reference to atheistic communist regimes.

    -- He extended a final thought for all those men and women who do not belong to any religion, but who “feel nevertheless that they are seeking truth, beauty and goodness.” He said they are “our precious allies in the commitment to defend human dignity, build peaceful coexistence among peoples and safeguard creation.”


  • Simplicity and compassion front and center

     Pope Francis stopped his jeep to greet a disabled man in the square

    How does Pope Francis understand “papal power”?

    He answered that question today with these words: “lowly, concrete and faithful service.”

    At an inaugural Mass rich in traditional symbols of the papal office, attended by hundreds of secular and religious leaders from around the world, Pope Francis told the world that his role would be that of a protector – especially of “the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”

    His words confirmed what has already become a new papal style, one that favors the common touch over formal ceremony, and humility over authority.

    The pope’s day began with a long ride in an open jeep through St. Peter’s Square. What struck me was that the pontiff, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, seemed to be connecting with individuals in the crowd.

    As I watched on a monitor from the ABC News platform, I saw the pope’s jeep suddenly stop. Francis got out of the vehicle, walked over to the barricades and kissed a disabled man. It was a brief moment in a long day, but one that will remain in people’s memory.

    The inauguration Mass marks the official start of a pope’s public ministry, and it’s steeped in tradition. Pope Francis made several small but significant changes in the liturgy:

    -- He abbreviated the “act of obedience” performed by the cardinals. In a modification only recently introduced by the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, all cardinals were to have professed obedience to the pope at the beginning of the Mass – which would have likely added an hour and a half to the service.

    Pope Francis, who prefers short liturgies, cut that to six representative members of the College of Cardinals.

    -- He eliminated the offertory procession, which typically features many Catholics or groups of Catholics bringing gifts directly to the seated pope. Vatican officials said this, too, was a move designed to save time. I can’t help but think it also reflected Francis’ desire to remove himself from the center of the liturgical stage.

    -- He decided not to distribute Communion, leaving that task to priests and deacons. Some have suggested that the pope may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of giving Communion to VIPs – including some international politicians – who may disagree with some church teachings.

    My own theory is that, again, he was removing himself as a celebrity celebrant. For years, people have pulled strings to get into the pope’s Communion line, and it’s often seen as some kind of reward or sign of prestige.

    It was Pope Francis’ homily marking the feast of St. Joseph that really caught the tone of the day in its eloquent simplicity. St. Joseph, he said, was above all a protector who worked “discreetly, humbly and silently,” attentive to God’s voice and God’s plan.

    This “vocation” of being a protector, he said, involves everyone. It means protecting the weak and vulnerable first of all – children, the elderly, the poor, the sick – and protecting “the beauty of the created world,” as St. Francis demonstrated.

    The pope specifically urged political and economic leaders to safeguard the environment. Here we had a first indication that ecology will likely figure as a major theme of this pontificate.

    But Francis said ecology begins with the individual, who needs to guard against pride and envy, as well as emotions that “tear down.” People need compassion, he said, and he argued that “tenderness” should not be seen as “the virtue of the weak.”

    The liturgy had a strong ecumenical element. The pope was joined by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, when he descended to pray in the tomb area of St. Peter’s Basilica.

    It was the first time since the Great Schism of 1054 – prompted mainly by disagreement over papal authority – that the ecumenical patriarch had attended a pope’s inaugural Mass.

    A few minutes later, the pope slipped on the Fisherman’s Ring. I was told that Francis thought the original choices of the ring design were too ornate, so instead he chose a relatively simple model that had been crafted many years ago. It features St. Peter holding the keys of the papacy.

    The people in St. Peter’s Square seem to have caught the “simplicity and compassion” theme of this pontificate, judging by some of the banners that greeted the pope as he made the rounds in his jeep.

    One read, “Pope Francis, good morning!” echoing his unpretentious “Good evening” salutation to the crowd just after his election. Another banner declared: “Assisi is waiting for you.” Every expectation is that visiting St. Francis’ birthplace is high on the pope’s to-do list.


  • The pope's coat-of-arms and motto

      Pope Francis has chosen his coat-of-arms

    Pope Francis has decided to keep his relatively simple bishop's coat-of-arms, combining it with traditional papal symbols.

    It features the Jesuit emblem and seal (the Greek letters IHS for the name of Jesus, the cross and nails surrounded by a sunburst.) Below are a star on the left, a symbol of Mary, and an image of nard flowers, a symbol of St. Joseph (I know they look like grapes, but they're flowers.)

    Framing the coat-of-arms are the papal miter and silver and gold keys, linked by a red cord.

    The pope's Latin motto "miserando atque eligendo," recalls a passage from a homily of St. Bede, describing how Jesus chose St. Matthew as his disciple: "He saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.

    St. Bede's point was that Jesus chose Matthew not in the usual sense, but with a merciful understanding -- something the new pope has already made a theme of his pontificate.

  • With new pope, hopes for ecumenical springtime

             Pope Francis with journalists

    Pope Francis’ first few days have already generated an abundance of hope on many fronts, and one of them is ecumenism.

    The fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, is attending the pope’s inaugural Mass tomorrow is rightly seen as a milestone in Catholic-Orthodox relations. That hasn’t happened since Catholics and Orthodox split in 1054.

    Of course, Pope Francis does not yet have a “record” on relations with other Christian churches. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, however, he dropped some clues.

    According to Bishop Gregory Venables, the Anglican bishop of Argentina, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was apparently not enthusiastic about Pope Benedict’s move in 2011 to create a structure in the Catholic Church to welcome disaffected Anglicans.

    In remarks published by the Anglican Communion News Service, Bishop Venables said Cardinal Bergoglio “called me to have breakfast with him one morning and told me very clearly that the ordinariate was quite unnecessary and that the church needs us as Anglicans."

    Bishop Venables described the new pope as “consistently humble and wise” as well as “outstandingly gifted,” and as someone who would treat him as an equal in joint services.

    In a broader sense, Pope Francis’ whole approach to the office of the papacy has generated hope for an ecumenical springtime. So far, the new pope seems intent on downplaying papal power and highlighting his role as a unity figure among his brother bishops.

    It was striking that in his initial appearances, he repeatedly referred to himself as the “bishop of Rome” rather than emphasizing his role as an authority figure in the universal church.

    Many experts say one of the biggest ecumenical obstacles, especially in dialogue with the Orthodox, is the way papal primacy is carried out. The key issue is how the pope’s universal role of authority and service is balanced with the pope’s collegial relationship with all the bishops.

    Pope Francis has given every indication that he takes collegiality seriously. Addressing the members of the College of Cardinals the day after his election, he told them that “we are as brothers.”

    “We are that community, that friendship, that closeness, that will do good for every one of us. That mutual knowledge and openness to one another helped us to be open to the action of Holy Spirit,” he said. While all roles in the church are not equal, he added, they need to work in harmony.

    Italian Father Bartolomeo Sorge, a leading Jesuit intellectual, told reporters that the expectation of greater collegiality was a reasonable one.

    "It's significant that Pope Francis, in the brief words he pronounced immediately after his election, spoke of the 'church of Rome' that presides in charity over the other churches. This awareness could be a prelude to achieving the kind of collegiality that the (Second Vatican) Council foresaw and that has yet to be realized," he said.

    In his first major audience after his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis is meeting Wednesday with the representatives of other Christian churches who came to Rome for the event. That’s the moment we should get a clearer sense of his ecumenical intentions.


  • The pope's first Sunday: A multitude and close encounters

             U.S. pilgrims at the pope's first Sunday blessing

    When Pope Francis looked out his apartment window at noon today, he got a glimpse of what kind of excitement he’s generated in his first four days as pontiff. Well over 150,000 people filled St. Peter’s Square and the main streets running from the Vatican to the Tiber River.

    I haven’t seen a cheering, flag-waving multitude like that in Rome since Pope John Paul II’s beatification.

    The pope’s brief talk focused on God’s mercy, which has already become a theme of his pontificate. He said the Gospel’s account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”) illustrates that the church’s role is not to condemn, but to forgive.

    “Don’t forget this: the Lord never tires of forgiving. It is we who tire of asking forgiveness,” he said, to applause from the crowd.

    Mercy, the pope said "is the best word we can hear: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just."

    He gave a nice shout-out to German Cardinal Walter Kasper – “a very capable theologian” – and said he’d been reading a book Kasper wrote about mercy and how “it changes everything” for the person who experiences it.

    The pope joked, “Don’t think I do publicity for books of my cardinals!”

    Before ducking back into his apartment, he wished the crowd “buon pranzo” – Have a nice lunch! – not exactly a religious message, but one that resonated with every Italian.

    A parish pastor

    Pope Francis’ first Sunday Mass was not celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica, but in the tiny St. Anne’s Church – the parish church of Vatican City residents and workers.

    Here, too, he spoke about mercy, and seemed to suggest that Christians today, like the people of the Gospel, have trouble living up to the teachings about forgiveness.

    “We too, I think, are this people who, on one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other, sometimes we like to beat up on others, condemn the others,” he said.

    “The message of Jesus is mercy. For me, and I say this with humility, mercy is the strongest message of the Lord,” he said.

    The new pope looked every bit the parish pastor, delivering his sermon without notes and, at the end of the Mass, greeting every parishioner one by one as he stood outside the church doors in his liturgical garb.

    It was clear that, although Pope Francis has a reputation of being camera-shy and reserved, he is a people person. He seemed to relish every one of the mini-encounters with the men, women and children in the parish, giving them each a few words, a kiss or a caress on the cheek.

    Then he walked out to the street on the Vatican City border and delighted a crowd of cheering Romans, as his security staff scrambled to control the situation.

    Hermeneutic of the Holy Spirit

    The word “hermeneutic” is not on the tip of every Catholic’s tongue, but it was a significant term during the eight years of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. The word refers to an interpretive key, or a way of reading a text or event.

    For the German pope, the church was divided by the way it implemented the Second Vatican Council, what he called “an unacceptable hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” vs. “a hermeneutic of continuity and reform.”

    The word became almost emblematic of Benedict’s pontificate. So it was interesting to see Pope Francis use it – in a much different way – in his encounter with journalists Saturday. The “hermeneutic” of his pontificate, he seemed to be saying, is the action of the Holy Spirit.

    “In everything that has occurred, the principal agent has been, in the final analysis, the Holy Spirit. He prompted the decision of Benedict XVI for the good of the Church; he guided the Cardinals in prayer and in the election,” he said.

    “It is important, dear friends, to take into due account this way of looking at things, this hermeneutic, in order to bring into proper focus what really happened in these days.”

    During the conclave, I noticed that none of the cardinal electors – including Cardinal Bergoglio, the new pope – had participated in Vatican II. I suspect that Pope Francis will be much less likely to use the council to frame the issues of church debate.

    First tweet

    Pope Francis has begun using the @Pontifex Twitter account, asking for people's prayers today. 


  • Changes ahead in the Roman Curia?

    A two-sentence communiqué from the Vatican today contained an important signal about Pope Francis’ intentions regarding the Roman Curia. As is normal, the new pope has confirmed that Vatican officials will continue in their various positions donec aliter provideatur – “until otherwise provided.” What was different this time around was the line that followed: “The Holy Father, in fact, wants to take a certain time for reflection, prayer and dialogue before making any definitive appointments or co...  Read More...

  • 'How I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor'

          Journalists greeted Pope Francis today at the Vatican

    Pope Francis held his first meeting with the press today, and impressed them with what has become characteristic low-key charm.

    Addressing several thousand journalists in the Vatican audience hall, he set his prepared text aside and told the story about how he chose his papal name.

    As the vote moved increasingly toward the “dangerous” two-thirds majority, he said, he received encouragement from his old friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who sat next to him in the Sistine Chapel.

    When he went over the two-thirds mark of 77 votes, Cardinal Hummes hugged him, kissed him and said simply, “Don’t forget the poor.”

    Those first words to the new pope have remained on his mind, Pope Francis said. Looking out at the journalists, the new pope declared with emphasis: “Ah, how I would like a church that is poor, and for the poor.”

    As the ballot-counting continued in the Sistine, he said, he thought of St. Francis as the saint of the poor, as the man of goodness and peace, as a man who “loved and protected creation,” the same created world that modern society has a hard time protecting.

    And so he chose Saint Francis of Assisi as his new namesake. He added that other names were suggested to him – Adrian, after a famous reforming pope, for example. He said someone even jokingly suggested taking the name Pope Clement XV, to get even with Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order in the 1800s. (Pope Francis is a Jesuit.)

    He had a couple of other thoughts for journalists, too. Reporting on the church is different from other contemporary matters, he said, because the church is essentially a spiritual organization that does “not fit into worldly categories.”

    “The church does not have a political nature,” he said. That, too, was pronounced deliberately – no doubt the pope read all about the presumed political jockeying in the Italian newspapers during the run-up to the conclave.

    He urged reporters to remember what he called a “trinity of communication” in their work: truth, goodness and beauty.

    The pope’s blessing to journalists was unusual, to say the least. Saying that he realized there were non-Catholics and non-believers present in the hall, he would “give this blessing in silence, from my heart, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each person, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God.”

    Then, instead of the usual formal blessing – standard practice at papal audiences – he said quietly, “God bless you,” and walked off the stage.

    That left some immensely pleased at the pope’s sensitivity, and others complaining loudly: “What kind of a blessing was that?”

    Well, it was the kind of blessing Pope Francis wanted to give. And more and more, I’m getting the impression that this is a man who is not simply “getting used to being pope,” but who is coming into the office with clear, and very different, ideas.

    As a postscript, when Pope Francis walked out of the audience hall, the papal limousine was waiting for him. But the pope waved it off and kept walking, happy to go by foot to his Vatican residence a short distance away.

  • First the gestures, now the words

         Pope Francis speaking during his Mass with cardinals

    A new pontificate is judged chiefly on gestures, words and decisions.

    Through his gestures, Pope Francis has already won the hearts of many inside and outside the church. Wearing his old black shoes, riding the bus and paying his pensione bill immediately announced a new and simpler style of papacy.

    In a world that communicates largely in images, this is no small matter. “Jesus was born in a manger” is sometimes heard sarcastically by visitors to the Vatican’s rather opulent chambers, and a pope who dials down the extravagance will have a positive reception.

    On Thursday, we heard some of the first words from Pope Francis, in a homily to the cardinals who elected him the 266th pontiff. The words were challenging, and gave a clue to the kind of “reforms” Francis may have in mind. (It was interesting that the pope set aside a draft text prepared in advance for this occasion, and preferred to speak off-the-cuff.)

    His basic point was that a church that doesn’t remain true to the message of “Christ on the cross” risks drifting into a worldly way of thinking that ultimately leads nowhere.

    A church that builds structures without the firm foundation of faith, he said, is like “children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away.” Without professing Christ, the church would become merely a “charitable NGO.”

    He then quoted Léon Bloy, a French agnostic who converted to Catholicism: “Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.”

    “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness,” the pope said.

    And more: “When we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”

    These are words – the devil! – that may strike listeners as severe. Some may even see an implication that anything outside the church is beyond salvation.

    I think what the pope was signaling was something different. I think he was speaking above all to the cardinals in the room, and letting them know that the church reforms he has in mind are not going to be coming out of a management manual, but will be motivated by the most radical demands of the Gospel.

    ‘We are brothers’

    Today the pope gave a very different kind of talk, when he met with cardinals – both electors in the conclave and those over the age of 80. He had a text but departed from it often, speaking in a conversational style.

    He kept emphasizing that “we are brothers” and a “community of friends” – perhaps a signal of how he views collegiality.

    And he talked frankly about the fact that this was, after all, a gathering of a pretty elderly group.

    “Dear brothers, maybe half of us are in old age. Old age is the seat of the wisdom of life. We have the wisdom of having walked through life like Simeon and Anna at the temple. Let us give this wisdom to the youth, like good wine, that with age becomes even better.”

    Pope Francis also acknowledged the generally sympathetic international reaction to his election.

    “I felt the affection of the universal church,” and even from people who do not share the Catholic faith, he said. “From every corner of the earth I felt prayers for the new pope.”

    He indicated he would try to build on that affection, and he encouraged the cardinals to do the same. “Let’s never give to pessimism, to that bitterness that the devil offers us every day.” (Yes, “the devil.”)

    Neither of these first two talks was exactly a “state of the church” address, or an outline of what he sees as his priorities. Maybe we’ll get that at his installation Mass next week, maybe not. Pope Francis appears to be a man of few words, and as someone told me today, he likes short liturgies.

    Waiting for first appointments

    The new pope’s first major decisions will probably be his appointments, in particular that of secretary of state. He clearly needs someone in that position who knows the Roman Curia well enough to navigate its tricky currents, and make reforms without too much collateral damage.


  • Pope Francis' first 24 hours: Doing it his way

         Pope Francis on his way to pray at a Rome church

    One of the first things a new pope hears is, “Holy Father, it’s always done this way.”

    In his first 24 hours in office, Pope Francis has already given indications that he may not be intimidated by those words, as he creates his own style of being pope.

    That was clear from the moment he put on his papal robes, donning the simple white cassock but declining to wear the ermine-trimmed red cape known as the mozzetta, which was left hanging on the wardrobe in the Room of Tears.

    To Vatican officials who offered him an elaborate gold pectoral cross to wear around the neck, he said he’d prefer to keep his very simple cross that he’s worn as a bishop. He accepted the congratulations of cardinals not seated on a traditional throne-like chair, but standing up and greeting them one by one.

    After his blessing last night to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square and to the world, Vatican aides told the pope a limousine was waiting to take him to his temporary quarters in the Vatican’s residence building. The new pope said he’d rather take the bus back with the cardinals – and he did.

    This morning, the pope’s first act was to leave the Vatican for an impromptu visit to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in central Rome. No doubt someone told him: “But Holy Father, we need time to plan these visits very carefully.” He wisely didn’t listen. Yes, his presence snarled traffic and caused a major stir, but the Romans loved it.

    Instead of taking the main car in the papal fleet, a Mercedes with the “SCV 1” license plate, he rode in a more modest sedan.

    On the way inside the basilica, he stopped to wave to high school students across the street. After praying before a popular icon of Mary, he told confessors at the church to “be merciful, the souls of the faithful need your mercy.”

    Then he stopped personally at a clerical guest house where he had been staying in recent days, a few steps from Piazza Navona, to pick up his suitcases and “pay his bill,” as he told cardinals the night before. One can presume his Vatican handlers offered to send someone else on this humdrum task, but Pope Francis did it his way.


  • First thoughts about Pope Francis

      Pope Francis greets the crowd in St. Peter's Square


    The first Jesuit pope. The first Latin American pope. The first pope to choose the name Francis.

    And already there are signs that he will find a new way of being pope. Asking for the people's prayers for God's blessing before delivering your own, for example, was a pretty eloquent act of humility.

    Within minutes, the Vatican had announced that Pope Francis' first major audience will be on Saturday, when he meets the more than 5,000 journalists covering his election.

    I was part of the live ABC News panel this evening watching it all unfold, perched above St. Peter's Square. Diane Sawyer anchored, with fellow commentators Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Terry Moran and Cokie Roberts.

    When we heard the name "Bergoglio" in the "Habemus Papam" announcement, we all did a double-take. As I wrote here two days ago, I had heard Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's name increasingly mentioned by some well-informed people, so he was high on my short list. But his election on the second day of the conclave surprised me. It meant he was not a compromise candidate the cardinals turned to after voting stalled on front-runners, but the first choice of many going into the conclave.

    His simple lifestyle as archbishop in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is well-known -- he doesn't live in a mansion but in a simple apartment, he doesn't have a driver but takes the bus, he even cooks his own meals.

    As a communicator, he's no superstar speech-giver, and we saw that in his low-key appearance on the balcony tonight. Look for him to communicate through gestures, prayers and decisions. Simplicity will be key. Some of his first decisions will be the most interesting: who he chooses as his top officials at the Vatican, and whether he moves toward some of the reforms called for by cardinals over the last few weeks.

    He'll also outline some of his plans, including travel plans, we assume. If he goes to Brazil for World Youth Day next July, don't be surprised to see him add a stop in Argentina.