ROME – Normally when one looks ahead at a pope’s new year, it’s either things the pope is expected to do over the coming 12 months that loom largest – foreign trips, for instance, and bishops’ appointments – or things he’s likely to say, such as milestone speeches or sensational media interviews.
There will be all of that for Pope Francis in 2020, but at least for the early part of the year, it seems more likely the biggest papal bombshells will instead come in things the pope is expected to publish, especially two keenly awaited texts: Francis’s conclusions to last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, and the Vatican’s report on the case of former cardinal and former priest Theodore McCarrick.
Also on that list probably should be Praedicate Evangelium, Francis’s long-awaited overhaul of the Roman Curia, though it’s probably not destined to be the thunderclap the other two texts will represent. Many of its main conclusions have already been made public, including the pope’s plan to make evangelization and mission the engine driving the Vatican’s train.
Both the synod conclusions and the McCarrick report could be out within the first third of the year, and both are likely to fuel debate and controversy for some time to come.
In a statement at the end of the Amazon synod, the officers of REPAM, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, one of the driving forces behind the gathering, appealed for patience awaiting Francis’s conclusions from the monthlong affair, suggesting they could come in a document in March.
Undoubtedly, the most keenly anticipated nugget within that document will be whatever it says about the ordination of the viri probati, or tested married men, into the priesthood on some sort of limited regional basis. The synod endorsed the viri probati as a solution to chronic priest shortages, though the bishops did circumscribe the idea a bit by saying married men called into the priesthood should be deacons first.
The debate over married priests dominated the synod discussions, irking Francis to some extent, who insisted that the real agenda ought to pivot on broader social, cultural and ecological issues. (In that regard, it will be interesting to see if the pontiff once again expresses his frustration with what he regards as myopic focus on one hot-button issue by dealing with the viri probati in a footnote, as he did on communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics in Amoris Laetitia.)
The synod also called on Francis to reopen the consideration of women deacons, and to launch a study toward the creation of a specific “Amazon rite” of the Catholic Mass to honor the cultural and spiritual patrimony of the region’s indigenous persons. No matter what the pope says on those subjects – including, by the way, absolutely nothing – someone’s destined to be less than fully satisfied.
Speaking of unhappiness, that’s also likely to be the reaction to the Vatican’s McCarrick report whenever it does appear. While it likely will document any number of senior officials both in Rome and the U.S. who were aware of rumors and concerns about McCarrick over the years, it may well not produce any “smoking gun” that would prove an active cover-up and provide a basis for sanctions under Church law.
That said, the document is also likely to be by far the most comprehensive disclosure the Vatican has ever offered of its decisions and reactions in a specific case, and will revive debate about what accountability for the cover-up of abuse, not just the crime, ought to look like.
Beyond those watershed moments, Francis should have a good deal else on his plate in 2020, including building his bank of frequent flyer miles.
Though no foreign travels are officially yet on the pontiff’s 2020 calendar, he’s repeatedly said there are two places he’s keen to visit this year: South Sudan, in the company of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, and Iraq.
In both cases, the pope would be trying to advance an agenda of peace and conflict resolution, though also in both cases his desire to go could be upended by security considerations.
There’s also talk of papal outings to Indonesia, East Timor and Malaysia at some point in 2020, as well as possible visits to Hungary for a Eucharistic Congress and Cyprus and Lebanon, though that outing might be put on hold depending on how things evolve with the present tensions between the U.S. and Iran and the possibility of a wider regional conflict.
In terms of major appointments, three highly influential cardinals this year will join an expanding list of Princes of the Church already over 75 and therefore theoretically up for being replaced in their present jobs: Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Robert Sarah of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the UK. While there’s no immediate reason to believe they’re going anyplace, it’s a reminder that Francis has the possibility to shuffle the episcopal deck in significant ways this year.
Indeed, 2020 will see two cardinals actually turn 80 while still on the job: Béchara Boutros Raï of Lebanon, and Lorenzo Baldisseri of Italy, currently head of the Synod of Bishops. Once again Francis seems inclined to keep both in place as long as they’re able, but change could come at any time.
In the U.S., Francis faces important choices in Atlanta, Philadelphia and St. Louis, all of which are tone-setting positions for the Church in a given region of the country.
Finally, Francis also faces a ticking clock in 2020 on his financial reform, since the Vatican is slated for its next round of review by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering agency and a key gatekeeper for global “white lists” of financial virtue. The agency may well express alarm over several recent developments, including a scandal involving a $220 million land deal in London and the departure of key personnel, especially the former head of the Vatican’s Financial Information Authority, Swiss lawyer and anti-money laundering expert René Brülhart.
Francis still enjoys considerable good will internationally, but the failures of reform to date to stem the tide of scandal and embarrassing revelations, sooner or later, may cause observers to wonder if the pope’s heart is actually in it.
All of this is without saying anything about how the Vatican may choose to react, even obliquely and indirectly, to the political drama in the United States this year, or what role Francis and the Vatican may choose to play should things turn violent in the Middle East amid the current tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
In other words, 2020 promises to be a tumultuous, uneven, and divisive year for the Vatican – likely making it, therefore, not all that different from the previous six years of the Francis era.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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