Monday, September 11, 2023

Pope Francis kicks off ‘hot autumn’ at the Vatican

Power struggles entangle the Vatican | Financial Times

As summer winds down in Rome and the city fills up with reluctant vacationers getting back to the grind, Pope Francis has kicked off what promises to be a true autunno caldo, or “hot autumn” at the Vatican.  

For Francis, this autumn promises to be one of his busiest yet, with two international trips, as well as presiding over a consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals and leading a month-long Synod of Bishops. 

He also recently announced that he is writing an updated version of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si on care for the environment, and the Vatican’s ongoing megatrial featuring 10 defendants indicted for various financial crimes, including Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is set to close.

Plus, elections in Argentina this autumn could influence the pope’s stated intention to return to his home country next year and with several Vatican department heads over the age of 75, the mandatory retirement age for cardinals and bishops, and a new crop of cardinals on its way in, there could also be a few shakeups within the Roman Curia.

With all that and more lined up, it’s shaping out to be an intensely busy schedule for Pope Francis, who appears intent on plowing forward regardless of several recent health challenges. 

International travel

After a week-long summer trip to Portugal to preside over the international World Youth Day event in Lisbon from Aug. 2-6, Pope Francis has just closed the month, and the summer, with an Aug. 31-Sept. 4 visit to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. 

His trip marks the first-ever papal visit to the majority Buddhist Asian nation, which is landlocked between China and Russia, and which is home to one cardinal and roughly 1,450 Catholics. 

While the pastoral aim of the trip was to encourage the country’s tiny Catholic population and support missionary activity, the geopolitical undertones have also be a prominent feature of the whirlwind trip, as Mongolia, a former communist nation, maintains close cultural, political and even military ties with Russia, and China is its biggest economic partner. 

The visit has been the closest Pope Francis has come to China as the Vatican seeks to strengthen ties through its shaky 2018 agreement on episcopal appointments and through the proposal of a permanent liaison office in Beijing.

It has also brought the pope close to Russia’s door at a time when he is repeatedly seeking ways to end the war in Ukraine, following Russia’s invasion last February. 

Pope Francis’s envoy for the Ukraine conflict, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, is expected to visit Beijing this autumn, following previous visits to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington DC this summer as part of his peacemaking efforts. His visit to Beijing could happen as soon as September. 

After returning from Mongolia, Pope Francis less than three weeks later will make an overnight trip to the French city of Marseille, which he has insisted is not a state visit to France but rather a pastoral visit to Marseille for a high-profile meeting on the Mediterranean. 

He will travel to Marseille from Sept. 22-23 to attend the latest edition of the Mediterranean Meetings, which will draw together some 60 representatives of churches from the five shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and around 60 young people from the same areas to discuss the current political, economic, and environmental challenges of the Mediterranean region.

Participants are also expected to explore the resources at their disposal for solving current problems and will draft solutions aimed at peace and reconciliation, with a special focus on the role churches play in the process.

Though it is not a state visit, the pope will be welcomed to Marseille by French President Emmanuel Macron before participating in a prayer vigil with diocesan clergy and religious. 

The next day he will meet with those experiencing financial hardship and will address the final session of the Mediterranean Meetings before celebrating Mass and returning to Rome. 

Francis himself is expected to repeat his appeals on behalf of migrants and as well as his calls for Europe to return to its roots and to open its doors to those risking their lives in search of safety and security. 

Red hats and the synod

Once back in Rome, things speed up quickly for Francis, who will preside over a Sept. 30 consistory for the creation of 21 new cardinals, including several allies and like-minded prelates from around the world, before opening his Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality. 

Though a consistory in September is unusual, Pope Francis, who has made a habit of disregarding custom, announced the consistory in July, selecting several prelates seen as sharing his pastoral priorities and approach as red hat recipients. 

Among the most noteworthy appointments in this regard are American Archbishop Robert Prevost, the new prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops; French Archbishop Christophe Pierre, who since 2016 has served as the Vatican envoy to the United States; Italian Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches; Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, a ghostwriter of several papal texts who in July was named as head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Jesuit Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong; and Jesuit Archbishop Ángel Sixto Rossi of Córdoba, Argentina.

Given the quantity of cardinals Pope Francis has created and the specific names in this most recent batch, observers have speculated that Francis, who has had two hospital visits this year and two abdominal surgeries in as many years, seems to be in a hurry to cement his legacy. 

Equally significant, especially in terms of implementing and securing this legacy, will be the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality. 

Formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021, the synod is officially titled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is a multi-stage process that will culminate in two Rome-based gatherings this year and in October 2024.

After an initial consultation with laypeople at the diocesan level, reports summarising the conclusions were sent to national bishops’ conferences. Those reports served as the basis for discussion at the second, continental stage of the process.

The continental stage concluded earlier this year, and reports from each of the seven continental assemblies were used as a basis to draft the official working document, called the Istrumentum Laboris, for this October’s discussion in Rome at the universal level.

From Oct. 4-29, bishops and select delegates, including laypeople, will gather in Rome for the first of a two-part discussion, which will close with a similar gathering in October 2024.

It is expected to touch on several hot-button issues, including the role of women and the possibility of reinstituting the female diaconate as well as calls for women’s priestly ordination. 

Other issues including the treatment and welcome of LGBTQ Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics and the clerical sexual abuse crisis will also be discussed.

The synod has been celebrated by papal supporters as an unprecedented attempt to listen to and welcome all voices, yet it has been decried by papal critics, including American Cardinal Raymond Burke, as potentially schismatic and as seeding “confusion, error and division”.

Several key papal allies, including many of the new cardinals who will get their red hat Sept. 30, will participate in the October synod gathering, ensuring that the pope’s own vision will be heard.

Widely hailed by observers as Pope Francis’s own version of a Vatican council and a potential capstone to his papacy, the synod promises to be a captivating process. 

Trial, elections, climate and more

In addition to papal travel, the consistory and the synod, the Vatican this autumn will also see the close of its “trial of the century” featuring 10 defendants charged with various financial crimes, most of which arose from a failed $400 million real estate deal in London which cost the Vatican around $200 million.

After prosecutors this summer requested a total of 73 years and one month of imprisonment for the ten defendants, with Becciu receiving the most severe of the recommended sentences, civil parties, including the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and the real estate companies involved, will present make their closing statements in September. 

In October, the defense will make their closing arguments and the final verdict in the trial, which opened two years ago, in the summer of 2021. 

While presiding over the synod and tuning into the latest trial developments, Pope Francis in October will also likely be paying careful attention to the Oct. 22 general elections in Argentina. 

Francis on several occasions has expressed his desire to return to Argentina next year in what would be his first return trip since his election in 2013. 

However, if the current favoured candidate Javier Milei wins, it could thwart a potential papal visit, as Milei has been openly critical of the pontiff, calling him a “communist,” an “imbecile” and even a “leftist son of a b*.”

Whatever the outcome of the elections, it is likely the pope will be watching closely, especially with what would be an extremely high-profile papal trip on the table for 2024. 

The Vatican is also preparing to host a large interfaith summit ahead of the COP28 meeting this year, set to take place Nov. 30-Dec. 12 in Dubai. 

Pope Francis also recently announced that he is writing a second edition of his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si, which highlighted the dangers of climate change and urged the global community to develop more sustainable lifestyle habits to support the environment.

Though Francis did not indicate when the document might be completed, it’s possible that its release could coincide with the COP28 summit, as Laudato Si itself was published right before the COP21 climate summit in Paris. 

Finally, in addition to everything else on the pope’s slate this fall, there are also routine appointments to consider, as several curial department heads are over the age of 75, meaning a replacement could be named at any time. 

It is rumoured that Cardinal-designate Américo Manuel Alves Aguiar, who until now has served has auxiliary bishop of Lisbon, will take over for American Cardinal Kevin Farrell as head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life. 

Francis named Aguiar a cardinal in July, and many expected that he would take over as the next patriarch of Lisbon, however, the pope recently tapped Bishop Rui Manuel Sousa Valério of Portugal’s military diocese for that role, leading many observers to believe that Aguiar is headed to Rome. 

He was expected to be named patriarch of Lisbon following the pope’s trip, but another Portuguese got that position instead, and it is expected that Aguiar will come to Rome, likely to take Farrell’s place at LFF.

Farrell, 75, has been head of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life since 2016, when it was established as one of first new mega-dicasteries formed by the pope as part of his curial reform, and his responsibilities since then have increased. 

He was named camerlengo in 2019; in 2020 he was named president of the Pontifical Commission for Confidential Matters; and in 2022 he was named President of the Pontifical Committee for Investments. 

However, there are several other posts where Aguiar or another fresh face could step in: Italian Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, head of the Dicastery for Saints Causes since 2020, is also 75; Brazilian Cardinal Braz de Aviz, head of the Dicastery for Religious since 2011, is 76; Bishop Nunzio Galantino, head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) since 2018, is 75; and Spanish Cardinal Fernando Vergez Alzaga, 78, has been president of the Governorate of Vatican City since 2021.

Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who has been head of Integral Human Development since 2022, is 77, though as a close papal confidant, it is unlikely he will retire from the post anytime soon.

The Prefecture for the Papal Household is currently vacant after the formal departure of German Archbishop Georg Ganswein earlier this year.

With all this and more happening at the Vatican, this autumn promises to be a robustly busy and crucially important season for Pope Francis, and one which observers would do well to stay attuned to.