Letter from Rome

Francis's Curious New Appointment
CNS/Paul Haring

One of the most popular pontifical universities among English-speaking priests, seminarians, and laypersons studying in Rome is finally getting a sorely needed renovation.

The University of St. Thomas Aquinas, more famously known as the “Angelicum,” is in the midst of a six-year project aimed at modernizing the sixteenth-century former nunnery that has been the university’s campus the past eighty-eight years.

The cost for totally refurbishing the buildings and carrying out the necessary updating of the entire infrastructure is estimated to be somewhere in the ballpark of $16 million (a little over half of which has already been raised). If you’ve been to the “Ange,” especially in the residential areas, you would agree that this price sounds like a bargain.

No doubt, there can be a sort charming decadences about such centuries-old monasteries. But an incident several years ago involving a dear friend and one of the university’s moral theologians was a wake-up call that these facilities demand constant updating.

The professor, Fr. Bruce Williams, OP, had been struggling with the early stages of declining physical health. He lost his balance one morning while shaving at the sink inside his room and, grabbing hold to steady himself, he pulled the entire porcelain basin from the wall. He was fortunate not to have been seriously injured.

“That dump should be condemned!” I exclaimed in frustration when he recounted what had happened.

It took some time, but in 2014 the Angelicum got new university statutes and finally decided on a five-stage plan to fix up the place. They have already finished the professors’ offices and, this summer, they began stage two: refurbishing the friars’ personal quarters and the common living areas of the convent.

When it is all completed it will surely enhance what alumni and students describe as a unique Catholic learning environment in the Eternal City. People who attend at the Ange often rave about the more family-like atmosphere and friendliness of the professors, enhanced by the peaceful and beautiful garden-like cloister around which the lecture halls are situated.

Meanwhile, the university has announced that Fr. Rolando Valenzuela de la Rosa, a sixty-three-year-old Dominican from the Philippines, has been named as the new rector. With several advanced degrees, including from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), he started teaching at the Angelicum in 1985. He served three separate terms as rector back home at the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas (the largest Catholic University in the world) from 1990-1998 and 2008-2012.

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Pope Francis surprised a lot of Arab-speaking Catholics in June when he appointed Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, OFM, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

The fifty-one-year-old Italian friar had just begun a sabbatical a few weeks earlier after having completed twelve years as Custos (major superior) of the Franciscans of the Holy Land.

His appointment was curious (and, for some, disappointing) for several reasons.

The first thing everyone wondered was why Francis had named him only “administrator” and not immediately patriarch, especially since on the same day he promoted Fr. Pizzaballa to the rank of archbishop (he’ll be consecrated in September).

Then Catholics native to the patriarchate—mostly Palestinians, Jordanians and Cypriots—were saddened that the Holy See had returned to naming a “foreigner” as their top cleric after being led by two consecutive Arab-born patriarchs, dating back to 1987.

Furthermore, Fr. Pizzaballa does not speak Arabic. On the contrary, he is fluent in modern Hebrew, having studied the language immediately after joining the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in 1990. And he even served as pastor of Jerusalem’s fledgling community of Hebrew-speaking Catholics before he became Custos in 2004.

A number of Italians were also surprised by the Jerusalem appointment because they believed Pope Francis was planning to name Fr. Pizzaballa the next Archbishop of Milan sometime after November 7 when the current ordinary, Cardinal Angelo Scola, marks his seventy-fifth birthday and tenders his resignation.

Almost everyone now says that is a no-go. Pizzaballa’s new assignment, they say, means he is no longer a candidate for Milan, the largest and one of the most important dioceses in Europe.

But there is another way of reading what has happened. Pope Francis may have named Fr. Pizzaballa an archbishop and temporary seat-holder of a patriarchate precisely in order to succeed Cardinal Scola.

And that would serve as a not so subtle lesson to a cardinal who actively lobbied to be moved from the prestigious Patriarchate of Venice, where he had been since 2002, to the Archdiocese of Milan just nine years later. Many Italians believe Scola’s sought-out transfer was born of personal pride and ecclesiastical ambition.

They were not pleased at how willing he was to leave the venerable and beloved lagoon city where three previous patriarchs had become twentieth-century popes: St. Pius X, St. John XXIII, and (Servant of God) John Paul I.

But the mammoth-sized Church in Milan loomed as the greater prize. And leading it, as Paul VI once did, would make him “papabile” in way that the tiny Venice could not.

Scola and his closest allies were seen as doing all they could to boost the cardinal’s chances to become the next Bishop of Rome. That was especially true among those the Comunione e Liberazione (CL) movement for which the young Angelo Scola was ordained a priest in 1970.

That, in and of itself, was a foreshadowing of a church “career” built by utilitarian means to higher office. Scola never served a single day in the diocese for which he was ordained (Teramo). The local bishop ordained him as a favor to CL founder, who wanted the priests exclusively for his growing movement.

CL helped Scola rise through the ranks, helping him to make the right friends, such Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger was significant in helping further set Scola’s star and, eventually (as Benedict XVI), sending him to Milan in 2011.

After Benedict resigned the papacy, the Scola papal electoral campaign went quietly but resolutely into action. For a number of reasons it seemed unlikely he could muster enough votes to win election, especially since he had lost the crucial support of most of the Italian cardinals who saw his maneuvering for Milan an act of treason against the Venetians.

But Scola had strong allies in the Italian Episcopal Conference who believed he would be the next pope. When the white smoke spewed from the pipe of the Sistine Chapel on March 13, 2013 someone at the conference prepared—and sent out prematurely—a press statement to congratulate the new pope: Angelo Scola of Milan!

Pope Francis knows all this. Some say that is why he has not visited Milan or been very warm towards its cardinal.

If and when he sends Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa to be the new head of the Church in Milan he will be making a poetic statement.

A patriarch should not abandon or trade in his patriarchate for another see. But the transfer of a temporary “administrator” of a patriarchate to another diocese? That’s quite another matter.

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The world’s first-ever Jesuit and New World pope continues to challenge and even upset Catholics in every part of the “big tent” Church he is so clearly trying to create.

It bears repeating: no matter what kind of Catholic you are identify as—progressive, traditionalist, middle of the road—if you are not being challenged by Pope Francis’s words and actions then you are not paying attention.

In his reflection on the Gospel readings these past two Sundays, which he offered before the noontime Angelus, he once again spoke of our Christian duty to welcome migrants and refugees.

Most recently he pulled a compelling lesson from the story of the sisters Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42).

“Martha, Martha! You worry and fret about so many things when few are needed, indeed only one,” Jesus says to the one who complains that her sister has left her to do all he serving and preparing.

“It is Mary who has chosen the better part and it is not to be taken from her,” he adds. 

Priests and bishops too often use this passage to support the idea that contemplative or cloistered religious life is superior the active apostolic life. But the pope said it was a lesson in how one should treats “visitors,” including migrants and refugees. He said it was more important to listen and offer hospitality than to do or provide things for them.

“We create various institutions that give assistance to many forms of illness, loneliness, and marginalization, but there are fewer chances for those who are foreigners, marginalized or excluded to find someone willing to listen; because the foreigner, refugee, migrant (need someone) to listen to that painful story,” he said.

A week earlier Francis reflected on the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan and asked rhetorically, “Who is my neighbor?” He said we will be judged by how we treat our neighbors.

The pope said the Lord will ask us, “Do you remember that time on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho? That man, who was half-dead, was me. Do you remember that hungry child? It was me. Do you remember that migrant who so many people wanted to chase away? It was me. Those grandparents, abandoned in rest homes, were me. Those sick people in the hospital, who no one went to visit, were me.” 

There is probably something in all of this that, in some way, makes all of us uncomfortable. And that is not such a bad thing.

The key word, the pope said, is “listen.”

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

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Letter from Rome

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