During the early part of St. John Paul II’s papacy he made several visits to Latin America, encountering the strongmen who were in power at the time, including General Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina in 1982, who was heading the country’s three-man military junta, and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1987.
Since most of those leaders were gone shortly after John Paul
visited, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston likes to joke that Fidel
Castro was the only Latin American dictator who actually survived
contact with the Polish pope.
So far, it’s hard to name a national leader whose exit from power is
related to Pope Francis’s influence, but that’s certainly not true in
the city of Rome, the pope’s own backyard, where he’s already had a role
in bringing down one mayor, and may have mixed feelings about the
current occupant of the job.
Tonight, when Francis delivers his traditional year-end homily during
a vespers service at St. Peter’s Basilica, people across the entire
world will be paying attention, but few places are likely to be more
closely scrutinizing what the pontiff has to say than Rome’s City Hall.
Last year, Francis used the year-end talk in part to take a final
shot at a mayor who had just resigned in disgrace. He was speaking
shortly after the exit amid an expenses scandal of Mayor Ignazio Marino,
a figure with whom he had a legendarily frosty relationship.
Marino resigned in mid-October 2015 after complaints that he had used
public funds to cover the costs of meals and other personal expenses,
while basic services in Rome languished. He then attempted to withdraw
the resignation, but changed course again after a majority of the city
council abandoned him and resigned.
One problem that had dogged Martino, and may help explain why
few wanted to back him up, was the perceived antagonism of Pope Francis.
The pontiff had publicly disassociated himself from Marino during his
trip to the United States in September 2015, when Marino popped up
along the way, telling reporters he hadn’t invited him to come and
testily adding the mayor “professes to be a Catholic.”
Things turned almost surreal a couple of weeks later when an Italian
radio show called “The Mosquito” made a prank call to Italian Archbishop
Vincenzo Paglia, an aide to Francis, convincing him it was then-Prime
Minister Matteo Renzi and getting him to admit “the pope was furious”
that Marino had crashed the party in the States.
Thus when Francis spoke on New Year’s Eve in 2015, his reference
seemed abundantly clear when he told Romans that “the commitment to
recover fundamental values of service, honesty and solidarity will help
to overcome the grave uncertainties that dominated the scene this year,
and which are symptoms of a scarce sense of dedication to the common
Obviously, to suggest that service, honesty and solidarity needed to
be “recovered” implied they had been missing under Marino, and no one
missed the jab.
Some observers wonder if Francis will follow that up this year, given
impressions that relations between the Vatican and new Mayor Virginia
Raggi aren’t much better.
Raggi is the first woman to hold the post and
represents the upstart, anti-establishment Five Stars Movement.
Some Vatican officials grumble that the city didn’t do any better job
of supporting the pope’s jubilee year under Raggi than Marino, citing
failed public works projects and promised transportation improvements
that never came.
Pointedly, when Francis recently held an audience to thank some 400
people who had been involved in the jubilee, including the president of
the region of Lazio, Raggi wasn’t on the guest list.
Just a couple of weeks ago, when Raggi tweeted out her “joy” that
Pope Francis had written her a letter, the Vatican swiftly put a
statement saying it was the same letter the pontiff had sent to 60
mayors taking part in a Vatican conference on migration, clearly not
wanting to give the impression Francis was somehow endorsing Raggi.
Complicating things further, in the eyes of many Italian observers,
is the fact that traditional political factions in the country typically
have several senior figures in their ranks who know the ecclesiastical
world well - who may have been in the seminary for a period themselves,
who may have relatives in the clergy, and who have cultivated good ties
over the years with Vatican insiders.
That’s not really the case with the Five Star Movement, however,
since its populist thrust often means its leaders are not people for
whom seeking favor with major institutions, including the Church, have
ever been a priority.
Granted, popes have no direct role in choosing mayors, even in Rome.
Granted, too, given the “rage against the machine” spirit of the Five
Star Movement, the fact that some Vatican mandarins have their noses out
of joint may actually help Raggi with her electoral base.
That certainly seems to be the spirit of Beppe Grillo, the former
comic turned political maverick who founded the movement, and who
recently made waves by suggesting that the Vatican Museums should pay
more in property taxes to help resolve the city’s debts.
Still, every mayor of Rome has to come to terms with one immutable
fact: There’s only one real rock star in this town, and it isn’t them.
Get into a staring contest with a pope, therefore, and the smart money
is rarely going to be on the mayor.