Who is behind the campaign to smear the pope?

You’ve all heard by now of the posters criticizing Pope Francis, which appeared (illegally) in the early hours of February 4 on official billboards around Rome.

There they were as we awoke to a new day in all their mocking sarcasm—a picture of a grumpy and stern-looking pope with these words in Roman dialect:

“Ah, Frankie… Where’s your mercy?”

The posters complained against several actions the reforming pope has taken to rein in traditionalist religious orders embroiled in controversy, as well as his unprecedented move to reform the Order of Malta.

The posters also blasted Francis for having “ignored cardinals,” an obvious reference to the four senior churchman (Cardinals Burke, Meisner, Brandmüller, and Caffarra) who have questioned the orthodoxy of his teaching on marital/sexual morality.

Without a doubt those who organized the poster blitz were seeking to intensify an ongoing campaign underway in some small circles to characterize Francis as a merciless autocrat who has it in for church conservatives. And by using the street dialect of Rome, they hoped to show that this is a view shared by the common people (which, quite frankly, it is not).

Not surprisingly, the alternative-facts “news” site, Breitbart fueled that false impression by giving its report on the incident this headline: “Disgruntled Romans launch protest against Pope Francis: ‘Where’s your mercy?’”

The article elaborated on this by saying:

“The posters follow a centuries-old tradition of Romans’ public, albeit anonymous, criticism of the pope when he is seen to overstep his mandate. In past times, discontent Romans would attach their written complaints to an ancient, dilapidated statue called 'il Pasquino' near Piazza Navona.”

The author was Breitbart’s Rome correspondent, Tom Williams, a former Legionary of Christ who eventually left the priesthood several years after secretly fathering a child with the daughter of the former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon.

Williams then offers some of his own reasons why the pope has angered people by “heavy handed governance” of the church.

“Unlike his immediate predecessors,” the former Legionary writes erroneously, “Pope Francis has also reserved important promotions to like-minded bishops, stacking the College of Cardinals with progressive newcomers while snubbing more senior prelates whose approach does not match his own.”

But neither Williams nor anyone has been able to pinpoint the person or group that was behind the nasty poster stunt. Whoever it was, they worked under the cloak of darkness and have yet to take responsibility for their actions.

Certainly—and this is as clear as the brilliant blue Roman sky—the pope faces opposition inside the church to some of his actions and reforming projects.

And everyone knows this is coming mainly from self-described traditionalist or conservative Catholics. But let us repeat this once again: they are a tiny minority within the church. They are mainly clerics and clerical-minded lay folk, many of whom are neo-Tridentinists attached to the liturgy and style of Catholicism pre-dating the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Most people seem to assume that those responsible for the poster episode come from within their ranks.

But don’t be so sure.

Pope Francis also faces opposition from far-right political currents, including here in Italy. The separatist-minded Northern League, for example, has blasted him (as they did his papal predecessors) for being too accommodating towards immigrants, especially Muslims.

This Italian political party is not alone. Nationalist and far-right political movements in other parts of Europe are also horrified that the pope—who is greatly popular—persists in challenging the Old Continent to welcome and integrate refugees, migrants, and immigrants into their countries.

No doubt these political movements count some traditionalist Catholics (including some Knights of Malta?) among their members or sympathizers. But the pope’s political opponents are not all that concerned over whether or not he is cracking down on strange religious orders or ignoring his critics in the College of Cardinals

But they are keenly aware that this hyped-up narrative of internal Church turmoil – which is really just a storm in a sacred chalice – can be exploited for their own political means.

It is surely possible—even probable—that those behind the poster campaign are the pope’s political foes. They have used this stunt in an attempt to further undermine the credibility and image of Francis—a Latin American outsider who has refused to support their efforts to shore up what’s left of the Eurocentric ancien regime—by hiding behind the tiny, but vociferous anti-Francis minority within the church.    

Don’t be fooled. Yes, some of the neo-Tridentinist groups and individuals with too much time on their hands have made a sport out of disseminating derogatory and inflammatory rhetoric against the pope.

But the poster campaign in Rome? It looks more like the work of fringe political elements in Italy. They are experts at this sort of thing


Speaking of the Order of Malta…

What is its “spiritual renewal” likely to entail?

Pope Francis mandated the reform several days ago after the Grand Master of the Order, Matthew Festing, resigned his lifetime position at the pope’s insistence.

The Vatican’s deputy Secretary of State, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, is now the papal delegate charged with overseeing the renewal process.

We probably won’t know for several more weeks or months what this renewal or reform will actually entail, but one thing seems for sure: it will focus primarily on the First Class or “professed members,” also known as Knights of Justice.

These are men of noble birth (that is, members of the aristocracy) who make religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Currently there are only about fifty-five of them and most of them are elderly. According to the Order’s constitution, it is from among their elite circle that the new Grand Master must be elected.

Candidates younger than fifty must be professed for at least ten years, while those who are older need only three years of profession to qualify for the all-powerful position.

That’s the way has been up until now. But it is all but certain that this will change.

The Order of Malta has many more men and women members all around the world—about 13,000 of them—who are not in religious vows. Many of them, especially in Europe, are from nobility. And the top offices in the Order are reserved to them.

But in the last century or more those who are not aristocrats, especially in the so-called New World, have been admitted to the Order in greater numbers.

Will the “nobiliary requisites,” as they are called in the Order’s constitution, be further relaxed to allow non-nobles the opportunity to serve in high office?

It is likely to be on the pope’s agenda, which Archbishop Becciu is tasked to carry out in discussion with the Knights’ current leadership.

But more important will be redefining the role and extent of authority that is invested in the Grand Master.

Why, people ask, are candidates for this position limited to a group of crusty old, blue-blooded bachelors?

The man eventually chosen is usually one of the few who is still able to stand and is not prone to falling asleep in his soup!

It is, quite frankly, an outlandish set-up. Some would say, just plain weird.

Meanwhile, the rest of the members of the Orders of Malta—those who are not in vows and most of whom are married with families—are stuck with some old eccentric who can wield power over them.

One likely scenario that has been floating around inside the Order for some years now is that the authority of the Grand Master would be drastically reduced and his position would be made more ceremonial—like that of a constitutional monarch, for example.

The real authority and power would be invested in the Grand Chancellor. This is an elected position, currently limited by a term of five years, akin to being Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, and Interior Minister all rolled into one.

The spiritual renewal that Pope Francis is conducting through his delegate, Archbishop Becciu, will also focus on the handling of money and financial transparency.

Members of the Order of Malta from Germany and some other parts of Europe are concerned over what appears to be a lucrative real estate portfolio managed by a small, but powerful group of Knights in Italy.

According to one non-Italian member of the Order, these Italian Knights have refused to reveal the value of their holdings. Furthermore, they claim they are making no profits from which to contribute to the Order’s charitable efforts.

But not everyone is convinced.

And Pope Francis, who has been unsparing in his criticism of spiritual worldliness and the idolization of money, has asked his delegate to look into the matter.


Build bridges, not walls!

The current pope has become famous (or notorious in some camps) for constantly repeating this line, especially in regards to how countries should deal with migrants and refugees.

Many journalists and commentators seem to think Francis invented the phrase. And that he did so specifically in response to world leaders who want to close off their countries’ borders to foreigners—such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and, more pointedly, U.S. President Donald Trump.

But Francis has used the metaphor of building bridges instead of walls in other contexts too. It is part of his overall attempt to encourage dialogue and encounter between individuals, groups, and nations.

However, he did not invent or even popularize the phrase. You can attribute that to John Paul II, at least among the popes.

Perhaps another Roman Pontiff before him or some world figure actually beat him to the punch. But Papa Wojtyla used it with dramatic flare.

It seems the first time he used the phrase in a major speech was in 1994 in his annual New Year address to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.

“It is necessary to build bridges, not walls, between people, as well as between nations and the different groups which comprise them,” he said.

But perhaps John Paul II’s most memorable application of that image was regarding the Holy Land.

“I renew my firm condemnation of every terrorist act perpetrated recently in the Holy Land,” he said on November 16, 2003 at his Sunday Angelus address

“Many see the building of a wall between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples as yet another obstacle on the path to peaceful coexistence. Indeed, the Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges!” the old pope thundered.

And so continues his latest successor.

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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