Pope Francis had a golden opportunity several days ago and really blew it.
But don’t point the finger at him. Blame Msgr. Dario Viganò, the man he named in June 2015 to be prefect of the newly created Secretariat for Communications.
And what occasion, exactly, did the pope miss, thanks to the 54-year-old Milan priest and Italian cinema expert?
It was the chance to use his annual World Communications Day message to speak out strongly against a growing and worrying phenomenon in the media—namely, people who (including and, perhaps, especially politicians like U.S. President Donald Trump) deliberately invent “facts” and tell outright lies as if they were the truth.
Instead, the pope’s message was an appeal to media professionals (and anyone else involved in what it calls “grinding out information with the aim of providing rich fare for those with whom they communicate”) to “break the vicious circle of anxiety and stem the spiral of fear resulting from a constant focus on ‘bad news’ (wars, terrorism, scandals, and all sorts of human failure).”
Huh? “Break the vicious cycle” of constantly focusing on bad news? Are journalists supposed to downplay that or, like the politicians, invent things they believe people want to hear?
The papal message tried to explain, unconvincingly.
“This has nothing to do with spreading misinformation that would ignore the tragedy of human suffering, nor is it about a naive optimism blind to the scandal of evil,” it said.
“Rather, I propose that all of us work at overcoming that feeling of growing discontent and resignation that can at times generate apathy, fear, or the idea that evil has no limits,” it continued.
That line, with the words “spreading misinformation,” threw open a door to have a serious conversation about the evils of lying (or giving “alternative facts” as Trump’s people call it). But that door was slammed shut.
Some would say the papal message offers little more than spiritualized gobbledygook. I wish Pope Francis had never signed it. Everyone knows he did not write it. Popes almost never write the World Day message.
That is the job of Msgr. Viganò’s office, just as it was the task of the now-defunct Pontifical Council for Promoting Social Communications in previous years.
Either Viganò (as prefect) or, more likely, Msgr. Lucio Ruiz (as secretary) oversaw the drafting of the text.
And the way the Secretariat for Communications (or, rather, the prefect) presented it to those of us accredited to the Holy See Press Office was just as troubling as the message itself.
A little background is in order. Even though most Catholic dioceses celebrate World Communications Day on the Sunday before Pentecost (this year on May 28), the Vatican dribbles out the pope’s message for the occasion over a period of months, supposedly to give people a chance to digest and adequately promote it.
First, the theme of the message is announced each September 29—Feast of the Archangel Gabriel who appeared to the Virgin Mary with the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus. Then it is actually published nearly four months later on or near January 24, Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of writers. This is when Vatican officials present and explain the papal message to the media.
The event, as is customary, took place in the Holy See Press Office. At most Vatican press conferences, a number of Roman Curia officials and/or other experts on a said topic give a little spiel (or read a text that the journalists already have received), highlighting the document’s salient points or putting it into a wider perspective. This is usually just an extremely boring prelude reporters must endure before they are allowed a few minutes to ask questions from the floor.
The press office’s current director, Greg Burke, has worked as a journalist and has been experimenting with ways to make these media conferences more dynamic and interesting for us.
But in the case of the presser for the World Communications Day message, the effort fell flat. Three days before the event began, reporters were given notice that Msgr. Viganò would be in the press office “to dialogue with journalists Delia Gallagher (CNN) and Pablo Ordaz (El País)” about the pope’s message. In the end Ordaz, who had done the recent exclusive interview with Pope Francis only days earlier, was not able to attend.
In the end, it turned out to be the “Dario Viganò Show.” He and Gallagher—speaking only in Italian—gave their insights on the document as the rest the press corps sat and watched as a sort of studio audience. Eventually, they took two questions (which were really more like commentary) from other journalists in the room.
Thank heavens this was a presser about a papal message that was not written by the pope and will probably never even be read by anyone other than those who are forced to do so by professional obligation.
Msgr. Lucio Ruiz, second-in-command at the Secretariat for Communications, is from Argentina like Pope Francis.
He’s worked in the Vatican since 1997 in the former internet office where he became the social media whiz kid for Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the archconservative former prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy.
The 52-year-old priest—like a few of Francis’ other compatriots who’ve had long careers in the Roman Curia—never seemed to be a great fan of the pope when he was still just the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires.
According to a well-sourced anecdote, when the new pope met with Vatican media officials on March 16, 2013—just three days after his election as Bishop of Rome— he greeted Msgr. Ruiz, a priest from Argentina’s Archdiocese of Santa Fe, like this:
“Ah, Lucio! Now that I’m the pope are you going to say nice things about me?”
And yet the pope appointed his fellow countryman to be Msgr. Dario Viganò’s right-hand man in the overhaul of the Vatican’s diverse operations in the communications and media sector.
Neither Msgr. Ruiz nor Msgr. Viganò seems to be overly popular among employees, many of whom already have been shifted to new jobs or are awaiting reassignment as the communications reform continues to unfold.
Why, people ask, did Pope Francis appoint them in the first place?
Let’s recall once more, the cardinals in the run-up to the last conclave insisted and mandated that the next pope should reform the curia, especially financial corruption.
But Francis has set his sights much higher and wider— he has been more concerned in reforming the papacy, church government and, especially, the entire focus of what it means to be a Catholic Christian.
When he made it clear that his solution to ending any whiff of financial corruption in the small papal enclave was to close the Vatican’s so-called “bank” and its other such money-management entities, many powerful people balked. So he turned over the financial reform efforts to Cardinal George Pell.
As written here before, it is believed that the Australian, who has long been portrayed as a savvy manager of financial resources by his own media handlers, did not vote for the current pope. He sent out not-so-cryptic signs before the conclave began that Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan, Europe’s largest diocese, might be his ideal candidate. In fact, Pell seems to have been the driving force behind the Italian’s candidacy.
The Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) thought Scola, then 72, actually had been elected when the white smoke billowed out of the Sistine Chapel. Just minutes before the identity of the new pope was even revealed to the people in St. Peter’s Square and the rest of the world, someone released an official CEI statement congratulating Scola on being chosen the next Bishop of Rome.
This caused huge embarrassment to the Italian bishops.
But Pope Francis gave Scola a consolation prize by putting the Italian cardinal’s would-be kingmaker, George Pell, in charge of overseeing the Vatican’s financial reform.
The pope had a gift for the Italian Episcopal Conference, as well. The CEI’s elaborate, multi-million-euro communications (and propaganda) department saw one of their own, Msgr. Viganò, put in charge of reforming the Holy See’s press and media operations.
Meanwhile, when it comes to true church reform, Pope Francis has bigger fish to fry.
One of the aspects of the current pope that has been more clearly evident over these past nearly four years is how incredibly non-ideological he is.
After the death of John Paul II in 2005 the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ was touted as a no-nonsense conservative. His traditionalist leanings were tempered only by his simple lifestyle and shunning of pomp and circumstance usually afforded so-called “Princes of the Church.”
But a true conservative he surely was. At least that was the media’s portrayal of him.
It is pretty well documented that he was runner-up in 2005 when Joseph Ratzinger, one of the most doctrinally conservative among the cardinals, was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI.
Flash forward to 2013 and the conclave that followed his surprising and jarring resignation.
The cardinal-electors who assembled to choose his successor had all received their red hats from either Benedict or John Paul II. They seemed to be looking for another conservative, but one with the skills of diocesan pastor and administrator that the resigned pope clearly lacked.
They looked to the serious and rarely smiling Bergoglio who was seen as someone who would reform the Vatican, hold the line on certain church teachings in the face of eroding credibility and, as an old school Jesuit (or so it was thought), bring order and discipline to the church.
If this is what the cardinals believed they were getting in the new pope, they could not have more off the mark. But that was not apparent right away.
Yes, the newly elected Pope Francis immediately adopted a style of stark simplicity and showed a disdain for the royal protocols that, over the course of history, became part of the imperial papacy and its court. And he began speaking incessantly about wanting a poor church for the poor, the mission of which was to proclaim and practice mercy to all. And, nothing more than his radical, reforming vision for the Church and blueprint for his pontificate— found in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium—showed that, perhaps, he was not as conservative as people thought.
But each time church traditionalists (especially the Neo-Tridentinists who have never abandoned hope of reviving the liturgy and mentality that was dominant in the church before the Second Vatican Council) would be alarmed by yet one more “novelty” the new pope was unveiling, Francis would do or say something that ended up assuring them that he was not that “progressive” after all.
The pope showed great patience and magnanimity with his critics on the right side of the aisle (for lack of a better term). In what can only be seen as a gesture of goodwill he even appointed Cardinal Robert Sarah head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, despite his reputation as a supporter of the Neo-Tridentinist movement to curtail the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms (something they call a “reform of the reform”).
It seemed that Francis, in an attempt to keep Catholics along every point of the church’s vast and varied spectrum safe and happy within the Barque of Peter, was being overly accommodating. Since his election he has had to bear the brunt of criticism, in turns, from all sides— at times from more progressive- and reform-minded Catholics, at other times from the self-identified traditionalists or loyalists.
But something has happened recently. The pope has forged full-speed ahead to concretely implement the ideas he put forth in Evangelii gaudium. He has become increasingly more critical of the rigidity and rules-bound morality (almost exclusively concerned with sexual issues) that are part and parcel of Catholic traditionalists.
He seems to have lost patience with his critics among those self-identifying “loyal Catholics,” most of them bishops and younger priests, seminarians, and lay people with a clericalist mentality.
So what happened?
Could it be that Pope Francis has discovered in these few years of living in Rome that the traditionalists—at the least those who are loudest and most zealous—make up only a very tiny minority of the Church? And that their most prominent members are clerics and middle- to upper-income lay people from the developed world?
Or maybe it has to do with the nastiness that has become the identifying mark of the traditionalists’ unofficial spokespersons through their acerbic and self-righteous pontifications via social media.
And, finally, the traditionalists are not going to find any sympathy for their concerns when their most prestigious members—certain cardinals—use duplicitous means to undermine or misrepresent the Bishop of Rome.