Interpreting – sometimes misinterpreting – gestures by popes is a (mostly) harmless pastime for many Catholics. Presumably, the Holy Spirit is invisibly and unpredictably present in the choice of those He permits to become successors to St. Peter. But that spiritual wildcard doesn’t slow speculation. The latest in papalist drama arises from the Vatican’s announcement Saturday  that Pope Francis, despite health and mobility issues, will visit L’Aquila in Italy on August 28 to celebrate the Feast of Forgiveness, created in 1294 by Pope Celestine V.
Now, you may need a quick refresher on papal history to understand what this may mean. (Please, bear with me; the relevance will soon become clear.) Celestine V was the last pope – before Benedict XVI – to abdicate. For good reasons. He was a monk and a hermit thrown into the turbulent Church politics of the thirteenth century – and wholly unsuited to the office. It was a kind of desperate measure; perhaps an obviously holy man might unite the various warring factions, which were deadlocked and had left the Church without a pope for over two years (the 1292-94 interregnum).
He couldn’t do it and knew he couldn’t. And wanted to return to the monastery. His successor, Boniface VIII, wouldn’t allow it and had him imprisoned, just in case his supporters had ideas about returning him as anti-pope. After various escapades – Celestine escaped at one point and hid in the woods, tried to board a ship for the Dalmatian coast, etc. – he settled into prison life and died 10 months later (rumors of mistreatment or even poisoning have never been substantiated).
Dante briefly refers to him – scholars disagree about this as about almost everything. But most think Dante is referring to Pope Celestine in a famous line about a soul in limbo Che fece per viltade il grand rifiuto. (“Who made through cowardice the great refusal.”) This was not only an act of spiritual nullity, in Dante’s view, but permitted the ascendance of his bête noire Boniface VIII, whom he regularly predicted was destined for a place in deepest Hell.
One final twist, Celestine actually made some useful reforms in how popes were elected and was canonized as a saint in 1313 by Pope Clement V.
To come back to our own troubled times, papal watchers have long considered sites associated with Celestine as places where popes may be giving “signals.” Paul VI went to his place of death (Ferentino) in 1966, sparking rumors that he was about to resign.
Benedict XVI (famously now) went to his tomb in L’Aquila in 2009 and left his papal pallium there, for – even after his abdication – still not entirely clear reasons.
And now Pope Francis will be there, ostensibly for the Feast of Forgiveness. But he’s going on August 28, a strange date, because he just announced last week the appointment of 21 new cardinals, who will be elevated on August 27 – itself odd because it’s months away and all of Italy is basically on vacation (Ferragaosto) in August. Stranger still, the two days after the new Cardinals will be elevated are supposed to be a consistory dedicated to discussing, with the pope, Predicate Evangelium, his reform of the Roman Curia.
Why choose to leave Rome for L’Aquila in the middle of that?
Consistories are also typically a time when the world’s Cardinals come together in Rome to talk things over, get to know one another, and start thinking about who among them might be a good candidate as the next pope.
One of the oddities of this odd papacy is that Francis has not called the Cardinals to Rome for a consistory in years – papal critics say because the Cardinals might tell him things he doesn’t want to hear. It’s also odd because of Francis’ often-repeated desire for a “synodal” Church in which the bishops as leaders and the Catholic people of the world can “walk together.” That hasn’t included the traditional walking-together of the Cardinals.
A great deal of attention has focused on the recent choices. Here in America, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy has drawn scrutiny – and rightly so. He’s a Francis loyalist who has gotten into conflicts on several occasions with his American colleagues in the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.
In 2015, for example, he tried to tone down a pre-election statement  “Faithful Citizenship,” by the bishops that continued to emphasize abortion as a central moral concern. The American bishops, McElroy argued, were ignoring Pope Francis’ view that climate, refugees, poverty were equally important. Houston’s Cardinal DiNardo, then-president of the Conference, sharply rejected that claim.
In 2019, after a similar argument by McElroy, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput rose to argue that his characterization of what the conferees were doing was simply, “Not true.”
A number of the bishops in the room spontaneously applauded Chaput .
Francis just removed the bishop of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, for his “differences” with his fellow bishops. That standard clearly didn’t apply to McElroy.
McElroy also, notoriously, tried to slow down Vatican investigations into Theodore McCarrick. Indeed, it’s curious that all Francis’ American Cardinals had connections to McCarrick – Cupich, Tobin, Gregory, Farell, and now McElroy.
That plus their distance from the more traditional orientation of the American bishops, who are still largely JPII and Benedict appointees, indicates that Francis beyond question wishes to change the makeup of the episcopacy in the United States. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen. But the dynamics within the bishops’ conference don’t seem to favor it.
And globally, Francis’ Cardinalatial appointments create a counter-current. It may seem that naming Cardinals in “the peripheries” – East Timor, India, even Mongolia – and not the traditional places like Los Angeles, Paris, Milan, and (this round) Ukraine – will make the Church more “diverse,” in a liberal direction.
But it’s hard to believe that Cardinals from “the peripheries” will be on fire for Europe and America’s rainbow-friendly, women’s-ordination oriented, tradition suspicious, and progressive internationalist agendas.
Resistance from the peripheries may be another (unintended) consequence of Francis’ appointments. We’ll have to wait, and see.
*Image: The tomb of Celestine V in the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, L’Aquila, Italy [credit: Wikipedia]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s Thou Art Peter 
William Kilpatrick’s If Francis Should Resign, What Then?