There is deep malaise among people who work in the Vatican and the Roman Curia.
It’s based on uncertainty as to whether or not the reforms Pope Francis has initiated at the Catholic Church’s bureaucratic center will actually succeed and improve the overall working conditions for its more than three thousand (mostly lay) employees.
The pope meets again next week (December 12-14) with the Council of Cardinals (C9), a group of nine special advisors he set up to help him map out the reforms. They are surely aware that the workers’ murmuring has now become quite audible beyond the marble corridors inside “Pope World on the Tiber.”
In the first sector, it is no secret that Francis would have preferred to close the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR), the so-called Vatican Bank, and invest its several billions of euros in a reputable commercial bank.
That is exactly what he did in the late 1990s after becoming Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He sold all shares the archdiocese held in several local banks and deposited the whole lot in a couple of international banks. Thus, the archdiocese became, as it were, a “normal client” rather than a partial bank owner.
He had hoped to do the same with the IOR and the even more lucrative department that manages the Vatican’s vast landholdings and stock investments, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). But he was blocked at every turn by the men (and they are not just Italians) who continue to insist that these institutions are essential to keeping the Holy See financially secure and its mission independent from outside interference.
Pope Francis quickly realized this was a battle not worth fighting. So he turned the financial reform project over to those who backed the other major contender at the last conclave, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan. The pope chose the leader of the pro-Scola campaign—Cardinal George Pell of Sydney—to head a newly created office to carry out the financial reform.
But the controversial Australian has also seen a number of his restructuring efforts stymied and his near unchallenged authority sharply curtailed. Meanwhile, the pope has basically washed his hands of the Vatican’s money management and has made only one demand: keep it legal and following international protocols.
So far, the Vatican’s media and communications operation is the only other area that has undergone major restructuring. Pope Francis, who has shown he needs no elaborate media strategy or official spokesman to “spin” his popularity or message, has also shown little interest in micromanaging the Holy See’s media reform.
Instead, he’s given that task to Msgr. Dario Viganò, a self-styled expert on cinematography who choreographed Benedict XVI’s “flight out of Rome” when the theologian-pope officially abdicated the papacy and was shuttled by helicopter to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. The fifty-four-year-old Milan priest has successfully run roughshod over the nine previously-independent branches of the communications sector now under his command.
He’s caused great consternation among the hundreds of people that work in his sector because he has consulted very few of them and has remained less than transparent about precisely how the emerging communications apparatus will finally take shape. It sometimes looks as if the monsignor and his closest aides are making it up as they go.
Viganò has signaled that the internationally known brand names—such as Vatican Radio (founded in 1931) and L’Osservatore Romano (founded in 1861)—will disappear. The radio will cease to exist at the end of the year and its employees are already being transferred to other departments. The communications czar will begin unveiling the fate of the newspaper sometime early in the new year.
The reform of other departments in the Vatican, specifically those Roman Curia offices known as congregations and pontifical councils, has been very slow. Pope Francis has limited himself, so far, to merely combining a number of those offices into two large mega-departments—one simply called the “Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life” and the other called the “Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development."
The pope has not yet announced how the curia’s other offices are to be changed or restructured. In theory these bureaus work exclusively to help the Bishop of Rome carry out his universal ministry. But Francis has made no secret of his irritation at the way the Roman Curia has operated, let us say, how it has gone beyond this defined role and has too often usurped what the pope believes is the rightful authority of national and regional episcopal conferences. He is, after all, the only pope to serve as president of a national bishops’ conference.
In a little more than three months Francis will mark the fourth anniversary of his election to the papacy. And he has still not reformed the Roman Curia. However, he recently attended a two-day meeting of the ordinary council of the Synod of Bishops (November 21-22)—something none of his predecessors had ever done. And it was noted that he has ordered an overhaul of the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum (that is, the Synod’s statutes and competencies) and a complete “revision of the Synod regulations.”
The pope turns 80 in two weeks from now. If he gets his way the Synod of Bishops could become the main body through which he governs and pastors the universal church. That would mean a de facto reform of the Roman Curia, subordinating it not only to the Bishop of Rome, but also the Synod over which he presides.
An “Era of Mercy” within Catholic Christianity is now underway.
It was prefaced by the recently concluded yearlong Jubilee, which was aimed at helping the clergy and the baptized faithful embrace this one simple concept which Pope Francis highlighted in his most important document, Evangelii gaudium:
“The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” (EG, 114)
Or as the pope has said on other occasions, the church has to stop being obsessed with following “small-minded rules” and instead preach the “first proclamation”—that Jesus saves humanity through his acts of mercy.
And what are likely to be the most tangible signs of this new merciful era?
Pope Francis has already changed marriage annulment procedures, making them more streamlined at the local level and insisting that they be offered free of charge to the Catholic faithful.
He has also reintroduced the age-old principle of discernment and respect for the personal conscience of believers who are in permanent, marital-type relationships that fall short of the church’s longstanding teaching on the sacrament of Christian matrimony (cf. apostolic letter, Amoris laetitia).
Furthermore, he has extended the Jubilee provision that every Catholic priest—including presbyters of the still-rebellious Priestly Society of St Pius X (SSPX), commonly known as the “Lefebrivsts”—shall have the faculty to forgive the grave sin, and cancel the latae sentential excommunication, of those who repent of their involvement in procuring an abortion.
These are all steps to help “everyone feel welcomed, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” What more can Pope Francis do to more fully transform the church into such a “place of mercy”?
One might suggest he tackle one of the greatest scandals of our times: the spiritual starvation the church continues inflict on many among the Holy People of God by depriving them of the Eucharist. It commits this offense by clinging to a man-made rule that refuses to ordain anyone except celibate males to the ministerial priesthood.
A church that is a place of mercy can no longer justify its denial of the Eucharist to its baptized members.
It is also not acceptable—indeed, one could argue that is even a sin against the will of God—to continue closing parishes and alienating Catholics from their Eucharist-centered homes because of the fear of married or female clergy.
Many people had hoped Pope Francis would make the crisis in priestly ministry the focus of the next gathering of the Synod of Bishops in 2018. Instead, he chose this topic: “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”
Some people have suggested that, after the upheaval generated by the last two Synod assemblies on the family, the pope wanted the bishops to deal with less contentious issues.
But they’d better think again.
The Synod’s secretariat has already drawn up the preparatory document for the 2018 gathering and it will include a questionnaire similar to those in the run-up to the 2014 and 2015 assemblies. The purpose then was to “take the pulse” of the Catholic people on the most pressing issues concerning marriage and the family.
If the bishops do the same thing this time and allow all young Catholics to express their views and concerns about the faith and vocational discernment, church leaders are likely get some responses they might not want to hear.
Surely there will be a lot of youngsters who will question the rationale for a celibate priesthood. And there are likely to be a lot of young women who will tell the bishops they feel blocked from following the “call” to ministry that many of them feel deep within their hearts.
The theme Pope Francis has chosen for the 2018 ordinary assembly of the Synod of Bishops is anything but a “safe” topic. Young people, it is often said, are not just the future of the church; they are also the present.
If the pope and the bishops really believe this, they’d better be prepared to listen seriously to the “joys and hopes, grief and anxiety” and also the honest questions of their Catholic young people.
Pope Francis knows that their generation could be the greatest catalyst for change in church ministries.
One of the most spectacular views of St. Peter’s Basilica is from the famed Orange Garden on the Aventine Hill across the Tiber River.
This park was once the property of the Dominican Friars. In fact, the imposing convent and ancient Basilica of Santa Sabina, which stand majestically adjacent to it, has been the international headquarters of the Order of Preachers since its foundation eight hundred years ago.
Among the events to mark their eight centenary, the Dominicans have unveiled a unique exhibit of contemporary art that seeks to create a dialogue between the ancient, inner sanctum of the friars-preachers and various artistic expressions found in today’s world.
The exhibit is called, “Auguri.”
It actually begins outside in the Orange Garden with a giant iron frame of a classic altarpiece, one of the numerous works on display by the forty-four-year-old Belgian conceptual artist, Kris Martin.
The sculpture perfectly frames the dome of St. Peter’s far off in the distance.
One then moves to the square in front of the Santa Sabina complex and finds five large photographs on the outside walls of the church and in the outer portico at the entrance of the convent. They are interpretive depictions related to the theme of the Incarnation, the work of thirty-two-year-old Polish friar, Adam Rokosz.
The heart of the “Auguri” exhibit begins with another piece by Kris Martin, in the enclosed porch in front of the great doors of the Paleo-Christian basilica. As visitors move inside the pristine church they will find two other pieces by the Belgian artists and immediately notice fifteen banners hanging in the side naves. These modern depictions are a virtual hero’s gallery of some of the most important Dominican friars, sisters and lay people from the Order’s history. They are the handiwork of Dominicans from all over the world.
The exhibit continues with more works by Martin through a side door into the Dominican convent or the “preaching house,” as the Order’s Master, Fr. Bruno Cadoré, calls it. This is a special treat, offering visitors a unique opportunity to spend time in one of the most magnificent cloisters in Rome. Recently restored, its austere simplicity naturally gives one a sense of serenity and tranquility in marked contrast to the bustling city that lies below.
If you are in the Eternal City between now and January 24, don’t miss the “Auguri” exhibit at Sant Sabina. It’s open to the public from Wednesday-Saturday (10 am-1 pm and 3-5 pm) and also on Sunday (3-5 pm). The exhibit is closed from December 26-30 for the Christmas holidays.