In last week’s Letter from Rome, I questioned Cardinal Robert Sarah’s claim that Pope Francis had asked him “to study the question of a reform of a reform [of the liturgy] and of how to enrich the two forms of the Roman rite.”

I also wondered—as did many of you—whether the pope really supported the prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship’s appeal that all priests around the world “return as soon as possible” to the pre-Vatican II practice of so-called ad orientem worship; that is, celebrating Mass with their back to the people. The Guinean cardinal suggested bishops implement the change on the first Sunday of Advent (November 27).

My questions arose from a deep skepticism. Because, although Francis has never made matters of liturgy a major focus of his pontificate, he has been clear that there would be no going back on the liturgical reforms that stemmed from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

The skepticism was merited.

A well-informed church official told me that a lot of bishops and cardinals (“some you might never expect”) were “terribly upset” by Cardinal Sarah’s “clarion call” for ad orientem worship (as some of his neo-Tridentinist supporters called it) and they contacted the Vatican for clarification.

Well, they got it. And it came in record time.

Just a few days after the cardinal-prefect made the above-mentioned remarks at a conference in London, Pope Francis summoned him for a private meeting (last Saturday) and effectively slapped him down.

Unsurprisingly, the Holy See Press Office issued a statement (initially only in Italian, then with English and Spanish translations) that described what happened in a more gentle and classic Roman Curia way in order to allow the cardinal to save face.

Nonetheless, the communiqué made it clear that the pope had never “asked” for a new study on the liturgical reform, as Cardinal Sarah had described it. And neither does he support a return to ad orientem celebration of the Mass. “New liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent,” said the statement in its mediocre English version.

Leave aside the fact that Monday’s statement on the papal audience was overly kind to the cardinal by blaming others for having “incorrectly interpreted...some of the prefect’s expressions” as if they were intended to change current liturgical rules or practices.

The truth is no one misinterpreted the cardinal’s words or expressions. They can be found in their entirety (specifically on pages 19 and 21) in his lengthy and factually dubious text.

The Vatican statement also made it crystal clear that Pope Francis is not interested in—to cite Cardinal Sarah—how a “reform of the reform” might “enrich the two forms of the Roman Rite” (a linguistic and juridical fiction that Benedict XVI imposed on the entire Church in 2007 in his official act of overturning Paul VI’s abrogation of the Tridentine Rite).

In fact, the statement says people should stop using the term “reform of the reform” since it is too often the source of “misunderstandings” (equivoci in the original Italian). And it stresses that the post-Vatican II rite, with Mass facing the people, remains the norm.

I cannot remember a pope calling in a cardinal prefect so quickly and then issuing a public “correction” of his words and ideas that—gee whiz—we all had merely misunderstood.


Robert Sarah was not the only cardinal who had his wings clipped in the last several days.

Pope Francis also did a pretty good number on Australian Cardinal George Pell by once more drastically reducing his powers as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy (SFE).

The pope issued a new “motu proprio” last Saturday that essentially reverses a 2014 law that had given Pell’s office managing control over the Holy See’s real estate and investments portfolios.

The new decree returns this control to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA)—headed by Italian Cardinal Domenico Calcagno—in order to ensure an “unequivocal and full separation” between the office that manages the Vatican’s assets (APSA) and the one that exercises vigilance over (or monitors) that management (SFE).

“I intend to confirm the fundamental line that it is necessary to separate the direct management of assets from the tasks of control and vigilance over management activities,” the pope says in the new decree.

“To that end, it is of the utmost importance that bodies responsible for vigilance are separated from those that are being overseen,” he writes.

In essence this means the only area of Vatican finances that will be directly controlled by Pell’s office are human resources and payroll. APSA resumes full control of asset management, purchasing and contracts, as well as support services such as information technology.

Many in the Vatican are shaking their heads because, after spending millions of dollars on big-name, international consultancy companies to help reform the Holy See’s financial management, it seems like everything has returned to the way things were before Pope Francis even began the costly reforms.

It seems as if the new Secretariat for the Economy has merely been given a more beefed-up role of oversight—and with some real teeth—than that which the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See (now in institutional limbo) was originally intended to have.

I am not surprised.

Pope Francis has been absolutely clear since the first days of his pontificate that he longs for a “poor Church for the poor.”

And while he was given a mandate by the cardinals that elected him Bishop of Rome in March 2013 to carry out sweeping financial reforms at the Vatican, the new pope initially gave every indication that his preference was to free the Church’s central bureaucracy from the often murky business of managing its own finances and properties.

His preference seemed to be to close down the so-called Vatican Bank and, like a diocese, use credible institutions not controlled or owned by the Holy See for all its financial services.

“St. Peter never had a bank account,” he said more than once in the first months as pope.

But to no avail. There are too many people with vested interests in keeping the bank and other services operating.

Financial reform will continue in fits and starts, with one step forward and one step back. But this is not Francis’s major focus or concern. He obviously has bigger fish to fry.


July and August used to be quiet and low-key in ecclesiastical Rome. But that was before Pope Francis arrived.

And it means we journalists must be prepared for anything, like the end of the recent VatiLeaks II trial and the latest overhaul of another Vatican department. We are rarely fazed or caught off guard when the pope or one of his staff makes “big news” during these summer months.

But this past Monday was different.

Though few of my colleagues will write or say so publicly, most of us were extremely surprised (and some utterly stunned) when it was announced that Pope Francis had named American journalist Greg Burke the new director of the Holy See Press Office and appointed a Spanish woman who is a member of our press corps, Paloma García Ovejero, as his deputy.

The astonishment was punctuated by the fact that, for the first time ever, neither the director nor vice-director is a native Italian. And neither is a cleric. But both are affiliated with Church groups or movements.

Burke, 56, is originally from St. Louis and has been a numerary (celibate member) of Opus Dei the past thirty-three years. He came to Rome in 1988 as the correspondent for the National Catholic Register (in its pre-Legion of Christ and EWTN days) before moving into mainstream media with Time Magazine (1990-2001) and Fox News (2001-2012).

The Vatican then hired him as a media consultant at the Secretariat of State where he worked until last December. That’s when he was appointed deputy to Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, the man he replaces, effective August 1, as head of the press office.

(I’ll have more to say about the soon-to-be 74-year-old Jesuit and his ten years as the Vatican’s chief spokesman at another time.)

García Ovejero, who turns 41 next month, hails from Madrid and is part of the Neocatechumenal Way (her parents are still catechists in the movement). She has worked since 1998 as a journalist for Cadena Cope, a radio network owned by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference and several religious orders.

She briefly stepped away from that job in 2010 to oversee media relations for the August 2011 celebration of World Youth Day in the Spanish capital. She’s been in Rome since September 2012 as Cadena Cope’s correspondent in Italy and the Vatican.

Most reporters and analysts say the appointments of Burke and García Ovejero mark an advancement for the role of the laity in the Church. While Joaquin Navarro-Valls (also an Opus Dei numerary from Spain) served many years as Vatican spokesman, he always had an Italian priest as his vice-director.

This is the first time the Holy See will have completely non-Italian and lay-run press office. And it’s the first time ever that a woman is in one of the top two slots.

Journalists are also saying that the decision to have a native English speaker and a native Spanish speaker head the pressroom is a further sign of the “internationalization” of the Vatican’s media operations. And they say the relatively young ages of the two new appointees marks another step towards rejuvenating and modernizing the way the Vatican is trying to speak to the outside world.

That’s what the hacks are saying publicly.

Privately, however, some of my fellow Rome-based members of the Holy See press corps are expressing concerns that the new Opus Dei-Neo Cat duo at the helm of press office may be facing some insurmountable challenges.

Burke and García Ovejero both speak Italian. But colleagues I’ve talked to are worried that neither has a sufficient (that is, a native speaker’s) command of the language, its intricacies, and nuances to be spokespersons for an organization that, whether one likes it or not, is still extremely Italian, both linguistically and culturally. (Navarro-Valls did, by the way.)

Just to cite an example of why this is important, the two VaticanLeaks scandals and their courtroom trials were intertwined with an antiquated Italian legal system and an even more archaic lexicon that was difficult even for many Italians to understand. It was a lumpy mass of spaghetti for most of us non-Italians! How proficient would the new director or his deputy be at disentangling all that?

Other people wonder if the two appointees are adequately prepared theologically and ecclesiologically, a skill-set that proved to be essential to the excellent work of the outgoing Vatican spokesman, Fr. Lombardi. An intimate knowledge and lived experience of the Church’s history, its theology and its ecclesiology—especially of the Second Vatican Council—continues to be crucial for spokespersons of a pope who is, in a sometimes very unconventional way, trying to renew and reform the Church.

There is also a question of whether Burke and García Ovejero know Pope Francis, his mindset, and spirituality exhaustively enough—as Fr Lombardi clearly does—to be able to help the outside media better understand his words and actions.

These may all turn out to be needless concerns, but concerns they are.

Although Pope Francis was the one who officially appointed the new director and vice-director, a Vatican source said he did so on the recommendation of Msgr. Dario Viganò, the 54-year-old prefect of the fledgling and cash-strapped Secretariat for Communications.

No wonder it is believed that the Knights of Columbus, one of the Vatican’s most generous benefactors, lobbied for Burke’s promotion to the top job.

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

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