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The Vatican Thing

No Bark, No Bite

Sherlock Holmes’ “dog that did not bark” is something of overused cliché in public matters. But there are times when the absence of something that ought to be there – and loud – is the strongest evidence of what has really been going on. Witness the extraordinary consistory, which ended yesterday evening with a Mass celebrated by the pope in St. Peter’s for the Cardinals, who spent the past two days in private discussing the present and future of the Church.

It usually takes some indirect sources to sort out Vatican events like this, and people who follow them know how to put together the basic picture from various bits and pieces. This time, however, the fragments are few and add up to very little. It would be distressing to think that is the only result of what the Cardinals and the Holy Father just spent their time doing.

Still, that may very well be the case.

The official spokesmen haven’t spoken much. What we’ve mostly been told are the usual PR cliches: that the pope invited the participants to speak out frankly. But when you even have to say that, who ever really does it? Read more.

The Uses of Presumption?

It would be presumptuous, of course, of anyone to offer advice to the College of Cardinals gathered for private discussions with Pope Francis during the two days of the “extraordinary consistory” currently underway. Doubly presumptuous, because who would listen – or read – some random, unofficial figure anyway?

So far, details from the first day of the consistory have been quite sparse and general. Which is surprising given the challenges that the Church faces both internally and from an increasingly hostile world.

And doubly surprising, too, because a fair number of the Cardinals are serious and accomplished men who have thought – and thought deeply – about the current situation of the Church. Some are even more than ready to act, boldly.

Still, if someone presumptuous, against all proper respect and good judgment, wanted to offer the College as a group some humble words of advice, the first move might be to counsel them to take and read C. S. Lewis’s great little book The Screwtape Letters. Read more.

The Feast of Forgiveness

Pope Francis, love him or not, has a gift – personal charisma. His papacy might have been an indisputably great one if he had stuck mostly with his extraordinary ability to reach out to people – and had avoided theological and moral questions that are manifestly not his strong suit. Case in point: his pilgrimage to L’Aquila in central Italy yesterday for the Feast of Forgiveness was truly moving. He didn’t announce his resignation, as some anticipated. But he did something that might almost serve as a touchstone for his best days as pope. He brilliantly dramatized the need for mercy and humility, at all times and places, but especially now in our postmodern and deeply troubled world.

The Celestine Feast of Forgiveness (Perdonanza) in L’Aquila has a long and interesting history. It was instituted by St. Pope Celestine V in 1294, making this year the 728th anniversary. Yesterday was the first time in all those many years that a pope came and opened the Holy Door (Porta Santa) of the L’Aquila Basilica. Pilgrims who pass through that door during the feast days, as the pope did himself, and completing the usual requirements, can receive a plenary indulgence.
Read more.

Some Reflections on the New Red Hats

It doesn’t take a deep historical sense – or an overly romantic imagination – to be moved by the great formal events that the Vatican conducts several times a year. They take you to some other place and time. There’s nothing quite like them in the modern world – (though the British monarchy under the great Elizabeth II, occasionally strikes similar, if lesser notes.) My preference is for the large events held outdoors in St. Peter’s Square under the milky blue Roman skies, which make you think of great public liturgies in ancient Jerusalem and Rome.

Yesterday’s ordinary consistories, which confirmed twenty new cardinals and canonized two new saints, took place inside St. Peter’s, perhaps because of the August heat. But it was a glorious affair all the same: The rhythms of Latin, the universal language of the global Church, were lovely. (Ironically, now-Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and merciless TLM hatchet-man, gave a rather substantial opening discourse in his English-inflected Latin.) The music and colorful vestments and rich décor made it clear that God was being honored with all the beauty and skill of which our poor fallen species is capable. Read more.

Late August Stirrings in Rome

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. Read more.

Culture Wars and International Affairs

Russia’s absurd portrayal of itself as some sort of Christian champion in Ukraine – even as it slaughters thousands and destroys whole cities, has gotten me thinking about something I’ve been ambivalent about for many years: the effect of American popular culture on the rest of the world.

I love America. And like all sane people who do, I, therefore, come close to hating much about our current popular culture – starting with the fact that we even have it here at home to export. But there are some crucial distinctions to draw about that now-global U.S. presence. And we should not allow to go unanswered those who want to use the decadent elements of American and Western culture and even Western Christianity – which exist beyond all doubt – as an excuse for nefarious purposes. Read more.

What Is to be Done?

The question above has been proposed at various times in Russian history. Lenin raised it and believed the obvious answer was Marxist revolution; Tolstoy asked it and found in his efforts to help Moscow’s poor that there was no easy answer, perhaps no answer at all. It’s strange to be in and around the Vatican these days – as a major war is raging – something that hasn’t happened in recent decades and, therefore, puts the same question to inexperienced leaders, Catholic and not. Like poor Tolstoy, they don’t have many answers. Read more.

Religion – and the Pope – Still Matter

Visiting with various people in Rome this week, I’ve been struck by the fact that they all understand that religion still matters. Who knew? Almost everyone in the world outside the Western media bubble, of course, which typically regards the religious impulse of the human race as something of a colorful holdover from the past when it crops up, preferably in distant cultures. Closer to home, it’s taken to be a dangerous delusion, the realm of “bitter clingers” and a whole “basket of deplorables,” when traditional Christians and others act as if faith has consequences not only for themselves, but the public realm. Then a major conflict such we are witnessing in Ukraine arises and, at least briefly, it’s clear that, like it or not, the world of faith makes a world of difference. Read more.

The Sciences and Homophiliac Synodality

Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian who has long been involved in Vatican international activities, was named this week as Chancellor of both the Pontifical Council of Sciences and the Pontifical Council of Social Sciences. Ordinarily, this kind of musical chairs, involving longtime Vatican officials and offices, is only of interest to people who are either clerical careerists themselves or who believe they see salvation or damnation in what are often just murky personnel maneuvers. In this instance, however, much may indeed be at stake for the Church – and maybe even the world. Read more.