Pope Francis and his entourage—including seventy-four journalists riding in the back of the Alitalia jet, supplies for his foreign journeys—arrive in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi today for the start of a six-day visit to Africa.
This is the pope’s first time on that vast and troubled continent, which is emblematic, in many ways, of the peripheries of the world where he says the church needs to more explicitly bring God’s love and mercy.
After a flurry of activity—including a visit to a slum, a large youth gathering and a visit to the United Nations office in Nairobi—Francis will head to Uganda late afternoon on Friday. Highlights of that leg of the African trip include visits to separate Catholic and Anglican shrines commemorating the Uganda martyrs of the late 19th century.
It is likely that we will know only at the last minute whether the pope and his crew will be able to complete the final destination of the journey—Central African Republic, a country where a brutal civil war is currently raging.
Vatican officials have said publicly that Francis is not worried about security concerns and that he still plans to visit a mosque while in the capital Bangui.
But other officials have whispered privately that the scheduled events are likely to be drastically scaled back, if the papal plane is able to land in the country at all. Some have talked about the possibility of a brief stop at Bangui’s tightly guarded airport for a Mass with the Catholic community.
That would be a hard compromise for the pope, who has every intention of having that Mass in the city’s cathedral where he would then anticipate the start of the church’s Holy Year of Mercy. The Jubilee is to officially begin on December 8 in Rome with the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. But Francis has said from the beginning that the Jubilee of Mercy is not only to take place in the Eternal City, but in every single diocese throughout the world.
He has asked every cathedral and even certain shrines around the world to have a holy door through which believers can pass on a spiritual pilgrimage to embrace God’s mercy.
It would send a powerful message if, from a war-ravaged place like Central African Republic, Pope Francis were able to walk through the Holy Door and launch the entire church and all humanity on this year-long quest to obtain and offer mercy.
Was it a veiled threat? Or was it just more of his typical and well-known boorish bluster? Cardinal George Pell, with about as much subtlety as he’s capable of mustering, has once again suggested that our current pope is getting wobbly on Catholic teaching.
“Let us pray on this feast of St. Clement for Pope Francis that he will continue to teach and exhort us to follow the truths of the faith which are always stronger than an arid horizontal secularism,” said the cardinal on Monday in a homily (which sounded more like a lecture) at the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome.
It seems that Big George is not so sure that Papa Francesco will be able to continue providing “clear teaching”—especially on the “vexed question” of whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics can ever be readmitted to the sacraments.
“We now await the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation [on the family], which will express again the church’s essential tradition and emphasis that the appeal to discernment and the internal forum can only be used to understand better God’s will as taught by the scriptures and by the magisterium and can never be used to disregard, distort or refute established church teaching,” Cardinal Pell confidently declared. Or was he issuing a directive?
His words came just a week after the pope sent more shockwaves through the souls of church traditionalists after an exchange with a Lutheran woman desirous of receiving communion alongside her Catholic husband. Francis said he would not dare give the woman “permission” to do so. But then he counseled her to “speak to the Lord and go forward” from there.
That sounds pretty much like the sort of appeal to discernment and internal forum that Cardinal Pell says the pope will definitely reject in his forthcoming exhortation. This is not the first time the cardinal has dropped not so subtle hints about the reliability of the pope’s theology and personal faith.
“The church is not built on the rock of Peter’s faith, as a popular hymn claims, but on Peter himself despite his faults and failings,” he said last year in a homily to a group of Catholics attached to the pre-Vatican II Mass. “Pope Francis is the 266th pope and history has seen thirty-seven false or antipopes,” the cardinal said. Was he implying something?
“The story of the popes is stranger than fiction… Today we have one of the more unusual popes in history, enjoying almost unprecedented popularity,” Pell told the neo-Tridentinists, certainly not a single member of the Papa Francesco Fan Club among them.
Cardinal Pell is only one of a number of leading church figures in Rome and elsewhere who have shown, in one way or another, that they think Pope Francis is not being clear enough in teaching Catholic doctrine.
The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, tried several months ago to bring the pope into line when he told the French Catholic paper, La Croix, it was the CDF’s job to “provide the theological structure of a pontificate”.
In other words, all theological and doctrinal matters and decisions are to be decided by Cardinal Müller’s office. It seems the pope doesn’t quite see it like that.
You need proof? Francis has not allowed the CDF to issue a single major document in the more than two years and seven months he’s been Bishop of Rome.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Guinean who has been prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments for exactly one year now, has also raised questions about the pope’s theological views, though without actually naming Francis.
His most recent intervention appears in the French Catholic paper, L'Homme Nouveau. And like Cardinal Müller, there he has magnified the importance of his own office.
“I am responsible for the discipline of the sacraments in the whole Latin Church,” he says unabashedly. So far no new documents have come from Cardinal Sarah’s office, either.
Pell and Sarah were allegedly among the thirteen cardinals that sent Pope Francis a private letter as the Synod of Bishops gathered last October and basically warned him against allowing the “protestantization” of the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Müller, while not among the signatories of that letter, has stated the same concern, especially regarding the possibility of making priestly celibacy optional. He spoke again about the dangers of protestantizing the church during a recent visit to Chile. This time the trap to be avoided was “reading the signs of times” in order to update the church’s message.
It would be acceptable if these cardinals—all of whom work for Francis as members of his curia—were to express such worries to the pope in private. But to do so publicly is not only disloyal; it also sows confusion.