Letter from Rome

Listen to the Pleas of the Door Knocker

Some hailed it as the defining moment of his pontificate. Others said it was “an extraordinary piece of political theater.”

But whatever one makes of Pope Francis’ dramatic visit last Saturday to Lesbos—and, even more, his return to Rome several hours later with three families of Syrian Muslims that were among the roughly 2,500 refugees currently stuck on the Greek island—it’s hard to remain unmoved by the Bishop of Rome’s extraordinary journey.

That is if you knew it happened; or better, if you actually saw it. People who are usually not pope-followers or who do not regularly track news of religion may have missed it—even despite the wide media coverage. That’s too bad.

The historic visit was actually the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. The primus inter pares (first among equals) of Eastern Orthodoxy invited Francis to join him and the primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos II, for what the papal spokesman called a “humanitarian and ecumenical gesture.”

Unfortunately, many reporters and commentators (and not just those in the secular media) showered most of their attention on the man in white, even though he did his best to always keep his two, black-clad Orthodox brothers in the spotlight.

During a very heart-wrenching walk among some 250 refugees, the pope at times even intentionally yielded the lead to Bartholomew as the three men slowly and individually met and listened to all the assembled asylum seekers.

It was striking that these three high-ranking Church leaders mostly just listened. They attentively listened to pleas, anguishing cries and personal tragedies that many of the refugees poured out. And they frequently embraced these people, so obviously marked by suffering, horror, and deep anxiety.

This has not always been the case, especially with previous popes. Benedict XVI tried, but could not do so for a sustained amount of time due to his own personal shyness, which made him appear safely detached from those before him. And the iconic John Paul II moved through crowds giving his hand to one person while already fixing his gaze and uttering a blessing on another. The Polish saint dominated every moment and almost always did most of the talking.

Francis—with Bartholomew and Ieronymos—again showed that there is another way for religious leaders to reach out to people. And by doing so together, these three offered a challenging witness to people in every place where immigrants or refuges are seeking a new home.

Their visit to Lesbos was not just a challenge to Europe, but also to the North America, Oceania and other places that have become the destination of so many poor, persecuted and starving people.

The only real question now is whether the leaders and citizens of these lands will be able to listen—in a way that Ieronymos, Bartholomew and Francis did—to the pleas of those who knock at their doors.

If they can it will mark, not the defining moment of a Roman pontificate, but a new milestone for all humanity.

****

Pope Francis, when he tells off-the-cuff stories or anecdotes, usually refers to himself simply as “padre.” But everyone knows by now that in official matters he prefers to identify himself as Bishop of Rome.

Contrary to what others often say (wrongly), this is not because it is the simplest of his eight titles listed in the Annuario Pontificio. Rather, it is because “Bishop of Rome” is the first and most important, without which none of the others exist or make sense.

Another thing that just about everyone gets wrong is to refer to the pope—and him alone—as “the pontiff.” In fact, every bishop is a pontiff. Francis happens to be the Roman Pontiff or, to invoke another of his titles, the “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church.”

Now, the most important church for every pontiff or bishop is the diocesan cathedral, the location of his cathedra or chair of teaching authority. In the case of the Bishop of Rome this is the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, which is also one of the four major basilicas in the Eternal City. (And, by a legal loophole, is extraterritorially part of the Vatican.)

A common misconception, even among many Catholics, is that St. Peter’s Basilica is the pope’s cathedral. It’s not. It’s actually more of a mausoleum that contains the mortal remains of most of his predecessors.

So why is it that Francis, like recent popes before him, uses the Vatican basilica for the most important liturgies of the year that a bishop would normally celebrate in his diocesan cathedral?

Just about the only Mass fixed on the universal Church calendar that the pope now celebrates at the Lateran is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi or Corpus Domini). This year he’ll do so on May 26, the traditional Thursday-after-Trinity Sunday date of the feast, which is still observed at the Vatican. Like most other places around the world, the Italian Church, including the Diocese of Rome, doesn’t mark Corpus Domini until the following Sunday. 

Why doesn’t the pope go to the Lateran then? If he wants to stick to the traditional date, it would be better for him at St. Peter’s.

But the more general question is why Francis does not go more often to his cathedral. He has now visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major, just a few blocks away, over thirty times. He usually goes there before and after his trips abroad to place flowers at an altar displaying the diocese’s most famed icon Our Lady, Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People).

It is surprising that Pope Francis, who’s rightly stressed from the day of his election his preeminent role as Bishop of Rome, gets this one so wrong.

This past Sunday he ordained eleven new priests, nine of them incardinated into the Diocese of Rome. Not even this ceremony was in the diocesan cathedral, but at St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. John Lateran is traditionally known as the “mother and head of the all the churches in the city and the world.” But Pope Francis, like his predecessors, continues to relegate it to the level of bridesmaid. Or, to use his own lingo, the mother church is a mere mother-in-law.  

****

Many of us were shocked last week when we discovered that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) abruptly fired Tony Spence who had served twelve years as director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service (CNS).

Basically, the conference caved in to several conservative Catholic websites that have been waging a longstanding witch-hunt against anyone who does not meet their standard of orthodoxy.

In Spence’s case, it was what these sites saw as his promotion of LGBTQ rights on his private Twitter account.

The USCCB, which owns CNS, has made no public announcement about the firing, but the National Catholic Reporter and America offered thorough accounts of what apparently happened.

Congratulations to the leadership of the U.S. bishops' conference—especially the secretary general, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield—for further enabling homophobic and hate-mongering heretic hunters like Church Militant, the Lepanto Institute and LifeSiteNews.com.

The conference has rewarded them with Spence’s scalp and, in doing so, has only emboldened these nasty zealots to go after others who don’t share their obsession with the so-called pelvic issues.

The bishops' conference should also be damn proud of itself for sending a sixty-three-year-old man with a long and award-winning career in Catholic journalism to the unemployment line. Spence was a consultant for a time at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and respected among his colleagues.

According to the accounts it does not appear that any of his superiors at the USCCB ever confronted him about anything he was posting on his Twitter feed. No warning. No temporary suspension. Just the boot. And he was escorted off the conference premises without even being allowed to collect anything from his desk.

We probably should not be surprised that this happened, but that it didn’t come earlier. For years now forces inside the USCCB, especially a number of conservative bishops, have been gunning for CNS to act as a propaganda wing for the conference’s numerous culture war battles.

But Spence struggled to protect the independence that is written into the news agency’s statutes—one of the features that has made Catholic News Service such a good, reliable, and credible source of church news and analysis.

But like just about everything else the reactionary leaders at the U.S. bishops’ conference touch these days, it looks like they are determined to ruin this too.

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

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