Quo Vadis Papa Francesco?

Quo Vadis, Papa Francesco?

[June 4, 2013]



These days the dominant preoccupation within the Curia Romana (the Vatican’s bureaucracy) is to figure out the broad priorities, organizational changes and shifts in policy of Pope Francis.  As the first hundred days of his papacy come to an end on June 21, the clearest papal signals to date involve the prospect of more collegiality; important stylistic changes; and perhaps some warnings for the senior prelates who lead three thousand ‘Ecclesiastical Territories’ around the globe, mostly archdioceses and dioceses.

And there is High Anxiety in Rome because of two unusual moves by the Pope:


He has reappointed the Curia’s senior officials (prefects and secretaries) “donec aliter provideatur,” i.e. until otherwise provided for – so they are all temps; and


He has selected eight cardinals (aka the Gang of Eight) to advise him on the governance of the Vatican, but the Gang does not meet formally until October. 


It’s going to be a long, hot summer.



The signs of more collegiality and the elimination of displays of pontifical luxury have been the topic of widespread reporting.  Starting on his fifth-ballot election in the evening of March 13, Papa Francesco has been referring to himself as the ‘bishop of Rome’, not as ‘the pontiff’.  And he has thrown aside some of the more garish ornaments of the previous papal regime:  the Prada slippers, the ermine-trimmed stole and the large ruby embedded in a solid-gold pectoral crucifix.


He continues to live in the cardinals’ hotel, the Casa Santa Marta inside the confines of the Vatican, limiting the use of his lavish papal appartamento in the Palazzo Apostolico to ceremonial meetings. 


To the dismay of his security staff, he plunges into the Sunday crowds in Piazza San Pietro, which have swollen in size since his election, with the fervor of a Bill Clinton.  And he frequently tosses aside remarks prepared by his staff, speaking instead off-the-cuff (‘a braccio’), the ultimate nightmare of advisers to Heads of State.


These symbolic changes have played well in most of the media, but some skeptics in the commentariat caution that substance trumps style, and that there is not much substantive change in evidence.


Two rejoinders to this:  if newly elevated world figures do not define themselves in their first 100 days, then the media will do it for them.  And in a faith-based organization with world-wide reach and 1.2 billion adherents, symbolism is a vital aspect of authority. 


On the substantive side (de decernendo in Vatican-speak), one of Pope Francis’ recurring themes is the need for prelates to get out of their diocesan centers and go into ‘le periferie’ to meet those marginalized by society.  In one of my recent canon appeals to Rome against a parish closing in the U.S., the concrete example of Francis’ tenure in Argentina was cited against the prospect of a church being locked up:


His Holiness, when He was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires, recommended that parishes rent garages where priests, deacons and Eucharistic ministers could give Communion, teach the Catechism…”


And in his recent May 23 homily to the Italian Bishops Conference (‘CEI’) he had a few pointed comments for his episcopal audience (translated from the italiano):


A lack of vigilance…makes the Pastor tepid…It tantalizes him with the prospect of a career, the enticement of money and with compromises…it makes him lazy, turning him into an official, a state functionary concerned with himself, with organization and structures…”


There is no record of any of the vescovi in the CEI audience seeing themselves in that light.


Notwithstanding the Pope’s comments about ‘organization and structures’, this is precisely the focus of his Gang of Eight.  As widely reported, these cardinals have been picked for geographic diversity, consisting of the following members (alphabetically):


  • Cardinal Bertello, governor of Vatican City
  • Cardinal Errazuriz Ossa, Santiago, Chile
  • Cardinal Gracias, Mumbai
  • Cardinal Marx, Munich
  • Cardinal Monsengwo Pasinya, Kinshasa
  • Cardinal O’Malley, Boston
  • Cardinal Pell, Sydney
  • Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, Tegucicalpa


The group’s secretary is Archbishop Semeraro, ordinary of Albano (close to Rome).


The ink was barely dry on this announcement when the Vatican felt it necessary to tamp down frantic speculation about the future structure of the Curia.  In mid-May the Vatican’s Pravda-equivalent, L’Osservatore Romano, reported a senior Curia prelate’s on-the-record comments (translated from the italiano):


  • It’s somewhat strange:  the Pope has not yet met the group of chosen advisers and already advice is pouring in…Having spoken with the Holy Father I can say that at this time it is absolutely premature to advance any hypothesis concerning the future structure of the Curia…”


And the senior prelate added,


  • This is a consultative body, not a decisional one, and in truth I cannot see how the choice of Papa Francesco [to commission the group] could call into question the leading role [of the papacy].”


Apparently, some of the unsolicited advice “pouring in” has involved (a) the creation of new senior posts in the Curia, (b) the abolition of the Vatican’s notorious ‘bank’, and (c) unsolicited advice from the Gang’s secretary – who is supposed to record, not recommend. 


From the pick-up in the tempo of my own cases, the Curia’s machinery has re-started, even if the Vatican’s senior prelates are now serving without the benefit of term appointments.  The Collegium [panel of 5-6 judges] of the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican’s supreme-court equivalent) meets this week.  And there are some interesting stirrings, including a very recent Signatura decree involving the safeguarding of the church of a suppressed American parish, with the court leaning in the direction of the faithful (the appellants challenging the ordinary)…to be reported soon in another post. 


Circling back to the beginning of this post, what will be the broad priorities of the Pope, the safest answer, “too soon to tell.” 


However, nothing is new under the sun.  Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the passing of Papa Roncalli, the Blessed Pope John XXIII.  I was serving at a NATO command in Italy at the time, and still have a vivid recollection of that remarkable papacy.  The conclave that followed moved quickly to elect Cardinal Montini who took the name, Paul VI.  The compelling reason for speed in filling the sede vacante was the scheduled visit to Rome of the U.S. president who happened to be the first Catholic to hold that job. 


At the beginning of Papa Roncalli’s reign in the fall of 1958, one of the dominant questions for the Vatican was the need for reform of the Curia Romana.  In an unusual move the Pope convened a press conference where he was asked,


How many people work in the Vatican


He paused for effect, and then said with a straight face,


About half.





4 thoughts on “Quo Vadis Papa Francesco?

  1. Mr. Borre–Peter (I feel like I know you since I read every word of “Render Unto Rome out loud to a friend) I am really grateful for this blog. It’s a great way to keep real information circulating rather than simply concern. I am in Bhutan at the present moment so I can only hope this gets to you. But I will be following this faithfully.

    joan chittister, osb

  2. Good work, Peter. I am in the process of working with Peter on our church closing and I can tell you : he ‘tells it like it is” Ginger Marx Bay City, MI

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