ROME – Monday’s surprise meeting between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Pope Francis inside the Vatican officially was billed as a “private” session, meaning there’s been no communique from either side about the contents of the discussion.
There was no advance notice, and the only information the Vatican released were pictures of Conte and Francis together – not always observing the recommended one meter of social distance, judging from the images, but likely using the hand sanitizer the Vatican has been dispensing to all papal visitors of late.
Unlike the first time Conte came calling on the pope in December 2018, he did not immediately take to his personal Facebook account to offer details.
(The last time Conte and the pope met was in August, at the end of a funeral service for the late Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the patron of a Roman institution called “Villa Nazareth” for university students where a young Conte once resided. While there, he also came to know a young priest on the faculty at the time named Pietro Parolin, today a cardinal and the Vatican’s Secretary of State.)
Despite the news blackout, it’s not difficult to guess what was on the agenda for today’s conversation, and it can be summarized in two words: “Now” and “then.”
In terms of the “now,” it’s likely no accident Conte dropped in on the pope just two days after his historic Urbi et Orbi blessing in a deserted St. Peter’s Square Friday night, which captured the imagination of the nation. It also comes as the pope’s 7:00 a.m. livestreamed Mass has become the most-watched daily event in the country beyond a 6:00 p.m. news conference updating statistics on the contagion, capturing an astronomic 24.85 percent audience share.
Conte knows that Francis is helping to shape Italian attitudes, perhaps more than the government when it comes to the share of the population that’s actively Catholic. He needs the Church’s help to keep the de facto social compact of the coronavirus intact, meaning a willingness to accept limits on civil liberties in exchange for slowing the transmission of the disease.
There are signs of public weariness with the lockdown, as Saturday brought an all-time high for citations for violations of the government-decreed restrictions on movement. Out of 200,000 spot-checks nationwide, almost 5,000 fines were handed out.
Moreover, the meeting with the pope came after Conte’s Interior Ministry issued new regulations greenlighting small weddings and baptisms in churches, responding to Catholic complaints that the coronavirus restrictions amount to a violation of religious freedom. Perhaps being seen with the pope will help take the edge off those concerns.
Conte also has a personal stake in staying on the pope’s good side, as a serious devotee of the legendary Italian saint Padre Pio. Conte’s uncle Fedele, a Capuchin friar, helped assist pilgrims at the massive Padre Pio shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo, and to this day the PM carries a holy card of Padre Pio in his wallet.
As for “then,” both Conte and Francis have begun talking about what comes after the worst of the pandemic recedes, in terms of the economic and social challenges that await.
“We’re beginning to see people who are hungry because they can’t work, because they don’t have a stable job,” the pope said during his morning Mass last Saturday. “We’re beginning to see the ‘after’ [of the coronavirus crisis]. It’ll come later, but it’s starting now.”
Conte too spoke of the aftermath in an interview released Monday with El Pais of Spain, the hardest-hit country in Europe after Italy. He warned that if the EU doesn’t buffer the worst effects of economic decline, xenophobic and nationalist currents will benefit.
“This is an historic challenge for all of Europe,” he said. “I truly hope, with a strong European spirit, that it will rise to the occasion.”
“Nationalist instincts in Italy, as well as in Spain and elsewhere, will be very strong if Europe isn’t up to the job. The number of unemployed we’ll have after this tsunami will be very high,” Conte said. “We need to be able to have started a plan for reconstruction before that happens.”
No doubt, Conte would love to have the pope’s perceived support in his campaign to convince the EU to issue “coronabonds” as a means of raising money to stimulate economic recovery though shared European debt.
After a contentious virtual summit with other EU leaders late last week, the idea was essentially put on hold following strong opposition from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands – countries where the impact of the virus so far has been limited.
In his El Pais interview, Conte insisted that this proposal is not about rewarding states for suspect financial policies, as some argued during debates over the EU bailout of Greece in 2013.
“We are not experiencing an economic crisis that has touched some countries less virtuous than others,” he said. “There is no distinction that has to do with financial systems. This is a health crisis that inevitably exploded in the economic and social fields.”
To the extent that Pope Francis urges solidarity and common cause, and also insists on recovery strategies premised on providing opportunities for families and the working poor, he could be seen to strengthen Conte’s hand.
As for Francis, what did he get out of the meeting?
In terms of political benefits, perhaps nothing, but then that probably wasn’t the point. Francis is the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina as well as the Bishop of Rome and the Primate of Italy, so he carries a special place in his heart for his adopted country.
Moreover, Italy simply happens to be where he lives, and, as Francis also reflected during his morning Mass Saturday, there’s little more tragic than a gap between religious elites and the people they’re supposed to serve. Standing next to Italy’s Prime Minister was a chance for the pope to say symbolically that he’s with Italians, even as their death count continues to soar and as the national quarantine drags on.
That may not produce any immediate boost for the pope or the Vatican. Yet it is the kind of that Italians, with their notoriously long memories, probably won’t forget when the “after” of the crisis does eventually arrive.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr