Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Vatican questions $17 million transfers by priest who now leads clergy abuse commission

A view of a former monastery, in Rome, Monday, May 29, 2023, situated on a quiet residential street. It once sheltered Jews fleeing deportation in World War II. Purchased by the Vatican in 2021 as a dormitory for foreign nuns studying at Rome’s pontifical universities, the building now stands empty, a collateral victim of the latest financial scandal to hit the Holy See. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The former monastery on a quiet residential street in Rome once sheltered Jews fearing deportation in World War II. 

Purchased by the Vatican in 2021 as a dormitory for foreign nuns studying at Rome's pontifical universities, the building now stands empty, a collateral victim of the latest financial scandal to hit the Holy See.

Pope Francis has asked aides to get to the bottom of how at least $17 million, including money to refurbish the dorm, was transferred from the Vatican's U.S.-based missionary fundraising coffers into an impact investing vehicle run by a priest, The Associated Press has learned. 

Two years later, the U.S. fundraiser says the money is gone, and the monastery is shuttered. Its renovation is tied up in bureaucratic red tape, while the nuns studying in Rome are still housed at a convent a 90-minute commute away.

The story of what happened to the money is one that has vexed Vatican officials on both sides of the Atlantic, all the more because the transfers appear entirely legal. 

But they have nevertheless prompted the new leadership of the Vatican's missionary fundraising operation in the U.S., The Pontifical Mission Societies, to replace the staff and board of directors who approved them, and overhaul its bylaws and statutes, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

And for now, the organization known as TPMS-US has written off $10.2 million of the total transferred as a loss since "there is no timeline and no guarantee of investment return," according to its latest audited financial statement.

The money was transferred from TPMS-US into a New York-based non-profit, Missio Corp., and its private equity fund, MISIF LLC, both of which were created by Fr. Andrew Small while he was the national director of TPMS-US. Both financial vehicles aim to raise capital to provide low-interest loans and investments to church-run farming initiatives in Africa.

The bulk of the money was transferred in 2021, right before Small ended his 10-year tenure at TPMS-US. Small, a British-born Oblate of the Mary Immaculate priest, remains CEO of Missio Corp., while now serving on a temporary basis as the No. 2 at the pope's clergy abuse commission.

In a series of emailed responses to AP questions, Small strongly defended the money transfers as fully approved and in the best interest of the church and TPMS-US. He provided letters from grateful bishops and nuns in Africa who have benefited from Missio Corp.'s low-interest loans, as well as letters from two Vatican cardinals expressing interest in his impact investing initiatives.

But the transfers have, at least temporarily, reduced the endowment fund of TPMS-US by a quarter and seemingly diverted money raised in the pope's name away from Vatican-approved charities and works in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

The loss is thus the latest financial headache for the Holy See, which for decades has been beset by episodes of loss-making investments, opaque accounting methods, porous budgets and conflicts of interest that have undermined its financial reputation.

"The Holy See is aware of the situation and is currently looking into the details of the events," Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said in a statement to AP.

According to publicly available tax returns and financial statements, the moneys transferred included $7 million in expense "reimbursements," undefined "contributions" and "support," from TPMS-US to Missio Corp. from 2019-2021. The bulk of the transfers is a $10.2 million investment in MISIF LLC, $7.5 million of which came from a TPMS-US endowment fund.

That investment served as the sponsoring seed investment that persuaded the U.S. federal government's International Development Finance Corp., in 2021 to loan MISIF LLC $20 million to provide microloans to church-run agribusinesses and educational programs.

Because the TPMS-US board approved the transfers, any litigation to get it back is implausible.

But according to officials at TPMS-US, it remains unclear if the board was fully informed about the transfers and the Vatican's view of them, especially concerns expressed by the then-prefect of the Vatican's missionary office, Cardinal Fernando Filoni.

Fr. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian who runs a church administration and management program at the Catholic University of America, also said the evangelical thrust of TPMS-US donations — which mostly come via an annual Mass collection each October for the Vatican's missionary activities — differs from MISIF's more general development strategy of loans that must be repaid.

"How can donor intent be assured if the aims of the two are so different?" he asked. "Donor intent is defended in both civil and canon law," he added.

Lloyd Mayer, a professor specializing in nonprofit law at Notre Dame Law School, said he didn't see any "red flags" in the transfers, but "a few yellow flags."

"And the legal question for me is: has someone violated a legal duty here, or is this essentially an internal political dispute?"

Small strongly defended the transfers as consistent with both the mission of TPMS-US and his fiduciary duty to increase its funding, which he said had been steadily declining as donations dried up. He said he also tried crowdsourcing, where donors could see the direct outcome of their gifts, to raise money.

He said donors were increasingly unwilling to just give to the Vatican via the typical structure, where Rome decides where donations are spent -- a reference to donor distrust of the opaque finances of the Holy See in general and the Vatican's missionary office in particular.

"A lot of it goes to bishops and nuncios with only a tiny fraction going to priests and sisters," Small said. "Many millions of dollars of the US money help pay the expenses of operating nunciatures in mission countries, which seems anomalous with the messages sent to the faithful on Mission Sunday each year."

Small said he developed Missio Corp., and its public-facing Missio Invest website, because he wanted to apply the principles of impact investing to the needs of the church in mission territory. It was an idea that had some support in the Vatican, which hosted three impact investing conferences in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

"The ultimate goal was to create a social impact fund that could provide low-interest loans to church-run enterprises in Africa so as to create a sustainable source income for the church and, presumably, make them less dependent on foreign annual donations which had shown themselves to be increasingly precarious," Small said.

Small said the board of TPMS-US was informed of all developments and approved all the transfers, and that he made at least annual presentations to the Vatican's missionary office.

Robert Warren, a retired IRS criminal investigator who now teaches accounting at Radford University in Virginia, said the relationship between TPMS-US and Missio Corp., on its surface is problematic because Small headed both. Such interlocking relationships, he said, require extra scrutiny by auditors and management.

"I always tell my students: You have to determine whether there is an arm's length transaction. If you have related parties, that means by definition you do not have an arm's length transaction," he said. If one charity is providing the bulk of funding to keep a second charity going "you now have an interrelated party and all those transactions require extra scrutiny by the auditors and by management."

After Small's term ended in 2021, TPMS-US under the leadership of its new national director, Msgr. Kieran Harrington, hired a law firm to investigate. Small didn't respond to the lawyers' questions.

"The independent analysis concluded that the TPMS board approved the funds transfers in a way consistent with their powers and the TPMS bylaws," TPMS-US told AP in a statement.

Harrington subsequently replaced the board with more high-ranking officials and Vatican oversight. It includes the pope's ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, along with other senior U.S. cardinals and archbishops, including Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is now Small's boss.

"The new board is working to evaluate the governance structures of TPMS and will soon recommend new ecclesiastical statutes and vote upon the civil corporation bylaws," TPMS-US told AP.

TPMS-US asked for the $10.2 million investment in MISIF back, but Missio Corp., "denied the request," according to the TPMS-US audited financial statement.

"Management of the organization is diligently working to redeem the investment, however there is no timeline and no guarantee of investment return," the statement says. TPMS-US now values the $10.2 million investment as a total loss.

Small criticized the write-off as "shortsighted," saying there were no grounds for such a decision based on the fund's performance. Small said the board knew well the minimum 10-year commitment of the investment, and that regardless the MISIF investing model considers the economic impact on local communities as part of the return for investors.

He said it was "unfortunate" that TPMS-US had such little confidence in the mission church's ability to repay its loans.

"If we don't believe in our missionary colleagues, how will banks and other capital markets?" he asked.

However, even Small's own auditors said they were unable to verify his fund's calculation of the fair value of its investment portfolio as of December 2021 and declined to express an opinion on its financial statements for that year.

The fate of the Rome residence for nuns is now tied up in Italian bureaucracy and pandemic-related construction delays. The Vatican had purchased the building after TPMS-US sent $13 million from a fund it had established to support the education of religious sisters.

The building has a rich history: During WWII, when it was owned by a Canadian order of nuns, it housed at least 80 Jews who were hiding from Rome's Nazi occupiers, according to archival research published in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano.

When the Vatican in 2021 asked TPMS-US for more money to renovate the building, the education fund for religious sisters was empty. Small said the board, "for a variety of reasons," had decided not to send the remaining $4.7 million to Rome but instead to his Missio Corp., to fund the training of sisters in Africa, which he said was consistent with its intended purpose.

The Vatican is believed to have found other funding, but the Rome residence today stands empty, a chain lock around its front gate. The nuns studying at the Pontifical Urbaniana University live at a campus in Castel Gandolfo, a 90-minute commute away.

"They lose so much time traveling," said Sr. Genowefa Kudlik, the Polish nun who runs the Castel Gandolfo campus. "The property was bought some years back, I believe. But I don't think anything was done."

After visit to Ukraine, Swedish cardinal says he hopes for 'just peace'

 Bishop Anders Arborelius reflects on being first native Swede named cardinal  – Catholic World Report

A recent video that has gained traction on social media purportedly shows a McDonald's in Kiev bustling with people, prompting some to argue that perhaps the conflict is not as grim as the media and the country's government has reported.

Even Swedish Cardinal Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, who visited Ukraine in early May with Bishop Erik Varden of Trondheim, Norway, said he was taken aback by the signs of normalcy in a war that has already lasted more than 450 days.

"We were only in Kyiv for two days. At first, I was so surprised that life seemed so normal in Kyiv; the traffic, restaurants full of people, children playing," Cardinal Arborelius told OSV News May 24.

However, Arborelius said that while things seemed normal on the surface, speaking with people there made him realize "the enormous suffering" Ukrainians have endured.

"When we saw the destruction of the former occupied outskirts of Kyiv and heard how terribly bad people were treated, we were shocked," he said.

Arborelius and Varden visited Ukraine May 9-10 on behalf of the Nordic bishops' conference, which comprises Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. The purpose of the visit, Cardinal Arborelius said, was "to convey our solidarity and prayers to the faithful of Ukraine."

"There is not much we can do but we can always show compassion and love to those who suffer," he said.

After visiting Kyiv, where they also met with Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Arborelius and Varden visited Irpin and Makariv.

After Ukrainian forces liberated both cities from Russian occupation between March and April 2022, images of dead civilians lying on the streets and signs of torture and mass executions shocked the world.

Now, more than a year later, Arborelius told OSV News that despite the devastation, the efforts to rebuild and the resilience of those who survived were "a sign of hope."

"We heard that the Greek Catholic priest was evacuated thanks to Protestant groups; he was on the list of those who were to be eliminated by the occupants," the Swedish cardinal recalled. "Even if there were so many traumas, people were eager to help each other and had trust in God's providence. They try to hide their wounds and show that they are so grateful for every little help they can get from our Western countries."

Pope Francis' May 13 meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he noted, was "very important" because it "showed to the world that the pope is full of compassion and that he is very close to the sufferings of Ukrainian people."

"Through diplomatic channels the Holy See can help prisoners of war to be liberated, and hopefully, also, to help children to be sent back. Although this (may) be very hard; the Russians want to educate them to Russian citizens," he said.

During his return flight from Hungary May 1, the pope said that "the Holy See has acted as an intermediary in some exchanges of prisoners" and expressed the Vatican's willingness to facilitate the return of children forcibly taken from the country.

The request for assistance from the Vatican in negotiating the return of children taken during the war was made by Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal during a private meeting with Pope Francis in late April.

Arborelius said the Nordic bishops' conference hopes to do its part to help the people of Ukraine; one example was their organization of a special collection in parishes across the conference's five countries on Pentecost May 28.

But above all, he said, Ukrainians "need our moral, psychological support in order to see that they are not forgotten."

"Here in Sweden we also try to help the refugees and help them to adapt to their existence in our country," Arborelius told OSV News. "We are just a small church so we cannot influence the society here but, together with other faith communities, we try to stand up for those in need, inside Ukraine and here in our countries."

The Swedish cardinal said that despite the uncertainty of the future, as well as threats from Russia after Sweden requested to join the NATO alliance, the church in Scandinavia will continue to "hope and pray that there will be a just peace for the Ukrainian people."

"Our church tries to help, even if our resources are very limited," he said. "But our moral and human support is strong, and we hopefully that many people in our countries will give their economical help to those who suffer from this terrible war."

Cardinal responds to Illinois abuse report

Raoul urged to subpoena Catholic church about sexual abuse allegations -  Chicago Sun-Times

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, urged Illinois attorney general Kwame Raoul to provide information about allegations of clergy sex abuse included in his report issued on 23 May which were previously unknown to the dioceses of the state. 

Speaking to the Associated Press in Rome, Cupich said he was surprised the report included 125 cases of which was unaware.

“I can assure the public this: if these cases are substantiated and we’re given the information of how it was [done], we will put them on our website,” the cardinal said.

The attorney general’s report listed 450 clergy statewide who it said were credibly accused of committing sex abuse of 2,000 minors since 1950.

All the charges were historic in nature – that is, none of the accused were in active ministry. Included in the 125 additional allegations in Chicago were priests in religious order, whose cases would have been handled by their orders rather than the archdiocese.

The attorney general’s office accused Cupich of making misleading statements, arguing that the conclusions the report drew stemmed from Church records.

“The archdiocese itself confirmed to my investigators that 62 of the 125 priests and religious brothers in question were substantiated child sex abusers who ministered in the Archdiocese of Chicago,” Raoul said in a prepared statement.

“I am calling on the archdiocese to immediately add at least those 62 names to its online list of substantiated child sex abusers.”

The archdiocese contested the claim they were stonewalling. “The AG [attorney general] report listed 125 clerics whom they say should be added to the web list. Five are already listed,” the archdiocese said in a post on social media.

“We have previously communicated to the AG that 57 of the individuals they name were not clerics or they did not serve in a ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago. We are looking at the remaining 63 more closely to determine whether any of them should be added to the weblist. We will also follow up on any new information the AG has and will provide us.” 

The statement added: “We have reported every single allegation of child sexual abuse by a cleric known to us.”

Chartres pilgrimage turns away marchers due to popularity

Pilgrimages | C'Chartres Tourisme

The annual Paris-to-Chartres pilgrimage, a three-day march at Pentecost marked by prayers, hymns, banners and old rite Masses, had to turn away participants due to over-subscription this year.

This is the first time this has happened since the pilgrimage began in 1983.

About 16,000 pilgrims left Paris last weekend on the increasingly popular 97km hike, accompanied by 330 priests. It ended on Monday at Chartres, whose famous medieval cathedral can be seen across the fields from far away.

The annual pilgrimage is sponsored by the lay association Our Lady of Christendom to promote devotion to the Blessed Mother.

This year is marked by “the historic presence of the relic of the skull of St Thomas Aquinas”, said lead chaplain Fr Jean de Massia. Normally kept in Toulouse, the relic is on show to celebrate the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Dominican saint's ordination.

Although they are attached to the pre-Vatican II liturgy, many pilgrims dispute the term “traditionalist” because their priests are in communion with Rome. The Society of St Pius X (SSPX), which has fraught relations with the Vatican, holds a smaller Chartres-to-Paris pilgrimage at the same time.

Jean de Tauriers, head of the lay association, said about half the pilgrims were under 20 years old and some came from abroad, notably Spain, Argentina and the United States.

“We shouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that there are only two per cent of practising Catholics in France!” he said.

Recent limits on the pre-Vatican II liturgy do not appear to have had much effect of these young Catholics. Many said that they felt more sanctity in the old rite but said they also attended novus ordo Masses.

According to a survey of French World Youth Day participants in Lisbon this year, La Croix found that 38 per cent of them appreciated the older liturgy and 8 per cent said they preferred it. Many of them identified as politically conservative and came from practising Catholic families.

According to sociologist Yann Raison du Cleuziou, this showed that “it is not Catholicism that is shifting to the right but right-wing Catholicism that is perpetuating itself better than left-wing Catholicism”.

Thousands travel to see ‘incorrupt’ remains of nun

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster: Photos, Video Show Nun's Body |

The body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster was placed inside a glass case inside the monastery she founded in Missouri last night after thousands of pilgrims travelled to witness her seemingly “incorrupt” remains. 

Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster died aged 95 four years ago but when exhumed on April 28 in Gower, her body and habit showed little sign of decomposing.

The African-American Benedictine had not been embalmed and had been buried in a wooden coffin whose cracks have exposed her corpse to moisture and debris. 

“We think she is the first African American woman to be found incorrupt,” said Mother Cecilia Snell, prioress of the convent of the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles.

Sister Lancaster founded the congregation at the age of 70, having left her original congregation. The nuns follow the 1962 Monastic Office and have produced chart-topping recordings of Gregorian Chant. 

Born in St Louis, Missouri in April 1924, Mary Elizabeth Lancaster was raised by Catholic parents descended from slaves. Growing during the era of racial segregation laws, she suffered repeated abuse and name-calling while running through a white neighbourhood on her way home from school. 

When the Christian Brothers introduced segregation at the local Catholic secondary school, Mary’s parents founded a Catholic secondary school devoted to St Joseph for African-Americans. This remained open until the then archbishop stopped segregation in the diocese. 

At the age of 13, Mary wrote to request entry to the Oblate Sisters of Providence. She later entered the community, the first religious order established by Afro-American woman in America. Once, she explained her name in religious life as follows: “I am Sister WIL-HEL-MINA – I’ve a Hell of a Will and I Mean it!” 

In 1995, Sr Wilhelmina left her congregation to found the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles with Fr Arnaud Devillers in the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 2006, Bishop Robert W Finn of the Diocese of Kansas-St Joseph invited the community to Missouri.

On 29 May, Sister Wilhelmina’s body was placed behind glass near the altar of St Joseph in the convent chapel, in order as her community explained, to welcome the growing number of “her devotees”. 

More than 10,000 are expected to visit from North America and Mexico.

Irish census reveals marked drop in Catholic numbers

Preparations Continue For Census 2022 - Tipperary Mid West Radio

New Census data for Ireland has shown a substantial drop in the number of people identifying as Catholics, from 3,696,644 (79 per cent) in 2016 down to 3,515,861 (69 per cent) in 2022.

In 1961, 95 per cent of the population identified as Catholic and as recently as 2011 the figure was 84.2 per cent.

The decline in Catholicism is one of the major features of Census2022, which shows that the overall population of Ireland increased to 5.15 million, its highest level since the Famine in the early nineteenth century, and this has mainly been driven by immigration.

Catholicism is still the affiliation of the majority of the population, but the new Census data illustrates how the religious profile of the country is changing rapidly. It shows that the number of people with no religion increased by 284,269 and now stands at 736,210.

The Muslim population in Ireland rose from 63,443 in 2016 to 81,930 in 2022, and other faiths such as Hinduism also recorded increases. However, the numbers identifying themselves as Church of Ireland, the main Anglican Church, showed little change at 124,749 people (two per cent).

Speaking to The Tablet, the primate of All Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, said the decrease in the number of people identifying as Catholic is “an issue that we in the Church need to take very seriously”.

However, he admitted the drop was “not a huge surprise to us” and he added, “We are aware of the new Irish – the new people coming here of other faiths and other Christian traditions.”

Despite the large drop in Catholic numbers, Archbishop Martin stressed, that 69 per cent was still a very high percentage of people who are “prepared to identify as Catholic despite the huge secularisation of Ireland and the huge changes in the world today”.

He was speaking after launching The Spiritual Journey of St Patrick by the late Fr Aidan Larkin SSC in Dalgan Park, Co Meath. He said the book by the Columban missionary helped to show St Patrick as a saint for the whole Church and a saint for our times.

As well as being a missionary priest in Chile, Fr Aidan Larkin, who died in 2019, played a leading role in the development of the SDLP and was an councillor and assembly member for the party in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

He was also a barrister who worked as a legal adviser in Brussels to the Council of Ministers. Aged 35, he joined Clonliffe seminary in the Archdiocese of Dublin and later joined the Columban Fathers, committing his life to missionary work, notably in Chile.

His work was published posthumously by Messenger Publications, a Jesuit publishing house in Ireland.

Discussing St Patrick in the context of the latest census findings, Archbishop Martin told The Tablet: “I think in today’s world and in today’s Ireland, where people are searching for certainties and for some sense of direction and for some sense of hope in their lives, it is consoling to know that so many are still finding that in their faith.”

He said St Patrick, though living in a different world, faced many of the same struggles to get his message into a world that was alien to Christianity.

“The book lets us see some of the spiritual struggles that St Patrick had with being accepted in Ireland and being accepted even within the Church, because he faced opposition from within the hierarchy to his mission in Ireland. Yet he remained determined and had a sense that God was with him.”

The archbishop said Ireland’s patron saint was not only a saint for the whole Church, but as Fr Aidan Larkin’s book reminded readers, “St Patrick is a saint for our times” whose life and writings made us conscious of the “evil of human trafficking”.

“We see how Patrick empathises with a whole host of people who nowadays are forcibly moved from their country and their circumstances and have to leave home as refugees or migrants.”

“I think today of a lot of the really good work that is going on in Ireland to prevent trafficking by our religious congregations and other organisations who are highlighting this awful evil. Pope Francis described it as a scourge on the face of the earth.”

He continued: “To think that Christians and people of faith may actually be turning a blind eye to trafficking, which is happening in our own streets and in our own cities.

“The Police Service in Northern Ireland and the Gardaí are very aware that trafficked people are being used and abused here in Ireland and that is something I think St Patrick, if he was here today, would want to waken us up to.”

Why Francis won’t be the chaplain of BRICS, just as Pius XII wasn’t of NATO (Comment)

Why Francis won't be the chaplain of BRICS, just as Pius XII wasn't of NATO  | Crux

Once upon a time, journalists informally dubbed Pope Pius XII the “chaplain of NATO” for his fervent anti-Communism, and his consequent support of the Western alliance in the early days of the Cold War.

Those days, famously, are long gone under Pope Francis.

History’s first pope from the global south might more credibly be branded the “chaplain of BRICS,” meaning the budding economic and strategic alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, especially given how his line on Ukraine and that of Brasilia, New Delhi and Beijing all broadly align.

Except, just as with Pius XII, such phraseology may have obvious media cachet, but it conceals at least as much as it reveals.

As far as Pius XII goes, yes, he was anti-Communist, but he was also the last native Roman to be elected pope and harbored the same ambivalence about the United States that many of his fellow Italian clerics felt. The U.S., after all, is a traditionally Protestant culture, strongly influenced by Calvinism, and many Catholic thinkers of Pius XII’s generation regarded it as hostile terrain for the church’s social doctrine.

During the Korean War, President Harry Truman worked hard to get Pius XII’s blessing, but the pontiff remained aloof, even issuing radio messages with veiled criticisms of the “so-called free world.”

Pope Francis, of course, as a Latin American, brings his own baggage with regard to the United States to the papacy. At first blush, that might seem yet another reason why he’d be eager to bless the geopolitical initiative of his fellow Latin American and fellow progressive, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, the driving force behind the BRICS initiative.

Yet there are three compelling reasons why the affinity between Francis and the BRICS bloc is, at best, a marriage of convenience rather than a true alliance.

First, there’s the inherent instability of the BRICS coalition. For one thing, China and Russia are hardly natural allies, a point Henry Kissinger recently underlined in a lengthy interview with The Economist.

“I’ve never met a Chinese leader who said anything good about Russia, they are sort of treated with contempt,” Kissinger said. “Even when Putin is in China, he is not shown the kind of courtesies that they showed to Macron, [who] came to a special place that is tied to the history of the Chinese leader, and they don’t do that for the Russians.”

Much the same thing could be said of China and India, whose superpower rivalry in Asia is crystal clear.

Moreover, Brazil is the animator of the BRICS coalition only so long as the left is in power. During the Bolsonaro years, the BRICS project was cited by the government roughly as often as the prospect of colliding with another planet, which is to say, not much.

Second, there’s the traditional neutrality of the Vatican.

It’s deep in the diplomatic DNA of the Holy See never to become overly identified with one great power or power bloc, because while they may be in the ascendant today, you never know what tomorrow may bring – and if you want to blame the game for the long haul, then you don’t want your fortunes tied to anyone else’s.

Defending the neutrality of the Holy See was a major part of the reason why Pius XII resisted becoming overly tied to the Americans in the 1950s, and it remains a compelling reason today why Pope Francis has resisted Western demands to join the chorus of condemnations of Putin and Russia being conducted by the White House.

Third and finally, there’s Francis’s own prevailing concern – critics might almost call it paranoia – about ever being enlisted as part of someone else’s political agenda.

Famously, the fear of political manipulation is why the Argentine pope has never returned to his home nation after more than 10 years in power, repeatedly citing concerns over one Argentine government or another seeking to take political advantage of his presence.

In an interview last month with the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Pope Francis declared that he hopes to visit his home country next year, meaning 2024, but it’s important to note that his language was phrased in the conditional. In the same interview, Francis pleaded with the journalist at the end not to associate him with any particular political party or cause.

In related fashion, many analysts believe the pope’s stubbornness about Putin, including referring to him in that La Nación interview as a cultured individual with whom he once passed a pleasant conversation discussing literature, isn’t because Francis is in denial about the Russian leader’s brutality, but because he doesn’t want to be seen as a mouthpiece for anyone else’s point of view.

In that vein, Francis may well feel more natural affinity for the position of the BRICS nations on Ukraine right now that he does for the Biden administration or the other NATO powers. Experience suggests, however, that the moment someone suggests Francis part of the BRICS initiative will also be the moment in which Francis finds a way to demonstrate his independence.

So, here’s the bottom line.

If the question is whether Pope Francis right now, this minute, is favorable to the diplomatic initiatives of Lula and the BRICS nations on Ukraine, the answer is yes.

If the question is whether Francis will be a reliable source of support for the BRICS alliance going forward, however … well, Lula probably would be well advised not to bet the farm on it.