A remarkably hands-on pope gets all the credit -- and all the blame

A remarkably hands-on pope gets all the credit — and all the blame

A remarkably hands-on pope gets all the credit — and all the blame

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (Credit: L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP.)

Pope Francis is remarkably well-informed about the details of running the Church, which means he gets all the credit when things go right but all the blame when they don't.

News Analysis

ROME – Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, gave a talk Tuesday night at Notre Dame’s Global Gateway facility in Rome addressed to ecumenical and inter-faith experts, which laid out the Church’s post-Vatican II approach to ecumenism and the new directions the press to bring Christians together is getting from Pope Francis.

Along the way, Farrell – not to be confused with his brother, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life – told a story about Francis, which he intended as a lesson in the pontiff’s understanding of ecumenical relations, but which also has much to teach on other levels as well.

Story goes like this: One afternoon not long ago, Farrell was sitting in his office when the latest L’Osservatore Romano arrived. (The next day’s edition of the newspaper is distributed in Vatican offices the afternoon before it hits newsstands.) He found himself perusing a list of the pope’s audiences that day, and spotted a representative of another Christian church – a person he’d never heard of, from a church he’d never heard of.

That struck Farrell as odd, since normally his office prepares those meetings, so he said he checked various directories and resources and couldn’t come up with anything by way of background. Finally, he called over to the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which is the Vatican office that puts together the pope’s daily public schedule, to ask where the appointment originated.

The answer was that it came from the pope, so Farrell said “thanks” and more or less forgot about it. The next morning, he said, he was at his desk when the phone rang, and it turned out to be Francis himself.

“I understand you were asking about an appointment I had yesterday,” the pope told him.

Startled, Farrell acknowledged that he had indeed inquired, and Francis went on to tell him that it was a person he had known from the time before he was pope. He added that he feels that ecumenical progress isn’t always going to come from institutional dialogues and venues, but also from direct one-on-one friendships.

Farrell himself supplied the obvious punchline: “How’s that for hands-on?”

He went on to say that the experience illustrates the way Francis sees ecumenism as a matter of “walking together,” a journey of friendship that stands alongside and informs the theological and ecclesiological exchanges that go on in formal dialogue programs.

Of course, the story also illustrates something else, which is that Francis is remarkably well-informed about the nuts and bolts of actually running the Church. We’re talking about a pontiff who knew within hours that someone had called over asking about his schedule, and who acted immediately on that information.

I’ve heard similar stories from all kinds of other people. One cardinal who heads a Vatican department told me he keeps his mobile phone on pretty much all the time now, because the pope may call at unexpected moments, and that for every one meeting with the pontiff he’s had that ends up on his public calendar, there have been three or four more at the Santa Marta, where Francis lives, off the books.

To take another example, my Crux colleague Claire Giangravé and I interviewed Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, this week, about the vexed situation in the Diocese of Ahiara, where a group of priests and laity have resisted the appointment of a new bishop for five years.

One rumor that’s gone around the diocese is that Francis is insisting they accept the bishop only because he’s poorly informed about what’s going on, but Onaiyekan insisted that’s a fantasy.

“We know that they wrote many letters, and they all got to the pope,” he said. “The pope was well aware of it, which is why he came out as firmly as he did. It’s not true that he didn’t know what was happening.”

All this is something of a culture shock compared to the internal climate in the Vatican under the last two popes, St. Pope John Paul II and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. Both were very much ad extra figures, whose passions lay outside the mechanics of ecclesiastical governance, and both were often content to leave many administrative matters in the hands of their aides.

That’s clearly not the style of Francis, who is often happy to delegate, but who also never stops watching and stands ready to intervene at any time.

Critics of Francis (think the Dictator Pope folks) see that relentless will to stay informed as the fruit of a paranoid personality, who recruits spies because he suspects enemies everywhere. Admirers, on the other hand, see it as a man who takes his responsibilities deeply seriously, and who has the intellectual acumen to operate simultaneously on the macro and micro levels of leadership.

What nobody disputes is the fact of the situation, which is that Francis just flat-out knows what’s going on. And that, by a short turn, brings us to the moral of the story.

Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when people got mad about one thing or another, they usually had the option of not faulting the pope but somebody around him. It was, in a sense, the classic psychology of a royal court — one must never fault the monarch, but his courtiers are always fair game.

That’s just not a viable option in the Francis era. There’s no power behind the throne, no gray eminence, no regent pulling the strings, on his watch. This is a pope who governs in the first person singular – which means, of course, he gets all the credit when things go right, but also all the blame when they don’t.

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