There’s a lot of commotion in and around the Vatican right now. It consists mostly of the angry rumblings of traditionalist Catholics who don’t particularly care for the way Pope Francis is leading the Church. Then there are the retaliatory rebukes of the pope’s most eager supporters. This has only increased the volume.
But, if you can believe it, this acrimony – which has long been on ugly display in the realm of social media – might be just a bit of relative calm before a really fierce storm.
And the drama is sure to intensify during this month of October, beginning, ironically, with the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on Friday the 4th. That is the episcopal ordination date for Michael Czerny, a Czech-born Canadian Jesuit who is among the Roman Church’s 13 newest cardinals.
A peace-and-justice priest who once ran Jesuit Refugee Service, 73-year-old Czerny is currently the under-secretary at the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
A highly unusual consistory to create new cardinals
Cardinal Czerny (titular Archbishop of Beneventum for a single day!) is part of a group of ten new cardinals who are under the age of eighty and eligible to vote in a conclave.
Even though he and eight others in this group all got Vatican jobs or were made bishops before Francis’ election in 2013, the traditionalists believe the October 5th consistory is further proof that the current pope is stacking the deck with loyalists and cronies.
It may seem unusual that a mere priest would be created a cardinal-elector. But that’s only for those who don’t know their Church history. It was so common for non-bishops to be cardinals in the pre-Vatican II days that John XXIII mandated in 1962 that they must receive episcopal consecration from that point onwards.
One of the first already existing non-bishop cardinals that Pope John ordained to the episcopate was the famous Alfredo Ottaviani. He was the “semper idem” head of the old Holy Office (now Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).
Ottaviani had been a cardinal for nine years before becoming a bishop. In fact, he got his red hat in the same 1952 consistory that Angelo Roncalli (the future John XXIII) got his.
And the last time a priest (who was not already a bishop) was named a cardinal-elector? That was in 1977. It was Cardinal Mario Luigi Ciappi, a Dominican who served as Master of the Sacred Palace (now Theologian of the Papal Household) from 1955-1989. Paul VI gave him the red hat in the same ceremony that Joseph Ratzinger (the future Benedict XVI) got his.
The new crop of cardinals created by Pope Francis is a diverse group. Six of the ten electors are in Vatican offices or local archdioceses that have already been headed by a cardinal. So nothing unusual there.
But conservatives and traditionalist Catholics are still fuming that the pope has excluded certain men from getting a red hat who are also in archdioceses or offices with a substantial history of being led by a cardinal.
One of them is Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. Benedict XVI put this Capuchin “culture warrior” in the customary red hat see in 2011. In fact, Chaput is the first of the last six men who’ve led the archdiocese not to be named a cardinal. The City of Brotherly Love’s now-broken red hat tradition dated back to 1921.
Archbishop Chaput turned 75 on Sept. 26. And because he’s very bad at disguising his lack of enthusiasm for Pope Francis’ leadership and vision, many people were surprised that the pope did not snap up the archbishop’s resignation.
The fact that Francis did accept the resignation of French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard on Oct. 1, just a few days after the Archbishop of Bordeaux turned 75, only added to the bewilderment. But Ricard had asked Pope Francis during the summer to allow him to step down after heading the historic 3rd century diocese the past 18 years.
The real shock came after Ricard’s resignation. Now, for the first time since God knows when, none of France’s 95 Latin rite dioceses is being led by a cardinal. In the past it was not unusual to have cardinals at the helm in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and Marseille — all at the same time.
There is still Cardinal Philippe Barbarin. Pope Francis has allowed the soon-to-be 69-year-old to retain the title, Archbishop of Lyon. But Francis stripped him of his authority over the archdiocese earlier this year because of an alleged cover-up of a sex abuse case and appointed an apostolic administrator to oversee the 2nd century diocese.
The Vatican is another story. No fewer than 10 men who have office jobs in Rome are already beyond the retirement age of 75. And in another major appointment this past week to address the situation, the pope chose Bishop Mario Grech as the man who will take over from Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.
Francis named Grech “pro-secretary general” and the Vatican said the 62-year-old would immediately begin working “side-by-side” with Baldisseri until the 79-year-old cardinal “completes his mandate.” That may mean once this month’s special Synod assembly for the Amazon region is over or when the cardinal turns 80 next September.
The new pro-secretary general had been bishop of Gozo since late 2005, a position he moved into after serving some 20 years as parish priest in the diocese. He will be the sixth person to head the Synod of Bishops’ secretariat, but just the second to be called to Rome from a local diocese.
Wladislaw Rubin, an auxiliary bishop in Poland, was the Synod’s very first secretary general (1967-1979). The others were either papal diplomats or already Vatican officials.
Bishop Grech seems to have his head on straight. He’s got a sturdy constitution, congenial nature and appears to have sufficient energy and good health for a job that’s not going to be easy. He’s already on the job, which is likely to be a baptism by fire.
A controversial Synod assembly on the Amazon
The Synod of Bishops’ special assembly for the Amazon region was to get underway on the first weekend of October just after the consistory for creating new cardinals.
It has been a lightning rod for the raucous anti-Francis faction of conservatives and Church traditionalists. Internet bloggers and culture war activists from entities such as LifeSite News, Church Militant, EWTN and other groups of pseudo journalists have descended on Rome to protest what they are calling heresies and errors in the Synod’s working document for this assembly.
They have failed or refused to understand anything of the important changes Pope Francis has made to this permanent institution called the Synod of Bishops.
First of all, the working document (instrumentum laboris) is not a magisterial text, but a snapshot of the situation or the actual state of the issue a particular assembly is trying to address.
In the present case, it is the result of listening sessions with some 85,000 people who live and work in the Amazon. The working text contains the concerns, views, suggestions, fears and hopes of Catholics, particularly, of the region.
But the anti-Francis crowd – and this included a handful of bishops and cardinals who have publicly spoken out against the instrumentum laboris – who are absolutely terrified that the pope will use the Synod to shatter one of their most sacred non-doctrine doctrines – mandatory priestly celibacy.
They would rather deny people the privilege of receiving the Eucharist than cede to having married men (let’s not even mention women) be ordained priests. They’d rather starve people sacramentally than to allow their homophobic, homosexualist and clericalist clique to be threatened by heterosexual men with wives and children.
And, oddly, among the most vocal lay people who are also opposed to married priests are men and women, some of them middle-aged, who have never been married.
Pope Francis has completely transformed the Synod of Bishops from a rubber-stamping body with a tightly controlled agenda dictated by the Roman Curia into a protected space for deep discernment and fearless debate that takes place after widespread and ongoing consultation with the People of God.
It is a forum open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit through a careful and prayerful reading of the “signs of the times”. It is an exercise in discerning how the Church’s living Tradition is unfolding and challenging its pastors and people to move forward in the never-ending journey of faithful discipleship.
The anti-Francis faction cannot even accept these premises because they tend to cling to a black-and-white, rigid and rules-based notion of Catholic religion. Discernment, change, freedom of the Spirit… these are all concepts that threaten their static, sectarian and exclusionary idea of what the Church is all about.
Calm before the storm
Catholics who are still not on board with Pope Francis’ vision for reforming the Church, or those who are trying to obstruct his program for a more welcoming and merciful Church, are only going to grow more and more disillusioned.
No one should rejoice in this.
Because, first of all, these are Catholic sisters and brothers who find this pontificate a cause for their suffering. Yes, it is a suffering of their own choice in some way. Despite the wild accusations, the pope is not kicking them out or punishing them. Actually, he’s been remarkably patient and restrained.
And, second of all, some of them, precisely because they suffer, are striking out. This is not helping the Church’s mission or creating to its good health. Fortunately, they appear to be a small minority. But they make a lot of noise and cause a good deal of havoc.
Unfortunately, they will likely grow louder and angrier as long as Francis is pope because, even as he nears his 83rd birthday, he is showing no signs of slowing down his project of deep institutional and profound spiritual reform. If anything, he’s put his foot on the accelerator once more!
So if you are a Catholic and are interested in your Church, you’d better buckle up. The pope’s on a mission and he is more and more determined to bring this journey of reform and renewal to completion despite – nay, precisely because of – the negative forces trying to stop him.
We – and probably even he – are only discovering each day where this road is leading. There’s no foolproof GPS to guide us except prayer, careful discernment and unshakable trust in the Holy Spirit.
First published in La Croix International, October 4, 2019.