Last week I was in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio, where I’ve been speaking at First Friday clubs for several years. My wife Shannon, who handles my speaking calendar, is very loyal to these folks, and insisted that I offer them something new and original.
In response, I did something that’s basically an act of madness: I delivered a set of predictions for 2016 regarding the almost metaphysically unpredictable Pope Francis.
Spousal obedience, as it turns out, trumped professional caution. Herewith, those five forecasts for a pope of surprises in the New Year.
1. The next US cardinal Francis names will be a shocker.
It’s not clear whether Francis will create new cardinals in 2016, or whether one of them would be an American. If so, however, it probably won’t be anyone people are expecting — Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, for instance, or Blase Cupich in Chicago.
When distributing red hats, Francis likes to bypass the usual centers of power. In Italy, Turin and Venice don’t have cardinals, but Perugia and Ancona do. In the Philippines, Francis ignored Cebu and named a cardinal in Cotabato. In Haiti, he skipped the capital, Port-au-Prince, in favor of the small diocese of Les Cayes.
If there is a new American cardinal, look for him to be from some place out of the ordinary. One good candidate would be Bishop Gerald Kicanas in Tucson, Arizona, both to make a statement about the hardships of immigrants who cross the border there, and also to lift up a social justice-oriented bishop cut from the pope’s own cloth.
2. Francis will have a health issue.
So far, this pope has not had a serious health crisis. A bogus report in October of a benign brain tumor doesn’t count, since it fell apart almost as soon as it appeared.
On the other hand, Francis turns 79 on Dec. 17 and keeps up a schedule that would destroy people half his age. Those closest to Francis have long said they’re worried about the pope not taking care of himself, for instance by canceling his summer vacation at Castel Gandolfo. Watching him up close, he often seems visibly fatigued, and his struggles with sciatica seem more pronounced.
At some point, physical reality may assert itself and compel the pontiff to take some time off. If that happens, it won’t necessarily mean the end is near, but simply that he’s managing his time and energy more carefully.
3. The pope will be a player in the US elections.
Pope Francis is likely to emerge as a major factor in the US elections in 2016, an especially plausible prospect given that five of the GOP contenders are Catholic (Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and George Pataki; Bobby Jindal dropped out of the race in November).
One moment when the pope appears destined to inject himself into the race will come in February, when he travels to Mexico. The trip will feature a stop in Ciudad Juarez at the US/Mexico border, where Francis will make a major statement about immigration.
At that same moment, Americans will be heading to the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa. Media coverage will certainly draw the connection, turning the pontiff into a political point of reference.
4. The pope will make two significant gestures of mercy.
Francis opens his special jubilee Year of Mercy Tuesday, and at least two unscripted papal gestures of compassion may roll out at some point along the way.
First, he may offer a hand to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. The question of whether they could receive Communion was hotly debated at the recent Synods of Bishops on the family, and while there was no consensus, there was agreement that the Church needs to do a better job of making them feel included.
Second, and possibly more quickly, Francis may offer pardons to least some of the five people currently facing a Vatican criminal trial for leaking secrets. They include three people who served on a papal commission on Vatican finances and two Italian journalists who published books based on the commission’s confidential reports.
When similar charges were brought against Benedict XVI’s butler in 2012, Benedict pardoned him, and especially in a Year of Mercy, Francis may feel obliged to follow suit. On the other hand, much depends on what emerges in the trial. If it turns out, for example, that the journalists used sleazy tactics, or the former papal advisers profited, Francis may be in a less forgiving mood.
5. Resistance to Francis’ initiatives will continue, but shift.
All along, there’s been resistance to Francis in some quarters inside and outside the Catholic Church. In 2016, that blowback will almost certainly continue, but it may become less about left vs. right and more about north vs. south and rich vs. poor.
A sign of things to come appeared before Francis’ November trip to Africa with a controversial essay by an editor for a web site operated by the largely progressive German bishops’ conference, suggesting that Francis may have an overly romanticized vision of the global South and an overly negative approach to Europe.
Later, when Francis in Africa extolled the wisdom of poor communities, some Catholic commentators wondered aloud when he might also acknowledge the virtues and generosity of believers from the middle class and above.
In 2016, Francis may find that the fires he has to put out are less about ideology, and more about geography and class.
If any of these predictions come true, remember you heard it here first. When they almost inevitably don’t, try to recall instead that it’s supposed to be a Year of Mercy!
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Crux chat on Monday
Last month, Crux organized an online chat for me with readers. The idea was to be able to talk about whatever I was writing at that stage, but more broadly to address pretty much whatever people wanted to discuss related to the pope, the Vatican, and the Church in general.
It turned out to be a terrific discussion, so Crux wants to make it a regular feature. We’ll hold the next chat Monday, Dec. 7, at noon ET. As before, you can post questions in advance; watch for the link to be posted Monday morning.
I’m looking forward to a lively exchange. As a footnote, Sunday is my wife’s birthday, so readers can also use this chance to pass along best wishes … Shannon will be following the chat, too, and although I can’t promise anything, a special guest appearance isn’t out of the question.
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A Year of Mercy intended to launch a ‘Revolution of Tenderness’
On Friday, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, who’s the chief organizer of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, delivered a briefing on some of its logistical aspects.
Among other things, Fisichella said his office will be running a welcome center for pilgrims located on the broad Via della Conciliazione that leads up to St. Peter’s Square every day, including Saturday and Sunday, from 7:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m.
On typical days, at least 100 volunteers will be deployed to assist the throngs of visitors expected to wash through the Vatican, Fisichella said, a number that will swell to 800-1,000 for big events. First aid stations will be set up at all the major basilicas in Rome, as well as services for the deaf and the blind to ensure they can participate in jubilee events.
Francis is also putting together a special corps of priest volunteers from around the world, called “Missionaries of Mercy,” who will be personally commissioned to preach mercy and to forgive sins, including those whose forgiving is usually reserved to the Vatican.
It all kicks off on Tuesday, with the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica that typically inaugurates the beginning of a Jubilee Year.
This time around, the subtext isn’t just spiritual, but also political. Fisichella explained that on the same day, Tuesday, which is the feast of the Immaculate Conception, there will be a special projection of photos on the front of the basilica and on Michelangelo’s famous cupola titled “Fiat Lux: Illuminating our Common Home.”
Inspired by Francis’ eco-encyclical “Laudato Si'”, the projection is intended to underscore the urgency of environmental protection. Fisichella linked it to the COP21 climate change summit currently taking place in Paris.
“I can assure everyone that it is a unique event for its genre,” he said, “and for the fact that it is being displayed for the first time on such a significant backdrop.”
Five days later, on Sunday, Dec. 13, the holy doors in all Catholic cathedrals in the world are supposed to be opened, marking an historical first. (Francis got an early start by opening the holy door of the cathedral in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, while he was in the country last week.)
The idea is that Francis wants the Jubilee Year to play out not just in Rome, but also in local churches around the world.
On Friday, Dec. 18, Francis will visit a charity center in Rome to symbolically open what’s being called a “door of mercy.” It’s the first of a string of gestures Francis intends to offer one Friday of every month throughout the year, dedicated to what the Church traditionally calls “works of mercy” — feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, etc.
“They’ll be an example with which Pope Francis wants to underline the great forms of suffering, of marginalization and poverty, which are present in society, combined above all with a strong solidarity on the part of many people who dedicate their time and efforts to consoling [the suffering] and offering them daily support,” Fisichella said.
Clearly, the jubilee year involves a mammoth investment of time and treasure on the part of the pope and the Vatican — not to mention the city of Rome, which stands to benefit from the influx of visitors, but will also be on the hook for extra expenses in security, transportation, and clean-up.
It’s worth asking, therefore, why Francis believes it’s all worth it.
To begin, mercy is the cornerstone of Francis’ own spirituality. His motto as pope, the same as when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, is miserando atque eligendo — loosely, “choosing through mercy.”
As Francis recalled in an interview released last week, he spoke about mercy during both his first Sunday Angelus as pope and his first Sunday homily.
“It wasn’t a strategy,” he said. “It came from inside me … the Holy Spirit wants something. It’s obvious that the world of today needs mercy; it needs compassion.”
“We’re used to bad news, to cruelty and ever-greater atrocities that offend the name and the life of God,” he said. “The world must discover that God is a father, that there’s mercy, that cruelty isn’t the way.”
“Even the Church itself sometimes takes a hard line, falling into the temptation of underlining only its moral norms,” he said. “But how many people are left out?”
Francis then told a story about the 1994 Synod of Bishops on Consecrated Life, in which he participated. At one stage, he said, he suggested in a small group meeting that what the Church needs is a “revolution of tenderness.” Another prelate in the group, he said, was dubious, warning that such language could be dangerous.
Francis said the bishop’s objections were “reasonable” and “intelligent,” but ultimately, he didn’t buy it.
“I continue to say that today the revolution [needed] is that of tenderness, because justice and all the rest comes from it,” Francis said. “We have to cultivate the revolution of tenderness today as a fruit of this Year of Mercy, the tenderness of God toward each one of us.”
As the reference to justice suggests, Francis seems convinced that the social change he’s after — stronger measures on climate change, for instance, or an end to unjust trading relationships, a halt to illegal arms trafficking, greater investment in anti-poverty efforts, and so on — is dependent on something more fundamental.
In a word, that “something” is mercy.
As the “Pope of Mercy” sees it, in other words, this jubilee year isn’t just a series of celebrations and events intended to foster deeper piety, however desirable that may be. The far more audacious aim is to launch a revolution — spiritual at its core, but with imminently social and even political consequences.