All eyes are on Rome and the extraordinary and ordinary consistories of cardinals this weekend – and one gets why – but the doings scheduled to take place in the eternal city on Saturday and Sunday aren’t really the story.
Popes give out red hats from time to time. Church watchers and vaticanisti of both the professional and amateur varieties will get worked up over who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. The scribblers will turn out copy on everything from the nuttiest rumors to the tailor with stories to tell, and most of it will be great fun.
This time around, Pope Francis has done plenty to stir an already churning Roman pot.
The visit he’s scheduled to the central Italian town of L’Aquila, sticken by earthquake in 2009 and still struggling to get back on its feet, has occasioned a great deal of talk about his plans for retirement.
Pope Francis’s apparent decision to invite the disgraced Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu to participate in the consistory has also brought the chatter. Becciu, in case you’ve forgotten, is a central figure in the ongoing trial over the Vatican’s Sloane Ave. real estate debacle. Becciu was once a powerful prelate and olim prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Francis stripped Becciu of all the powers and trappings of his high station when he came to suspect him of corruption. The real estate corruption trial drags on at the geological pace of Vatican justice, but Becciu – to hear him tell it – has been “reinstated” and will participate in the weekend’s doings.
Pope Francis’s choices for the berretta rossa have not been entirely uncontroversial. American Church watchers had lots to say about Pope Francis’s decision to give Bishop Robert McElroy a red hat, but there were lots of other picks that raised eyebrows.
There is his decision to create a Legionary curial official, Archbishop Fernando Vergez Alzaga – President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and President of the Governatorate of Vatican City State.
There is his abortive attempt to foist the red on the former Archbishop of Ghent, Lucas Van Looy, whose mishandling of abuse cases made him so notorious that he begged the pope to let him forego the honor.
Consider his decision to create the Bishop of Como, Oscar Cantoni, who had a role in the sex abuse and coverup scandal at the Vatican’s own minor seminary.
Those are just a few.
Now, there are to be 132 voting cardinals, from whom one reasonably supposes Pope Francis’s successor will be chosen sooner or later.
“Who’s going to be next?” is a reasonable question for anyone to ask at almost any time during any pontificate. With Pope Francis’s powers evidently on the wane, the real nature and gravity of his health concerns uncertain, and his reform of the curia as complete – on paper, at least – speculation about his plans for the future and his druthers when it comes to a successor would be fair game even if he hadn’t stoked the fire.
He certainly meant it when he told several journos he isn’t thinking of resigning, and smart money is on this weekend being a fizzle in that regard. While the punters place their bets and the scribbling class make odds, the world is going wobbly.
The Sandinista government in Nicaragua has begun a crackdown on the Church that could turn into full-scale persecution any minute. Nigeria’s Christians are being driven from their homes and dispossessed, snatched from their beds, and blasted to bits. The government in Ukraine has summoned the pope’s ambassador to answer for some papal remarks that did not sit well with the embattled country’s leadership or people.
Whoever the next guy ends up being, he is going to have to deal with those situations – they aren’t going away anytime soon – and he’s going to have to deal with the fallout from others.
Whether it is the half-measures regarding everything from financial reform to the prevention and orderly investigation of episcopal malfeasance of all kinds, Pope Francis’s successor is going to have his hands full. The appalling matter of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta is a gruesome case-in-point.
The cardinals this weekend really should be starting to sketch the profile of the man who can deal with all that and trying to see whether anyone among them comes close to fitting the bill.
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