Emotions at the end of August in Rome

This morning, Volente deodorant and despite United Airlines, your correspondent is more or less on his feet, quirky but alert, in Rome. It’s a strange time to be here. Ferragostó (named after the August Feast of the Assumption) is Italian holiday time. Virtually everyone is away and many shops, pharmacies and even restaurants are closed or at reduced hours.

But this year Pope Francis – who doesn’t take vacations – decided that over the next five days he would hold an “ordinary consistory” to train 20 new cardinals, visit L’Aquila (the burial place of Celestine V, the last pope before the abdication of Benedict XVI), and presiding over a few days of discussions by the cardinals of the world – an “extraordinary consistory” – on the future of the Church and the world.

The Vatican almost never schedules big events at this time of year. The weirdness of the lineup 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 hearing Cardinal Kasper plead to give communion to some divorced and remarried (without annulment) – strongly rejected the idea. Francis continued with Amoris Laetitia In any event. But there has only been one such “extraordinary consistory” – in 2015 – since. A plausible explanation is that he no longer wanted to hear from the cardinals or give them the opportunity to meet and decide – who knows what?

So why now, when Francis’ papacy inevitably comes to an end with his growing age? Is it to hold a necessary meeting of the highest prelates of the Church at a quiet time, when the press and the people are otherwise busy at the end of the summer? Is there another goal that required an unusually long period of preparation (usually only weeks after the announcement of new cardinals, but months for this consistory) that will surface in the days ahead?

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 kibbitz, inside and outside the fold, takes place before, during and after these events. There is a god. He is always at work in the world and in the Church. He allowed everything, from the Borgia popes to the saints. Yet His Providence has been, is, and always will be with His people to the end, no matter how things turn out in the days, years, and centuries to come.

And as Dante wrote in a time much more troubled than ours: “In his will is our peace”.

With the new cardinals in place, Francis will have named all but a few of the two-thirds needed to elect the next pope. In some respects, it is a matter of “wrapping up” the College of Cardinals to ensure a sympathetic successor.

But there have been two quite different categories in Francis’ cardinal appointments. One group was deliberately chosen from its favorite “peripheries,” places like Tonga, East Timor and Mongolia, which may bring with them perspectives different from those of cardinals in the developed world. But these perspectives are mostly traditional and orthodox — and pay little attention to the obsessions of wealthier nations on issues like homosexuality, female priests, trans rights and climate change.

The second group is much more clearly ideological. Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, for example, a Jesuit who received a red cap in 2019, will be the general rapporteur for the synod on synodality next year. He advocated for married priests and women, and a change in Church teaching on homosexuality and sex in general (which he says is Pope Francis’ position). And he is far from the only one.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who will become cardinal today — the only American in the current crop — has shown similar progressive leanings as well as a keen interest in liberal-leaning “social justice” issues. Some have observed that Francis has no effective representative among the cardinals he has appointed in America. And maybe McElroy, who is only 68, could fill that role for years. (More on that tomorrow.)

Older US nominations have not. Cardinal Kevin Farrell now heads a dicastery at the Vatican and will be camerlego — acting chief operating officer — upon the Pope’s death. A very important character, certainly. But he is, obviously, in Rome and not a major American presence.

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington DC holds a sensitive post. But the radius of his influence does not seem to extend far beyond the District. Especially compared to a predecessor like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.


Farrell and Gregory were also close, almost McCarrick creatures, which somewhat undermines their position and also reflects a strange dynamic within the Vatican under Pope Francis’ watch.

The pope was ambivalent about McCarrick, despite widespread rumours, even sending him to China for diplomatic purposes. And he’s been uncannily gentle with friends, even in Argentina, with troubled histories, including Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, who was removed from his post after two seminarians accused him of sexual abuse (charges confirmed later by an Argentine civil court). Yet before his sentencing, Zanchetta was given a specially created post at the Vatican financial agency APSA. And other prelates like the Chilean Juan Barros and even a cardinal, Marc Ouellet of Canada, among several others, seem to have gotten special treatment despite recent papal statements denouncing the abuses and supporting the victims.

The pope’s other two American cardinals – Blase Cupich in Chicago and Joseph Tobin in Newark – have tried to follow the pope’s example at various times, but they are far more popular in Rome than in America. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which is still dominated by appointees from John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has largely resisted their efforts.

A Cardinal McElroy is likely to meet similar resistance, but adds another voice to Francis’ efforts to reshape the American hierarchy. It is therefore not surprising that he is one of the few new cardinals presented at the consistory press conference.

Tomorrow, Francis will travel to L’Aquila for the traditional Celestine Feast of Forgiveness. Benedict XVI also went there in 2009, four years before his abdication. Pope Francis is highly unlikely to announce his own resignation on Sunday. But there is much speculation as to why – amid today’s ordinary consistory and Monday and Tuesday’s extraordinary consistory – he accepted this relatively minor appearance, especially given his knee problems, which require him to be moved around in a wheelchair.

Maybe it’s just some kind of preparation for an inevitable future, or maybe we’ll see something else. Reliable sources in Rome say that no special venue has been prepared for anything extraordinary in L’Aquila or Rome.

The real meat and potatoes of this busy week should be the “extraordinary consistory,” the private conversations the cardinals and the pope will have on Monday and Tuesday. The main topic planned will be a discussion on Francis’ document reforming the Roman Curia, Evangelium Predicate.

But this is really about Church bureaucracy and internal Vatican affairs, and will probably produce little noteworthy. In fact, judging by the calendar, there seem to be strict limits on the time allowed for cardinals to talk about many other things. Which is already rightly causing international grumbling, given the many obvious problems in the Church and the world today.

This very week, Francis ordered that all the assets of various Church institutions be transferred to the Vatican bank by the end of September, a good financial reform in theory, but a contradiction with the text of Evangelium Predicate. And given the tangled relationships of dozens of Vatican offices with numerous banks, a seemingly impossible request.

Perhaps this order is just an effort to correct an oversight (earlier documents issued during this papacy showed signs of haste, even errors that had to be corrected after publication). Or maybe it’s the 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 number is the result of different ways of assessing the overall situation compared to past accounting – and the admitted sale of $25 million in assets.

Thus, the conversations in the “extraordinary consistory” between the pope and the cardinals should have much, in principle, to consider, if they are authorized to do so. If there is little real discussion beyond the formalities, that in 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 will quickly know if major points – or conflicts – arise. Cardinals, especially Italians, have their favorites in the media and give them a lot of information, often to manipulate Church politics.

During the 2013 “general congregations” – the “private” meetings before the election of Pope Francis – entire speeches somehow leaked out. A cardinal told me, just after a leak, that a speech a braccio (i.e., “off the cuff”, without a text written by another cardinal whom he sat next to and whom he could see speaking even without notes) appeared verbatim – obviously transcribed from of an audio recording – the next day in the Italian press.

Then what is said in private, even outside the extraordinary consistory, will inevitably be known. And the worries and hopes of the cardinals of the world – concerning the future of the Church, of the world, probably even of the papacy, will be ahead.

We’ll bring you all of that, and more. Soon. So keep an eye out for upcoming episodes of The Vatican Thing.

*Image: The last consistory of Rome: Leo XIII proclaims the new cardinals (June 22, 1903). “Last” in the title refers to the consistories convened by Leo XIII, which numbered 27 during his quarter-century as pope.

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