The pope is officially on 'staycation,' but he can’t stop working
Taking stock of a busy pontificate at the mid-point of 2018
Once upon time the sweltering months of July and August marked a more leisurely period at the Vatican.
Shortly after the June 29 celebration of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the pope would retreat to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills south of Rome and his aides in the curia would see their workload decrease considerably.
He would not usually return permanently to the Vatican until the beginning of September.
After he became Bishop of Rome in 1978, John Paul II began the custom of also going away in July for a two-week vacation somewhere in the Alps. He would relax by praying, reading and taking daily hikes.
Benedict XVI followed that pattern in his first five years as pope, but in 2010 he cut out the annual holidays in the Alps and started going only to Castel Gandolfo where he further extended his stay until the beginning of October.
Pope Francis does none of this. No Castel Gandolfo. No mountain or seaside vacations. In fact, he hasn’t gone on holidays in over 40 years, stretching back to his time as a Jesuit superior in his native Argentina.
“The last time I took a vacation outside of Buenos Aires – it was with the Jesuit community – in 1975,” he revealed to reporters on his flight back from a pastoral visit to South Korea in August 2014.
“I do always take a vacation – really – but at home,” he assured the scribes. “I change pace. I sleep more; read the things I want; listen to music; spend more time praying… And this helps me relax.”
The first trip in the new pontificate: a prophetic campaign in favor of migrants
But the stay-at-home vacation (“staycation”) Francis describes is actually very brief.
In fact, it’s not clear when he actually does this, because his pontificate has been marked by a constant buzz of activity right from the start.
And this year, although he has cancelled all his Wednesday general audiences for July and his weekday morning Masses with residents and guests at his Santa Marta Residence throughout this month and all of August, the pope is continuing to meet individually with Church leaders and groups. And he even continues to travel.
That’s a pace he set already after his election in 2013.
On what should have been the first day of his summer vacation that year, the new pope surprised even his Vatican aides by taking a trip to Lampedusa.
The Italian island between Sicily and Malta had already become the first European port of entry for boat people and asylum seekers who make the treacherous and often deadly journey from North Africa across the Mediterranean Sea.
It was the first salvo in what has become Pope Francis’ tireless campaign in favor of the rights and dignity of migrants and refugees.
The pope went to Lampedusa, he said, to “challenge people’s consciences” and urge them to make “a concrete change of heart” to overcome our “globalized indifference” to these suffering, migrating foreigners, many of whom have perished at sea.
“How often do such people fail to find understanding, fail to find acceptance, fail to find solidarity. And their cry rises up to God!” he said at the Mass he celebrated on July 8, 2013 in Lampedusa.
“Let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this,” the pope said.
A symbolic return to Lampedusa
Pope Francis has begun this year’s summer period by symbolically retracing his journey of five year ago to Lampedusa.
At a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Friday he said far too many migrants and refugees are still dying at sea or suffering rejection and violence as they “continue to knock at the door of nations that enjoy greater prosperity.”
Before an assembly of migrants and those who assist them the pope said it was a form of “sterile hypocrisy” to close our hearts “to those who have the right, just as we do, to security and dignified living conditions,” or to build “walls, real or virtual, rather than bridges.”
Francis told the refugees who attended the Mass that he is “well aware of the tragic circumstances” from which they are fleeing. And he encouraged them to “keep being witnesses of hope in a world increasingly concerned about the present, with little vision for the future and averse to sharing.”
But he also urged them to respect “the culture and laws” of the countries that receive them, saying foreigners must work with their hosts to forge “the path of integration.”
The pope also prayed for the citizens of the host countries, that the Holy Spirit might “enlighten our minds” and “stir our hearts to overcome all fear and anxiety” of the foreigners who come in search for a better and more secure life.
Saving our common home from destruction and uniting all believers in Christ
At this half-way point of the 2018 calendar year Pope Francis continues to stand head and shoulders above any and all world leaders in promoting the rights and dignity of immigrants and refugees.
He remains a prophetic voice and continues to challenge the world’s collective conscience on this, the most pressing non-sectarian issue of our day, as anti-immigrant sentiments spread through many parts of Europe and especially in the United States.
But this is not the only area effecting all peoples – and not just Catholics – in which the pope has emerged as the most credible champion of global solidarity, responsibility, harmony and peace.
He has also been one of the leading proponents for preserving the environment.
Just before celebrating Mass on Friday with the migrants and refugee aid workers, Francis addressed participants of a two-day Vatican conference marking the third anniversary of his blockbuster encyclical on “care of our common home,” Laudato Si’.
“I thank all of you for coming together to ‘hear with your hearts’ the increasingly desperate cries of the earth and its poor, who look for our help and concern,” he told them. “You have also gathered to testify to the urgent need to respond to the encyclical’s call for change, for an ecological conversion.”
He said the world’s governments, financial institutions, young people and indigenous communities in ecologically compromised places like the Amazon rainforest all had a role to play in bringing about such an ecological conversion.
“Sometimes it might seem too arduous a task, since ‘too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected (LS 54)” he said, quoting from the encyclical.
“Yet ‘human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start’ (LS 205),” the pope insisted.
Francis believes that the human capacity for making a new start also pertains to peacemaking. And on Saturday he was to travel to the southern Italian city of Bari to lead a major ecumenical prayer gathering for peace in the Middle East, especially war-ravaged Syria.
Most the world’s Eastern Orthodox patriarchs or their representatives were to join him for the one-day event.
Grappling with sex abuse, Vatican reforms and the role of women in the Church
But this first half of 2018 has not been all sweetness and light in the current pontificate. There are a number of controversial issues within the Catholic Church itself that Pope Francis has been unable to resolve.
In fact, he has stumbled badly or acted ambivalently on some of them. On others, he could arguably be accused of creating more confusion than clarity.
The crisis of sexual abuse by priests and the mishandling of these cases by bishops are perhaps the most serious of all.
The pope who refused to even mention sex abuse in the first nearly two years of his pontificate (for the same reason that it probably would have bogged down his bold efforts at Church reform right from the very start), has now been forced to take a pro-active role in addressing the crisis.
The start of 2018 revealed new and horrifying cases in Chile, obliging the Vatican and other Catholic leaders to acknowledge (some for the first time) that the phenomenon of clergy sex abuse is a worldwide pandemic and not limited to just certain geographical areas.
Pope Francis has taken decisive steps to face the problem in Chile and has even begun to remove bishops who covered up or enabled such abuse.
But this is only a tentative start. He and his Vatican aides have been far too slow and even too lax in disciplining other bishops who either have concealed sexual crimes or have been credibly accused of actually committing them.
Why, one wonders, has Francis not removed Cardinal Francesco Arrazuriz from his council of nine cardinal advisors (C9)? There is ample evidence that the former Archbishop of Santiago publicly denigrated and tried to silence abuse victims in Chile.
And why has he not demanded the resignation of Australian Archbishop Philip Wilson who recently became the most senior Catholic official to ever be convicted in a civil court for knowingly protecting a priest-serial abuser?
The Vatican has also washed its hands of any responsibility in disciplining Msgr. Tony Anatrella.
The French psychotherapist and priest was regularly consulted as an expert by several Vatican offices and was one of the main authors of a 2005 instruction by the Congregation for Catholic Education that warned against admitting men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” into seminaries.
The Archbishop of Paris this past week removed Anatrella from all public ministry after a long and careful investigation ruled as credible several allegations that the priest made predatory homosexual advances against seminarians. Some wonder why the pope has not laicized the 77-year-old priest.
The case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is even more troubling. The 88-year-old former Archbishop of Washington was recently “suspended” from “episcopal ministry.”
That came after a Church investigation in the Archdiocese of New York (led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan) turned up credible evidence that McCarrick sexually abused an adolescent boy some decades ago when he was a priest in New York.
When the news was announced, the Archdiocese of Newark (New Jersey), where McCarrick had also served, disclosed that the archdiocese had some years ago made an out of court financial settlements with at least two young men who had accused the cardinal of sexual assault.
McCarrick has said he “cannot recall” ever having abused the minor, but he’s made no comment on the other two cases.
Neither the pope nor any Vatican office has taken further action against the cardinal, at least as far as it is known.
But a bigger question is how a bishop who had made out of court settlements over alleged sexual harassment could be continuously promoted up the hierarchical ladder all the way to becoming a cardinal. This is a man who voted in the 2005 conclave.
All the pope’s men
As far as the workings of the Vatican go, Pope Francis has still not finalized the overarching plan and constitution for a reformed and re-designed Roman Curia.
Various aides close to him insist that the final project will likely be revealed in September or October.
The pope has been slow to replace members of the old guard who still head Vatican departments, letting many of them stay on until they reach the age of 80.
The appointment this week of Paolo Ruffini as prefect of the Dicastery for Communications was long anticipated.
And while many have hailed the pope for making a bold choice (tapping the first laymen ever to head a major Vatican office) and praised Ruffini for being highly competent (he has vast experience in most sectors of the media), there are serious questions that must be asked.
Ruffini is an Italian and appears to have had no international experience or facility with other languages. But the Vatican is not just an Italian institution. It is a global organization at the service of a worldwide Church.
Hopefully, the new prefect will have the humility and foresight to employ the help of high-level media professionals who are from (at least) the English- and French-speaking worlds, since non-Italians have been excluded from playing any significant role in reforming the Vatican’s media operation, an endeavor that has been badly managed and much criticized.
Pope Francis must also appoint a new “Sostituto” or deputy-Secretary of State for the Church’s internal affairs. The post will soon be vacated by neo-Cardinal Angelo Becciu who is becoming prefect for the Congregation for Saints.
There are strong rumors that the leading candidate to take over is Archbishop Bernardito “Barney” Auza, a 59-year-old Filipino who has been the Holy See’s man at the United Nations in New York the past four years after serving as nuncio to Haiti.
The fairer sex
The appointment of women to significant decision-making or managerial posts inside the Vatican continues to be nothing more than a pipe dream.
Francis is the third consecutive pope who has spoken about some bizarre notion of “feminine genius” and the need for women to play a greater role in the Church.
But, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he has failed to make that happen in any meaningful way.
He did set up a mixed commission of men and women a couple of years ago to “study” the precise nature of the female diaconate in the early centuries of Christianity.
But the head of the commission, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, recently told reporters that the commission would refrain from making any recommendation to the pope on whether or not to re-instate the practice of having women deacons.
Perhaps a group of bishops (an assembly of the Synod?) will urge him to do so. Without any such backing from other hierarchs, do not expect Francis to move unilaterally on this or any other issue affecting internal Church order.
Women themselves have respectfully and generously offered to help the pope find more and creative ways to engage them in roles of Church leaderships, even leaving aside the question of ordination to the priesthood or even the diaconate.
One such group, “Voices of Faith,” has even held several meetings inside the Vatican on International Women’s Day (March 8). Francis has never once acknowledged their existence or presence.
In a statement issued this week, it said it would continue to extend its invitation to help the Vatican “get it right” when it comes to finding ways to include women in Church leadership.
But not all women – or men, for that matter – have been as gracious or have displayed such patience with the pope’s feet-dragging over issues pertaining to women or other categories of people who are largely excluded or marginalized by the Church.
Those other voices may make quite a noise next month in Dublin when Pope Francis arrives for the World Meeting of Families. The word from Ireland is that the most popular pope in many years may face his first protests from women, gays and lesbians and advocates of sex abuse survivors.
One source says some of these people are trying to snap up large numbers of tickets that are required for the final papal Mass, but are not planning on attending. Their goal is to make sure the pope does not draw a full house. If they succeed, their silent protest would be deafening.