Vatican delivers a fittingly weird week to end a bizarre 2020

Vatican delivers a fittingly weird week to end a bizarre 2020

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re celebrates First Vespers and Te Deum, the rite of thanksgiving for the end of the year, in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. The Vatican released a statement this morning saying that due to a painful sciatica, Pope Francis would not attend the Vespers in St. Peter’s and the New Year's Mass as scheduled. (Credit: Fabio Frustaci/pool via AP.)

The pope and the Vatican found themselves in the same spotlight they generally do over the holidays, but for unusual reasons.

News Analysis

ROME – Today is New Year’s, which, beyond being the solemnity of Mary the Mother of God on the Church’s liturgical calendar, is also the Vatican-designated World Day of Peace, an observance launched by St. Paul VI in 1968.

Based on the Vatican’s experience of the holiday season this year, however, it might as well be the World Day of the Weird.

For a truckload of reasons, 2020 will go down as one of the most bizarre years in modern history, and the last few days in Rome have added a fittingly idiosyncratic coda, as the pope and the Vatican found themselves in the same spotlight they generally do over the holidays, but for unusual reasons.

Typically, the eyes of the world turn to Rome because of the vast Christmas and New Year’s crowds in St. Peter’s Basilica and outside in the square, the hauntingly beautiful rituals presided over by the pope, and the substance of a couple of “State of the Union”-esque speeches delivered by pontiffs.

This year, there were no crowds, vast or otherwise; Pope Francis was forced to punt on a couple of those rituals, delegating them to Italian cardinals; and the pontiff’s oratory was relatively low on political edge. Despite all that, the Vatican still managed to break into news cycles, whether desired or not.

In terms of media interest, the Christmas season at the Vatican typically is reckoned to begin with the pope’s annual address to the Roman Curia, meaning the administrative bureaucracy in the Vatican. In the beginning, Francis made waves by using the speech to catalog what he saw (still sees, frankly) as the pathologies of the curia; later, he also took the chance to offer a programmatic vision of Vatican reform.

This year, Francis really did neither. Instead, he offered a highly pastoral reflection last Monday on the difference between “crisis” and “conflict,” with the former being potentially good and the latter definitely bad. That’s great homily fodder, but not the sort of thing to light up news wires.

Yet the Vatican nevertheless was a talking point in the global media Monday, because it was the same day it greenlighted use of the Covid-19 vaccines.

Probably it came as a surprise to some people that the Vatican felt it necessary to say it’s morally permissible to inoculate oneself against the deadliest pandemic of the last century, but given the fact that the vaccines drew on stem cell lines remotely derived from aborted fetuses, there had been mounting concern in some Catholic circles.

In light of mounting resistance to taking the Covid vaccines for a whole variety of reasons – what Italians call the “No Vax” movement – it was thus newsworthy that the Vatican nipped at least a potential Catholic form of avoidance in the bud.

Next came Christmas eve, which normally generates interest for what it is, i.e., one of the most visually arresting papal events of the year. This year, however, the conversation was more about what it wasn’t, with headlines featuring some version of the phrase “virtual Mass” to describe the slimmed-down service due to Covid restrictions and the fact the only real way for even most Vatican personnel to participate was through the livestream.

Technically, of course, the phrase “virtual Mass” is silly. Something either is a sacramentally valid Catholic Mass or it’s not, and the Christmas Eve liturgy led by Pope Francis was absolutely the real deal.

Nonetheless, the headline did capture the idiosyncratic feel of 2020. For the first time, really, since the 19th century, we’ve had to get accustomed to seeing a pope do his thing on big days without a crowd – and back then, of course, there were no TV broadcasts or livestreams to bring it all into living rooms.

Christmas Day largely came and went without much of a stir, but four days later the Vatican again found itself the center of attention, and again for a reason not of its own making: Argentina’s watershed Senate vote legalizing abortion.

Pope Francis undoubtedly saw it coming. Essentially the same measure almost passed two years ago under a center-right government, and with the present center-left administration, it seemed likely to get across the finish line. Yet it was still a disappointment for the pontiff, especially given the energetic way in which he’d thrown himself into the debate.

Media outlets were constrained to spending most of the day speculating about what Francis must be thinking, however, as the pontiff and his Vatican team maintained a steady radio silence, declining to react or comment.

Totally fitting for 2020, perhaps, in that the Vatican press corps spent the last few days of the year reporting a negative.

Then came New Year’s Eve, when the center of attention is generally the splendid Te Deum vespers service led by the pope in the evening in St. Peter’s Basilica, followed by his usual jaunt outside to view the Vatican’s Nativity set and to greet the Vatican workers who organized it and put it up.

In the end, Francis did none of that due to what the Vatican described as a painful bout of sciatica, the nerve condition from which he’s suffered for some time. Francis pulled out of both the New Year’s Eve liturgy and the New Year’s Day Mass, handing them off to Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re and Pietro Parolin, respectively.

(In a fittingly strange and unresolved footnote, there was brief speculation among people who, undoubtedly, pay way too much attention to these things, that perhaps the problem was more serious, maybe even that the pope had Covid-19. The Vatican didn’t seem to take any of that very seriously, simply sticking to its original statement.)

It remains to be seen if, later today, when Pope Francis delivers his noontime Angelus address as planned, 2021 will commence on a more traditional note, and the day’s story will be about what the pope actually says or does, not what he doesn’t.

Whatever happens, 2020 will remain just a really weird year pretty much everyplace … and during its last week, it was a pretty funky time in Rome too.

Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.

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