One ought always to be wary of “world-in-a-nutshell” images, which only with vanishing rarity show what they purport (or are purported) to show. That’s why I didn’t make much of the images from Saturday’s consistory, showing the disgraced (and reinstated?) Cardinal Giovanni Angelo dressed in his glad rags, with a prominent seat among his brethren gathered in St. Peter’s for Saturday’s doings.
Cardinal Becciu was once the Sostituto of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See – a fancy way for saying that he was the pope’s chief-of-staff – basically the third man in the Vatican and responsible for the daily run of the place, until he became a cardinal and the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
In September 2020, Pope Francis removed Cardinal Becciu from his offices in the curia and stripped him of all the rights and privileges of his station. Francis had seen evidence suggesting Becciu may be guilty of self-dealing, kickbacks to family, and other corruption. Becciu is also a central figure in the ongoing Vatican criminal trial over the Sloane Ave., London real estate botch.
Shortly before Saturday’s consistory for the creation of new cardinals, Cardinal Becciu – who denies all wrongdoing and has been active in his own defense, aided by a legal team that has been more than willing to mix it up with and in the press – announced that Pope Francis had called to invite him to take part in the doings over the weekend and into the week.
The cardinals will be having their first gathering as a full college since 2015, to discuss the pope’s recently promulgated curial reforms. Francis – to hear Becciu tell it – not only wants him to be a part of those doings, but intends to reinstate him fully before too long.
“Is he in or is he out?” is one question. “Is Vatican justice really the caricature of itself that it appears to be?” is another. All the questions one may reasonably have in these regards fall somehow under the general rubric of “What gives?”
That’s where the photos come in.
A friend shared one such picture of Cardinal Becciu. “This isn’t funny,” he remarked to a friend who had perhaps made light of the business on display. “This is hilarious,” I observed privately. “Think what a Petrarch or a Boccaccio or an Alighieri – a Belli or a Trilussa! – could have done with this?” O tempora! O mores! One might cry.
For what it’s worth, Giovanni Gioachino Belli is the fellow for it, if you ask me. A great poet who composed sonnets in the all-but-lost early 19th-century acceptation of Rome’s dialect, Belli sang of “low” subjects and “vulgar” in both the etymological and the colloquial senses of the term, when popes ruled Rome and life was just about to change.
Belli wrote mostly for his literary friends, and hoped that his poetic oeuvre would be burned when he died. The early publications of his work in Romanesco were highly curated affairs. See his sonnet, Lo Stato der Papa, or Er Confessore – a few of his poems can be found in English translations that give the general idea, but these are not safe for work and shouldn’t be read around small children – for a taste of what he’s about.
I thought of another literary man: Hilaire Belloc, to whom a couple of lines are frequently attributed.
“Wherever the Catholic Sun doth shine,” begins one famous quatrain, “There’s always laughter and good red wine (or: There’s laughter and dancing and good red wine). / At least, I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!”
“The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine,” begins another quote often attributed to Belloc, “but for unbelievers, a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
That line recalls a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron, of a Jewish merchant – Boccaccio describes him as very great and very good – converted to Christianity not by preaching or learned discussion, but by the very wantonness and moral dissolution of popes and cardinals, which he witnessed on pilgrimage to the Eternal City.
“It seems to me evil that God should have given anything to all those people,” the merchant reported upon his return to Paris. He said he discovered in Rome “neither holiness nor devotion, no good work or good example in any other regard, in anyone who was a priest.” Instead, he found “luxury, avarice, and gluttony: such things and worse, if there could be worse things in anybody,” and found “rather liberty in diabolical workings than in divine.”
The merchant-pilgrim concluded that the lot of them “[were] working to reduce the Christian religion to nothing and to drive it out of the world.” Only, “What they are driving at does not happen.” Instead, “your religion continually increases, so it becomes ever more clearly evident that the Holy Spirit must be its foundation and support.”
In any case, when it comes to Saturday’s consistory, the images that spoke volumes to me were of another Prince of the Church: Cardinal Roger Mahony. He stood and greeted the newly created cardinals in the name of all the Cardinal Priests. Mahony isn’t welcome to exercise ministry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, owing to his role in the coverup of clerical sexual abuse he oversaw when he was Archbishop there.
But Cardinal Mahony has never been formally accused of any canonical or other crime, so in Rome it is business as usual.
Laissez le bontemps rouler!
By all means: Laissez ! Laissez !
Only, let the fellows in charge of this circus remember that Belloc was a wit and Boccaccio’s tale was not a how-to manual for evangelization, but biting satire. Also, Belli is dead and the Rome of which he sang is gone.
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