ROME — Typically my final column of the year is devoted to under-covered Vatican stories from the past 12 months, on the premise that the Vatican doesn’t get the same attention in the American press as the White House or Congress, and so important developments often slip through the cracks.
That’s not so, however, in the era of Pope Francis.
In a media environment in which everything the pope says and does is a sensation, we have the opposite problem — a surfeit of bogus or minor stories treated as big news, aided and abetted by a news cycle in which no one seems to have time for fact-checking.
In that spirit, here’s a rundown of my picks for the Top 5 “Over-Covered Vatican Stories of the Year.”
No. 5: “Gone in two years”
In an August press conference, Francis said of himself, “This won’t last long, two or three years, and then … to the Father’s house.”
The comment was widely taken as a prediction of his own death, or perhaps a tip of the hand about a secret plan to resign. In truth, it was no such thing.
The question Francis was asked actually was about his popularity. When he said “this won’t last long,” he may well have had his poll numbers in mind at least as much as his lifespan.
The pope’s point was simply that glory is fleeting, and investing it with more significance than that was always a stretch.
No. 4: ‘Breakthrough’ with China
During an August trip to South Korea, Francis was granted permission to fly through Chinese airspace. As popes always do, he sent telegrams to the heads of state of the countries he flew over, and his brief message to China was heralded as a dramatic watershed.
“I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation,” he wrote to President Xi Jinping.
Rarely have 25 words triggered such a frenzy, as if Francis would be in Tiananmen Square the next day inking a deal for diplomatic relations.
The truth is that the prospect of ties between Rome and Beijing is a “one step forward, two steps back” dance that’s been underway for decades, and was never going be brought to conclusion by a simple telegram.
Recently the pope’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was asked about Vatican/China relations. He replied: “The journey was and still is long, marked by alternate phases, and has not yet come to an end. It will end when God wishes it to.”
That about sums it up.
No. 3: Kasper and Chaput
Francis presided over a raucous summit of bishops in October, where fault lines emerged over issues such as homosexuality and Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
Along the way, a couple of mini-dramas erupted that took on exaggerated dimensions.
At one point, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a leading liberal on Communion for the divorced, was quoted as saying that African bishops “shouldn’t tell us what to do,” which was spun up into an Africa v. Europe war.
After the synod ended, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who hadn’t taken part, said press coverage had created “confusion” that was “of the devil.” Because Chaput is known as a conservative, it was taken as a blast at Francis.
In reality, Kasper meant that different regions should find their own solutions, and Chaput was talking about the media rather than the pope. The hype over each comment had more to do with the over-heated atmosphere than what either man intended.
Moral of the story: Beware of narratives that take shape amid a perceived crisis.
No. 2: The Pope on evolution
On Oct. 27, Francis spoke to the Academy of Sciences and said “evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of creation,” adding that God is not a “magician” who creates with a “magic wand.”
The statement was hailed as revolutionary, until people hit Google and found citations demonstrating that popes had been saying the exact same thing since Pius XII published the encyclical Humani Generis in 1950. John Paul II famously called evolution “more than a hypothesis.”
The moral here is, just because some people are paying attention to a pope for the first time does not make everything he does a first.
No. 1: Pets in heaven
The winner by a country mile, this story got started on Nov. 27 when Francis gave a talk about redemption and said it means “the bringing of all things into the fullness of being.”
An Italian newspaper speculated that perhaps Francis meant to include pets in that judgment, and quoted a famous line from Pope Paul VI to a boy who had lost his dog that “we will see our animals again in heaven.”
As the story made its way into English, it came to seem as if Francis had been the one to speak the line to the distraught boy, and from there it was a short leap to styling it as another example of a maverick pontiff breaking the mold.
Once again, a great story with the small flaw of being factually wrong.
If you’ve got some time over the holidays, you might think about organizing a fantasy league for potential over-played Vatican stories to come in 2015. Alas, there’s no shortage of draft prospects.
The difference a pope makes
On the subject of media coverage, Christmas 2014 offered an object lesson in the difference a pope makes in the way some awfully strong medicine goes down.
In brief remarks on Friday for the feast of St. Stephen, the pope complained of a “fake sugar coating” that sometimes comes with Christmas, and this year no one can accuse him of not doing his part to rip it off.
During the two traditional rhetorical peaks of the Christmas season — the pope’s annual address to the Roman Curia, the senior officials of the Vatican, last Monday, and the Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi message, to the city and the world — Francis delivered some old-fashioned fire and brimstone rather than holiday cheer.
On Monday, Francis took the mandarins of the Curia to the woodshed, ticking off a catalog of 15 spiritual diseases with which he believes they’re at times infected, including the “terrorism of gossip” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
Granted, Francis wasn’t entirely negative. He thanked people for their hard work, and at one point joked that priests are like airplanes — they only make news when they fall, but most are still flying. He also tried to show concern for his staff by scheduling a separate session with employees of the Vatican City State and their families, something popes haven’t done in the past.
Still, the overall thrust was rightly taken as a fairly stinging indictment.
On Christmas Day Francis turned his ire to the world, blasting it for “complicit silence” and a “globalization of indifference” to a whole laundry list of ills, beginning with the abuse and exploitation of children and the “brutal persecution” currently underway in Iraq and Syria.
The pope became visibly emotional discussing the suffering of children, saying, “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, which join the tears of the child Jesus.”
Media coverage of both performances was enthusiastic. The Curia speech was hailed as a reformer speaking truth to power, while the Urbi et Orbi was seen as a classic statement of Francis’ compassion.
While the speeches were masterfully crafted to ring bells, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ponder how reaction might have played out if it had been a different pope who said these things — for instance, had it been Pope Benedict XVI.
(For the record, Benedict easily could have given either speech. In 2005, he famously penned a Good Friday meditation about the need to confront the “filth” in the Church, and of course he suffered through the tawdry Vatican leaks affair, so he yields to no one in grasping the need for a housecleaning. He’s also passionate about the suffering of innocents and social justice, in part reflecting a family legacy of involvement in populist Bavarian farmer and labor movements in the 19th century.)
Had it been Benedict XVI, there’s a good chance the take-away might have been, “What a downer!”
Images of a tired, isolated, and defensive pope offering an increasingly bleak and hopeless diagnosis might have been framed, and it’s not much of a leap to imagine words such as “apocalyptic” and “pessimistic” featuring prominently in much commentary.
Yet because few people are inclined to see Francis in those terms, even his harsh rhetoric somehow comes off as uplifting and inspiring.
To put the point differently, Pope Francis now occupies a fairly unique spot on the global landscape as a high-profile public figure who can deliver bad news without it being written off as sour grapes. Some of the drama of 2015 may rest in how he chooses to spend that capital.
A pivotal January
January 2015 promises to be another pivotal moment in a papacy that’s already amassed more than its fair share.
On Jan. 12, Pope Francis will deliver his annual address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Vatican. It’s generally the pontiff’s most important foreign policy speech of the year, and this time it will be especially keenly scrutinized in foreign capitals around the world for hints about the pope’s priorities.
The reason for the elevated interest isn’t hard to fathom, since Francis is coming off one of the Vatican’s biggest diplomatic coups in decades for the role he played in paving the way for restoring relations between the United States and Cuba.
Given that success, the $64,000 question is which historical logjam the pontiff will next try to break, and the Jan. 12 speech may provide a sense of the answer.
One good candidate for the pope’s diplomatic to-do is the cause of defending Christians under fire. After denouncing suffering in Iraq and Syria on Christmas Day, Francis dispatched a tweet on Friday, the feast of St. Stephen — known as the Protomartyr, or first martyr of Christianity — that read, “Let us pray today for all those who are persecuted for their Christian faith.”
During his noontime address on Friday, Francis asked for prayer for all those “discriminated against, persecuted, and killed for their witness to Christ,” adding an ad-lib that “there are so many.”
Francis also said the example of today’s martyrs should “reinforce in every part of the world the commitment for recognizing and concretely assuring religious freedom, which is an inalienable right of every human person.”
Later on Jan. 12, Francis will depart for a six-day trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, his second outing to Asia and his seventh foreign trip overall. It’s a journey with both political and ecclesiastical significance.
In Sri Lanka, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa has set elections for Jan. 8, just five days ahead of the pontiff’s arrival in Colombo. His re-election drive is controversial, in part because he rewrote the national constitution to remove term limits and fired the chief justice of the Supreme Court when she wouldn’t go along.
The Vatican normally tries to steer clear of such imbroglios when scheduling papal travel, but in this case the pope’s going ahead. In context, whatever Francis says and does will be read for political subtext — not just with regard to Rajapaksa’s legitimacy, but also the broad pro-China policies with which he’s associated.
China has poured billions of dollars into building infrastructure in Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa, who’s reciprocated by steering the country closer to Beijing and thus further away from its regional rival India.
In other words, while Francis may be physically in Sri Lanka for the first three days of the trip, he’ll really be talking to India and China as well, giving him a platform to lay out a vision for Asia’s role in the world.
Ecclesiastically, the leg in the Philippines will be a chance for the pope to celebrate one of the most dynamic Catholic communities anywhere in the world. That will be manifest in the vast crowds the pope is likely to attract, possibly topping the 5 million John Paul II drew in Manila in 1995.
It’s also a chance for Francis to improve ties with Asia’s Catholic bishops, who over the years often have complained that the Vatican doesn’t take seriously enough the need for flexibility in translating the faith into Asian languages and cultures. They regard the first pope from the developing world as one of their own, and will be looking for assurances that Francis has heard them.
Also sometime in January, Francis will present his line-up of new cardinals to be created in a consistory he’s already set for Feb 14-15. If things hold to form, the pope will probably appoint somewhere between 10 and 12 new Princes of the Church.
Almost nothing a pontiff does is as crucial to shaping culture in the Catholic Church as the appointment of senior leadership, so the choice of who Francis decides to lift up in this crop will be closely studied.
Not so long ago, January was considered a down time on the Vatican’s annual calendar, a chance to catch one’s breath after Christmas and before the push to Easter. In the Francis era, however, “down time” is basically a thing of the past, and there certainly won’t be much of it over the next month.