Happenings in the “Pope Francis era”

Originally at: http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/truisms-catholic-life-and-rundown-rome-news

by John Allen

Here’s a run-down of other storylines from Rome over the last week, a week that, typically in the Francis era, was chock full of intriguing developments.

Medjugorje: On Monday, a commission created under Benedict XVI and presided over by Italy’s powerful Cardinal Camillo Ruini submitted the results of a four-year inquest into the alleged apparitions and revelations of the Virgin Mary at Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will be up to Francis to decide what to do, though some felt he tipped his hand in mid-November during a homily in his morning Mass in which he said that Mary “is not a postmaster sending messages every day.” In the Jan. 23 edition of Corriere della Sera, famed Vatican writer Vittorio Messori said it’ll be a painful decision whichever way it goes: If Francs rules the apparitions are false, millions of faithful who flock to Medjugorje will feel deceived and betrayed; if he says they’re authentic, it would be “devastating” for canon law, which leaves to the local bishop the right to judge such phenomena in his diocese, and two bishops in a row have said no. For that reason, Messori predicted the ruling will be that “for now” there’s no proof these events are supernatural rather than the more definitive, “there’s proof they’re not supernatural.”

Legionaries: The Legion of Christ, the embattled religious order that has become a symbol of the church’s sexual abuse scandals, posted an announcement Monday that its general chapter meeting that opened Jan. 8 had shifted into the phase of electing new leadership. The outcome is certain to be keenly scrutinized, in part to judge whether the new boss has any ties to the order’s disgraced founder, the late Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, and in part to see if the new man seems to embody a reform agenda. No announcement can be made until Pope Francis signs off on the results, which are intended to end three years of papal receivership. On Wednesday, one former Legionary who says he was abused by Maciel beginning at age 12 described the general chapter as a “damage control operation” and expressed skepticism that it would undo the order’s “internalized corruption.” Three American Legionaries taking part in the general chapter gave an interview to NCR the same day in which they pled with critics to “give them a chance,” listing several areas in which they believe reform is already underway.

Davos: Popes send messages to various events all the time, but it’s an index of the cachet Francis presently enjoys that his brief appeal to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday actually made news. “I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it,” Pope Francis said in the message read at the opening ceremony by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice. Specifically, Francis called on the rich and famous congregated at the Swiss resort to pursue “a better distribution of wealth, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.” In a CNN analysis piece, I suggested it’s easy to think that no one, not even a pope who’s also presently among the most popular figures on the planet, can bring down entrenched systems of power and privilege. Of course, I noted, that’s also what people said about communism before John Paul II.

Communications: Speaking of messages, the Vatican released a papal message for World Communications Day on Thursday, with Italian Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, describing it as a “profoundly Franciscan text.” Devoted to how the media can promote what Francis has described as a “culture of encounter,” the text calls for greater patience in the media, as well as a way of telling stories that doesn’t end up feeding the prejudices of one camp or another. (In another vintage Francis touch, he said that dialogue presupposes Christians don’t insist their ideas are the only ones “valid or absolute.”) In a Vatican news conference to present the document, I asked Celli if the idea of greater patience in a media climate with ever-tighter deadlines and nearly instantaneous news cycles didn’t risk coming off as sweet but terribly unrealistic. His response was that faced with an “ever more frenetic spiral” of information, many people today feel “nostalgia for silence.” Joining Celli was Italian media expert Chiara Giaccardi, who said there’s a small “Copernican revolution” in the message in terms of defining communication not as “the transmission of content” but rather “the reduction of distance.” As a footnote, both speakers demonstrated good communications technique by not subjecting journalists to the interminable reading of prepared texts, talking briefly and off the cuff.

U.S./Vatican Relations: It was hard to miss the contrast on Wednesday, which was the 41st anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision in the United States legalizing abortion, between tweets dispatched by Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. Francis sent out a message endorsing the March for Life in Washington, D.C., while Obama tweeted on the importance of a woman’s right to choose. The contrast suggests that when the two men meet March 27 in the Vatican, they’ll have plenty to talk about. In the meantime, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See organized a reception Thursday to mark the 30th anniversary of the launch of bilateral relations between the Vatican and the United States, which date to 1984 and the Reagan administration. U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett was the host, while French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, gave a brief talk. Mamberti largely focused on the history of U.S./Vatican ties and why they matter, though he went out of his way to issue a reminder of America’s tradition of religious freedom — a point that has become a major preoccupation for the bishops of the United States amid their struggles with the Obama White House over the contraception mandates imposed as part of health care reform.

Hollande: As this column was being put to bed, Vatican-watchers were atwitter with anticipation for Friday’s tête-à-tête between Pope Francis and French President François Hollande. In part, the buzz is because Hollande has made four previous trips to Rome without bothering to see the pope, but now that his popularity has plummeted while Francis enjoys an 85 percent approval rating among French Catholics and non-Catholics alike, all of a sudden, Hollande has “gotten religion.” In part, too, there’s curiosity as to whether the soap opera around Hollande’s private life, especially his affair with actress Julie Gayet, would produce any embarrassment. In truth, those bits of subtext are likely to be less relevant than whether Francis satisfies the expectations of some French Catholics that he should take Hollande to the woodshed over his support for gay marriage and legalized euthanasia. A petition in France signed by more than 100,000 Catholics asked Francis to express their “profound malaise and growing concern” when he meets the French president.

Ecumenism: Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Rome time, 11:30 a.m. Eastern in the States, Francis will celebrate an ecumenical vespers service at the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to mark the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The event comes on the heels of the pope’s Jan. 17 meeting with an ecumenical delegation from Finland, in which the pope basically said he’s not ready to throw in the towel on the dream of full visible unity among the various Christian denominations, and ahead of his May trip to the Holy Land, when he’ll meet the Patriarch of Constantinople and lead an ecumenical prayer service in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In that context, his words Saturday evening will be closely watched to see if Francis adds anything to his vision for how to move Christian unity forward.

Arturo Paoli: Last Saturday, Francis sat down at his residence at the Vatican’s Casa Santa Marta for roughly 40 minutes with Fr. Arturo Paoli, a 101-year-old Italian priest who spent 45 years in Latin America and who belongs to the Little Brothers of the Gospel religious order inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Paoli is known as one of the forerunners of the liberation theology movement, which was long seen in Rome as a sort of warmed-over version of Marxism, so the pope’s welcome for Paoli was taken as another sign of reconciliation with the liberationists. It wasn’t the first time the two men had met, since Paoli spent 1960 to 1974 in Argentina and knew the young Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was the Argentine provincial of the Jesuits.

Defrocked priests: On Jan. 17, The Associated Press moved a story reporting that 384 Catholic priests had been removed under Benedict XVI for reasons related to sexual abuse in 2011 and 2012, combining those who voluntarily requested an exit with those upon whom dismissal was imposed as a penalty. A Vatican spokesperson issued a denial of the story at 9:31 p.m. Rome time that day, claiming the story was based on confusion between the number of cases opened and the number of dismissals, then retracted it at 10:32 p.m. — making it a new winner in the sweepstakes for shortest-lived Vatican denial. The confusion played out in real time, with tweets burning up the Internet and news agencies reporting the report, then the denial, then the denial of the denial. In the end, however, the AP report was vindicated. Ironically, the story was basically a good one from the Vatican’s point of view, since it suggested vigorous action against abuser priests. Perhaps the mini-tempest suggests another truism: However maladroit the Vatican can be in handling bad news, sometimes they’re even worse with good news.

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