Pope Francis turns seventy-eight today. And if you think that’s old for someone who has not even completed two years in office, just remember that his Bavarian predecessor was already this age when he was elected to the papacy in 2005. And he, now happily retired, reigned for nearly eight years. Nonetheless, people continue to express concern about the state of Papa Bergoglio’s health. Friends attending the Misa Criolla in St. Peter’s Basilica last Friday for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe expressed alarm that he was looking tired and breathing heavily while leading the introductory rites. But he seemed fine during the homily, which he delivered with lots of energy. The pope appeared in even better form at his Sunday Angelus, bantering playfully with a large crowd of Italian children who were gathered in St. Peter’s Square below his study window. The kids came to have him bless their Nativity scene figurines, which has become somewhat of a Gaudete Sunday tradition. They assembled around an eighty-two-foot-tall Christmas tree that is still being decked out with shiny ornaments and lights. The silver fir was a gift from the people of the Province of Catanzaro in Calabria, the poorest and southernmost region of the Italian mainland. The imposing tree towers over an enclosed worksite where Vatican craftsmen are assembling a larger-than-life-sized crèche. Both these traditional symbols of Christmas were never displayed in St. Peter’s Square until 1982, when John Paul II initiated the custom. Another holiday feature at the Vatican is the pope’s pre-Christmas gathering with top officials of the Roman Curia (next Monday), during which he gives a major policy or “state of the Church” address. This year Pope Francis will also have a similar gathering on the same day in the Paul VI Hall with all Vatican employees and their families. And on Christmas Day? He’ll mark the anniversary of his baptism, which came eight days after he was born in 1936.
Vatican watchers have been uncharacteristically careful not to speculate too much about the men Pope Francis is likely to make cardinals at next February’s consistory. Count me among them – the Vatican watchers, that is! Some of Papa Bergoglio’s choices last year were so unconventional (for example, he gave red hats for the first time to a bishop in Haiti and one on Mindanao Island in the Philippines) that it’s difficult to know what he’ll do this time around. Granted, American journalists have ventured opinions on whether or not anyone in the United States will be among this crop of new cardinals, since Francis did not name a single one in his first consistory. And the scribes have given convincing reasons why this archbishop rather than that one will be the next American prelate in red in 2015. But mostly they’ve held their tongues. The Italians on the Vatican beat are even quieter after the Argentine pope denied the cardinal’s biretta last year to archbishops in traditional red hat sees such Venice and Turin. Instead, he chose Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, a place that hadn’t had a resident cardinal since 1878 when the last one became Pope Leo XIII. Still, Francis gave four of the sixteen red hats distributed in 2014 to the Italians; the other three went to those working in the Roman Curia. The thinking is that at least the patriarch of Venice will be made a cardinal in February, even if the man in Turin is not. But no one is sure anymore. It might be safer to wager a guess on the date the pope will actually announce the names of the cardinals. Last year he did that about six weeks before the consistory. If he thinks this is the right amount of time to notify the red had recipients, then the announcement could come on January 4, or a couple days later on the Feast of the Epiphany.
One of the guiding principles of the current pontificate is “dialogue” – not only within the Catholic Church, but also with other Christians, people of different faith traditions and even with those that are non-believers. Although some of his fellow bishops and faithful are not comfortable with the idea of the “one true Church” entering into dialogue with non-Catholics, Francis is convinced that since the Second Vatican Council the Holy Spirit has been calling the church to follow this path. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the de facto theologian of Francis’s pontificate, is among those heartened by the pope’s emphasis in this area. The German cardinal will present a keynote address on the future of ecumenical dialogue at a major international conference next May 21 - 24 in Washington, D.C. It’s called “Vatican II – Remembering the Future: Ecumenical, Interfaith and Secular Perspectives on the Council’s Impact and Promise.” Kasper said the conference was an “important and timely gathering.” Georgetown University, the Ecclesiological Investigations Network (EI), Marymount University (Virginia), and several other institutions are among the main sponsors of the four-day conference. The sessions will take place mainly at Georgetown, but also at Marymount and the National Cathedral. In addition to Cardinal Kasper, other bishops and cardinals involved in various types of dialogue will be speaking. And a wide array of well-known theologians from all faiths will be giving papers. Professor Gerard Mannion, EI chairman, says the organizers don’t want “merely to have academic reflections on dialogue but for participants to engage one another in dialogue during and beyond the gathering itself.” This is actually the ninth annual conference that the network has put together. Having attended the one in Assisi a few years ago, and then followed the succeeding two conferences, I can testify that these are hugely enjoyable and theologically stimulating gatherings. There’s still time for scholars and academics to submit papers. Those interested in finding out more can visit this site.
P.S. The next Letter from Rome will not appear until January 7, 2015. So I’d like to wish all of you a blessed Christmas and happy, healthy, and holy New Year! As always, arrivederci!