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Letter from Rome, March 8, 2020: Closures, confusion, synod on synodality

It’s been a doozy of a week in the Eternal City.

Pope Francis is pictured on a video monitor in St. Peter's Square as he leads the Angelus from his library in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican March 8, 2020. As a precaution to avoid spread of the coronavirus, the pope's Sunday Angelus was broadcast on television and displayed on monitors in St. Peter's Square. After leading the Angelus through video the pope said he wanted to see the crowd in "real time" and came to the window of his studio to greet people in the square. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This past week here in Rome has been a helluva, and that’s no lie. Schools are closed — right now, they’re slated to reopen on March 16th, but all the indications are the closure will be extended — and most of the northern region of Lombardy is on lockdown. News the regional quarantine would be going into effect leaked, and caused people to flee the region before the authorities locked it down.

Vatican City had its first confirmed case of Coronavirus, and announced precautionary measures that are admittedly something of a head-scratcher: among them, that Pope Francis will be saying the Angelus from the Apostolic Library, rather than the window of the Apostolic Palace, and the traditional noonday prayer of Marian devotion will be broadcast on the jumbotrons for the faithful in St. peter’s Square. So, the crowds can gather in St Peter’s Square and watch the Angelus on the jumbotron, but the Pope can’t pray at the window, and this is to protect the crowds.

Then, after he concluded the Angelus, Francis decided to go to the window anyway.

Sunday saw some further measures announced, among them the closure of the Vatican Museums until at least April 3rd, along with the scavi beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pontifical Villas (at Castel Gandolfo), and the museums attached to the papal basilicas.

There were also some further details in the Sunday communiqué, regarding the confirmed case from Thursday of last week (the one announced Friday morning): the person who tested positive was an “outsider” visiting the medical facility for routine exams before being hired. Five people were in close contact with the COVID-positive patient, all of whom are in quarantine.

Sunday afternoon saw an announcement from the Rome vicariate, saying Sunday and weekday Masses with the faithful would be suspended until at least April 3rd. Priests will say Mass without the faithful, it seems. The news hadn’t reached my parish by Sunday evening, but my wife texted just before the scheduled start of 6pm Mass to say she was one of four people in attendance.

You probably also heard about the “synod on synodality” announced for October 2022.

That may be worth a chuckle at first blush, but it’s not a bad idea. You can read more about it this week in the Catholic Herald come Thursday, when the new edition will be out. For now, suffice it to say that, comic value aside, it’s good to see Church leadership finally — maybe — trying to figure out what “synodal” actually means, and maybe — finally — how it is supposed to work.

That wasn’t the biggest head-scratcher of the week, though.

That crown must go the 180° turnaround the Vatican did on a major reform: the announcement of a personnel office within the Secretariat of State, with sweeping powers over pretty much all departments; and then, the withdrawal of the announcement almost exactly one day later.

“Regarding the announcement given yesterday [Friday],” the statement began, “circa the institution of the General Directorate for Personnel: it is specified that in the current state of things, we are dealing with a proposal put before the Holy Father by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, President of the Council for the Economy, and Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, President of the Council of Cardinals, to institute such a structure.”

The new Directorate was to be in essence a human resources office with sweeping power to oversee, inspect, investigate, and enforce discipline throughout Vatican departments generally. It was also to have direct control over the employees of the Institute for the Works of Religion — the IOR — or the “Vatican Bank” as it is popularly if inaccurately styled. It may yet be just that, but right now, it’s … nothing. The nutshell version of the Saturday “specification” — really a retraction — was: “Just kidding.” Fact is, though, even these guys know better than to kid about something like that. Or so I thought.

“It’s entirely possible,”John Allen pointed out in his regular Sunday analysis column, “that making such a consequential decision in a period in which the entire Roman Curia was away on retreat, in which the pope himself has been sick and only halfway engaged, and in which the coronavirus scare has people preoccupied, amounted to a bridge too far.

SNAFU, runs the military acronym. This, however, is a SNAFU on top of the other thing, on top of the other thing, the former thing involving clusters and the latter being a sort of spectacle. Like I said, it was … a doozy of a week.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 214 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

1 Comment

  1. You must have been away for the past six years. What we’ve seen from the Vatican this past week is business as usual. Nothing is different at all; it remains a confused mess of utter chaos.

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