ROME – Most of the time, Romans look at a pope for what he is: The leader of the universal church and a key player on the global stage, whose frame of reference extends far beyond the city’s own borders and horizons.
Yet, there are a few special occasions when the pope addresses the Eternal City directly as the Bishop of Rome, which he also is. When those moments roll around, it’s not uncommon for the pope’s words to tilt the delicate political balance in the capital.
For this reason, it’s always been a custom of Roman mayors (and would-be mayors) to maintain a good working relationship with the “King beyond the Tiber.”
Rome’s current chief citizen, Mayor Virginia Raggi, along with the President of the surrounding Lazio region, Nicola Zingaretti, met with Pope Francis at the Vatican for 30-minute private audiences on the morning of Jan. 12, in the latest chapter of those efforts to keep authorities on the two sides of Rome’s Tiber River on the same page.
It was Pope emeritus Benedict XVI who, in 2013, made these meetings private instead of open to the public, a tradition Francis has maintained. To get an idea of what was discussed, one often must turn to Twitter – usually drawing on accounts of the politicians, not the pope.
“An audience with the Pontiff, once again to talk solidarity, peace, honesty and everyone’s duty to be coherent. Thank you Pope Francis,” reads the caption to a picture posted on the social media platform by the 52-year-old Zingaretti, who belongs to the governing center-left Democratic Party.
“It was a cordial meeting. It’s always exciting to talk to the Holy Father,” Raggi, for her part, told local reporters just outside the Vatican.
(It was no surprise the two spoke separately, since they’ve been engaged in a public spat of late over responsibility for Rome’s trash problem and other matters.)
“We have discussed the importance of topics such as inclusion and participation, so that no one stays behind or is left alone,” said the 39-year-old Raggi, who comes from Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.
“For this reason, it’s essential to value a sense of community, to rebuild relationships in a perspective of reciprocal solidarity and respect,” she said.
As March 4 elections loom in the country, being perceived as having the pope on one’s side can be a powerful tool. Francis enjoys enormous popularity and considerable political heft, which, as some have already learned, can prove either helpful or lethal.
The ‘viruses’ of Rome
The mayor, Raggi, just wrapped up another encounter with Francis recently, during one of the pope’s most Roman events – the traditional celebration in Piazza di Spagna on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8.
The pope delivered a prayer for Rome that day.
“Oh Mother, help this city develop the ‘antibodies’ against certain viruses of our times: The indifference, which says: ‘It doesn’t concern me’; the civic bad manners that despise the common good; the fear of he who is different and foreign; conformity dressed up as transgression; the hypocrisy of accusing others, while doing the same things; the resignation to an ethical and environmental degradation; the exploitation of many men and women,” he said.
Raggi undoubtedly listened to the pope’s prayer – or plea – for the city with a bit of unease. She has been in office for a little over a year, and her administration has been weighed down by Rome’s “legacy issues,” mainly waste and public transport, as well as a whole new set of problems, especially very public cases of corruption in her cabinet.
When Raggi was elected in June 2016, many had hoped that it would represent a breath of fresh air for the city. The fact that she’s just shy of forty and a woman already signified a huge change, to be added to the fact that she represented the populist and anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and campaigned on a reform mandate of solving the city’s practical problems.
But those hoping she would come in “guns blazing” were to be sourly disappointed. In fact, the viruses listed by the pope could very well be made to represent all the issues that have been corroding the Raggi administration.
In a city like Rome, a jab by the pope can be fatal.
The mayor’s predecessor, Ignazio Marino, was dragged to the gallows, mocked and ridiculed, by the international media, but some might say that it was Francis who dealt the final blow.
When Marino followed the pope on his 2015 trip to the United States, drawing curiosity from journalists, the pope had abruptly said: “I did not invite Mayor Marino, is that clear?”
So ended Marino’s brief and inefficient reign.
To borrow Henry Kissinger’s appropriate analysis, Rome – unlike many other European capitals – did not lead the unification of the country. Following the union, the Vatican, which has ruled over the city of Rome, posed decades of resistance dubbed ‘The Roman Question.’ When peace was finally achieved with the Lateran Pacts, “the Italian government was transferred into the city of the pope,” as Kissinger put it. “The papacy remained the key institution of Rome.”
The new Roman Question: Trash and Mobility
Today’s “Roman Questions,” according to an official city poll, are the piles and piles of trash scattered around its historic streets and the nearly paralyzed public transport that risks shutting down as early as the end of January.
The latest embarrassment: A picture of what looks like a large pig sifting through trash in the city of Rome, published by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the conservative party Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy,” the title of the national anthem). Attacked on all sides, it would seem that only a miracle could help Raggi avoid the perfect tempest coming her way — perhaps a miracle called Francis.
Compounding the city’s trash problems, the Marino administration did something as unique as it was reckless, when it dismantled a notorious junkyard without providing any substitute.
According to the Italian daily Il Giorno, Raggi might want to try to persuade the Vatican to allow the use of its property for the construction of a storage site and possibly even an incinerator. The property in question is on the outskirts of Rome, Ponte Galeria, where back in 2014, the Vatican had been forced to take down the antennas for Vatican Radio, deemed responsible for significant electromagnetic pollution.
According to the newspaper, Raggi began lobbying for the cause when the pope came to her neighborhood for Mass accompanied by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin. If the Vatican were to help Raggi by allowing the use of the land – a request already denied when it was presented by Marino – it would be perceived by many as a strong show of support for her, and her political party.
Providing Raggi with a much-needed Deus ex Machina would also suggest to some that Francis supports the Five Star Movement and its candidate for the upcoming elections, the young Luigi di Maio, or at least that the pontiff has no objection. For this reason alone, the pope may opt to avoid showing his cards too clearly, in such a hysterical moment for Italian politics.
Nor, in reality, is Raggi necessarily in such dire need of the pope’s approval. The young mayor has already proven to have a keen political acumen. For instance, she recently asked for an expedited trial in a case concerning two members of her cabinet, brothers Renato and Raffaele Marra, accused of corruption and abuse of office.
The move allowed her to skip a first trial, scheduled for Jan. 9, which was postponed to June 21 – after the Italian elections, and therefore not hindering di Maio’s candidacy.
Keeping the pope from openly criticizing her tenure as mayor might, therefore, be enough to hold the fort until the elections. If the Five Star candidate were to win, Raggi then could meet with the pope on a much stronger footing – and while she might not be able to set the terms, she definitely would no longer be at his mercy.
So goes life in Rome, theoretically a secular city that merely contains the Vatican within its boundaries, but in reality a place where perceived papal disapproval still packs a considerable political punch.