ROME – Wednesdays in Rome generally belong to the pope, because that’s when he holds his weekly General Audience in St. Peter’s Square, and during the second week of the 2015 Synod of Bishops, Francis certainly found a way to put his stamp on what Americans often refer to as “hump day.”
The pontiff delivered an unexpected mea culpa at the beginning of his weekly audience, which was largely dedicated to the synod’s theme of family life.
“The word of Jesus today is strong: ‘Woe to the world for scandals’,” Francis said, referring to the Gospel reading in the daily Mass for Wednesday. “Jesus is a realist, and said, ‘It’s inevitable that scandals happen, but woe to the one who causes those scandals.’
“I would like, before beginning the catechesis, in the name of the Church, to ask for forgiveness for the scandals which recently have fallen both on Rome and the Vatican,” he continued. “I ask you for forgiveness.”
That’s all the pope had to say, which left everyone free to speculate on exactly which scandals he had in mind.
In fact, the pope’s mea culpa in many ways functions as a Rorschach test for whatever individual observers happen to feel is the most scandalous aspect of Catholicism, or the Vatican, or even the city of Rome, at the moment.
Many Italians heard an echo of a recent scandal at a Roman parish run by the Discalced Carmelites religious order, where more than 100 members parishioners sent a letter to the Vatican charging that an official of the order was engaging in sexual relations with “vulnerable adults” in a nearby park.
Others assumed the pope was referring, at least in part, to recent ferment around Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa, a 43-year-old Polish priest and minor Vatican official who used the eve of the synod to publicly announce that he’s gay and in love with a partner from Spain to whom he’s engaged.
Charamsa was quickly relieved of his Vatican position, but he continues to comment on his situation and the Church’s broader treatment of gays and lesbians from his new home in Barcelona.
Still others wondered if the pope was talking about a recent melodrama that broke out inside the synod itself, focusing on a letter signed by roughly a dozen cardinals – the precise number remains unknown – raising objections about the process being used.
A version of such a letter was published in the Italian press on Monday, but was quickly disowned by several of its alleged signatories.
One of the alleged signers of the letter, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who heads the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal agency, called the unauthorized release of documents intended for the pope alone a “new Vati-leaks,” referring to the scandal that broke out under Pope Benedict XVI that led to the arrest and conviction of the pope’s own butler for leaking confidential material.
Because the pope went on at the audience to refer to well-known words of Jesus about harming young people, other observers felt the pontiff might be referring to the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism, especially in the wake of his recent meeting with victims in the United States.
In light of the reference to Rome, some locals even suspected that perhaps Francis had in mind the recent resignation of the city’s mayor.
That move came amid a corruption scandal, and after the pope pointedly said during a news conference that he had not invited the mayor to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia – adding, in terms that many saw as a not-so-veiled rebuke, that former Mayor Ignazio Marino “professes to be a Catholic.”
A Vatican spokesman on Wednesday seemed to reject that reading, saying it’s “a political question rather than an ecclesiastical one.”
This is, of course, one of the characteristic features of much papal rhetoric.
It’s couched at a very high level of generality, because it’s considered unseemly for the pope to be drawn into specific controversies concerning current events. If that needs to be done, it generally will be delivered by his spokesman or somebody else on his behalf.
This approach has many advantages, not least of which is the impression that the pontiff is supra partes and thus able to keep open his lines of communication with everyone. The down side is that whatever the pope says can be spun in an almost infinite variety of ways, at least some of which he presumably did not intend.
In any event, this intentional elasticity is also revealing, because it indicates what any given observer most has on their minds at the moment. Almost without exception, they’ll tend to assume the pope must have been talking about their concern.