This morning, Deo volente and despite United Airlines, your correspondent is more or less standing, jetlagged but alert, in Rome. It’s an odd time to be here. Ferragosto (named after the August Feast of the Assumption) is Italian vacation time. Virtually everyone is away and many shops, pharmacies, and even restaurants are closed or on reduced schedules.
But this year, Pope Francis – who doesn’t take vacations – has decided that over the next five days he will hold an “ordinary consistory” to make 20 new Cardinals, visit L’Aquila (the burial place of Celestine V, the last pope prior to Benedict XVI to abdicate), and preside over a couple of days of discussions by the world’s Cardinals – an “extraordinary consistory” – about the future of the Church and the world.
The Vatican almost never schedules large events at this time of year. The oddness of the scheduling alone has given rise to all sorts of dark Roman rumors.
Francis didn’t like it when he called an extraordinary consistory in 2014 and the Cardinals – after listening to Cardinal Kasper argue for giving Communion to some of the divorced and remarried (without annulment) – sharply rejected the idea. Francis pressed on with Amoris laetitia anyway. But there has been only one such “extraordinary consistory” – way back in 2015 – since. A plausible explanation is that he didn’t want to hear from the Cardinals again or give them occasions to meet and decide – who knows what?
So why now, as Francis’ papacy inevitably winds down with his increasing age? Is it to hold a necessary meeting of the Church’s highest prelates at a quiet moment, while press and people are otherwise occupied at the tail end of summer? Is there some other goal that required an unusually long period of preparation (usually only weeks after new cardinals are announced, but months for this consistory) that will surface in coming days?
These are key questions, with few certain answers.
But one thing Catholics, especially those most troubled by the state of the Church, should keep in mind as the inevitable kibbitzing, inside and outside the fold, goes on before, during, and after these events. There is a God. He is always at work in the world and the Church. He has allowed everything from Borgia popes to saintly ones. Yet His Providence was, is, and will always be with His people to the very end, however things turn out in coming days, years, centuries.
And as Dante wrote in a time far more troubled than our own: “In His will is our peace.”
With the new Cardinals in place, Francis will have named all but just a few short of the two-thirds needed to elect the next pope. In some respects, this is a kind of “packing” the College of Cardinals to ensure a sympathetic successor.
But there have been two quite different categories in Francis’ cardinatial appointments. One group has been deliberately selected from his favored “peripheries,” places like Tonga, East Timor, and Mongolia, who may bring with them perspectives different from those of the Cardinals in the developed world. But those perspectives are mostly traditional and orthodox – and not much interested in the obsessions of the richer nations on matters like homosexuality, women priests, trans rights, and climate change.
The second group is far more clearly ideological. Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, for example, a Jesuit who received a red hat in 2019, will be the Relator General at next year’s Synod on Synodality. He has argued for married and women priests, and a change in Church teaching about homosexuality and sex in general (which he claims is Pope Francis’ own position). And he’s far from the only one.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who will become a Cardinal today – the sole American in the current crop – has shown similar progressive tendencies along with a strong interest in “social justice” issues of a liberal bent. Some have observed that Francis does not have an effective representative among the Cardinals he’s named in America. And perhaps McElroy, who is only 68, might for years fulfill that role. (More on this tomorrow.)
The older American appointments have not. Cardinal Kevin Farrell now runs a dicastery in the Vatican and will be camerlengo – interim head of operations – when the pope dies. A very important figure, to be sure. But he is, obviously, in Rome and not a major U.S. presence.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. occupies a sensitive post. But the radius of his influence doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the District. Especially compared with a predecessor like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Farrell and Gregory were also close to, almost creatures of, McCarrick’s, which compromises their standing somewhat, and also reflects a strange dynamic within the Vatican on Pope Francis’ watch.
The pope was ambivalent about McCarrick, in spite of the widespread rumors, even sending him to China for diplomatic purposes. And he has been oddly soft on friends, even in Argentina, with troubled histories, most notably Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who was removed from office after two seminarians accused him of sexual abuse (charges later confirmed by an Argentinian civil court). Yet before his conviction, Zanchetta was given a specially created post at the Vatican financial agency APSA. And other prelates such as the Chilean Juan Barros and even a Cardinal, Marc Ouellet of Canada, among several others, seem to have gotten special treatment despite recent papal pronouncements decrying abuse and supporting victims.
The pope’s other two American Cardinals – Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joseph Tobin in Newark – have tried to follow the pope’s lead at various points, but they are much more appreciated in Rome than in America. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is still dominated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees, has largely resisted their efforts.
A Cardinal McElroy is likely to encounter similar resistance, but adds another voice to Francis’ effort at reshaping the American hierarchy. It’s no surprise, therefore, that he will be one of just a handful of the new cardinals featured at the consistory’s press conference.
Tomorrow, Francis will travel to L’Aquila for the traditional Celestine Feast of Forgiveness. Benedict XVI also visited there in 2009, four years before he abdicated. It’s very unlikely that Pope Francis will be announcing his own resignation Sunday. But there’s a great deal of speculation about why – in the midst of the ordinary consistory today and the extraordinary consistory of Monday and Tuesday – he agreed to this relatively minor appearance, especially given his knee problems, which require him to be moved around in a wheelchair.
Perhaps it’s just a kind of preparation for some future inevitability, or just maybe we’ll see something else. Reliable sources in Rome say that no special venues have been prepared for anything out of the ordinary either in L’Aquila or Rome.
The real meat and potatoes of this tightly packed week ought to be the “extraordinary consistory,” the private conversations the Cardinals and the pope will have on Monday and Tuesday. The main scheduled subject will be a discussion about Francis’ document reforming the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium.
But that’s really about the Church bureaucracy and internal Vatican matters, and will likely produce little that is noteworthy. In fact to judge from the scheduling, there seem to be sharp limits on the time allotted to the Cardinals to talk about much else. Which is already rightly causing grumbling of international scope, given the many obvious problems in the Church and the world at present.
Just this week, Francis ordered all the assets of various Church institutions to be moved to the Vatican bank by the end of September, a good financial reform in theory, but a contradiction of the text of Praedicate Evangelium. And given the tangled relationships of scores of Vatican offices with many banks a seemingly impossible request.
Perhaps this order is just an effort to correct an oversight (previous documents issued during this papacy have shown signs of haste, even errors that have had to be corrected after publication). Or perhaps it’s a first sign of something more serious about Vatican finances. We were recently told that the Holy See only had a $3 million shortfall this year. But that figure resulted from different ways of assessing the overall situation compared to past accounting – and the admitted selling off of $25 million in assets.
So the conversations in the “extraordinary consistory” between the pope and the Cardinals should have much, in principle, to consider, if they will be allowed to do so. If there is little real discussion beyond formalities, that itself will be telling.
And we’ll know right away. These consistory conversations are “private,” but only in theory. If the past is any basis for judging, we’ll quickly know if major points – or conflicts – arise. Cardinals, especially the Italians, have their favorites in the media, and feed them lots of information, often as a way of manipulating Church politics.
At the 2013 “general congregations” – the “private” meetings before Pope Francis was elected – whole speeches were somehow leaked. One Cardinal told me, right after a leak, that a speech a braccio (i.e., “off the cuff,” without a written text by a fellow Cardinal he was sitting next to and could see was speaking even without notes) appeared word for word – obviously transcribed from an audio recording – the next day in the Italian press.
So what is said in private, even outside the extraordinary consistory, will inevitably become known. And the worries and hopes of the world’s Cardinals – about the future of the Church, the world, probably even the papacy, will be forthcoming.
We’ll be bringing you all that, and more. Soon. So keep an eye out for future episodes of The Vatican Thing.
*Image: The Last Consistory in Rome: Leo XIII Proclaims the New Cardinals (June 22, 1903). “Last” in title refers to the consistories called by Leo XIII, of which there were 27 during his quarter century as pope.
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Stephen P. White’s A Red Hat for San Diego
Fr. Gerald E. Murray’s Divisions among Our American Bishops