ROME – Suppose that earlier this week, when plans for what eventually happened were confirmed, the Vatican Press Office had issued something like the following statement.
“Pope Francis usually celebrates the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday outside the Vatican with vulnerable and excluded people, expressing the Lord’s special love for them. Due to Covid-19 concerns, such a gesture is impossible this year. Instead, the Holy Father has chosen to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this year at the Vatican apartment of His Eminence Angelo Cardinal Becciu.
“To avoid any possible misunderstandings, it is to be recalled that there are currently investigations underway of financial transactions in which the former Archbishop Becciu was involved as the Substitute of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, and this visit in no way prejudices the outcome of those inquiries. Neither should the visit be seen in connection with the Holy Father’s decision in September of the past year to accept His Eminence’s resignation as Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and from his privileges as a member of the College of Cardinals. The visit is a strictly private, pastoral act of the Holy Father. There will be no press presence and no pool video or photography.”
Had that been the case, perhaps when Pope Francis actually did skip the Vatican’s own Holy Thursday Mass, which he delegated to Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, and strolled across Vatican grounds to Becciu’s apartment, it wouldn’t have become a media sensation of quite the same magnitude.
Instead, we got the usual PR dance of the Pope Francis era.
Here’s how it goes. The pope does something obviously destined to make waves, but it isn’t announced officially. Instead, it leaks from a journalist who has the pope’s ear, in this case a veteran Italian writer who did a 2017 book rebutting Francis’s traditionalist critics. Vatican spokespersons dodge calls for a while, then issue a nod-and-a-wink, non-confirmation confirmation.
(In this case, the only on-the-record statement came from Vatican News, which published a brief item about the pope’s visit to Becciu but stressed it wasn’t an “official” confirmation, raising the “angels on the head of a pin”-style question of how the Vatican’s own official news agency can publish non-official news.)
In such a void, a rule kicks in as hard-wired into the physics of the media universe as the laws of thermodynamics are into the physical one: Without any official explanation, speculation abounds.
Consider the context. When Francis defenestrated his former Chief of Staff last September, Becciu had been linked to a $400 million London real estate scandal that began on his watch at the Secretariate of State, and he was also facing charges of illegitimately funneling Vatican money to relatives and friends from his native Sardinia, most notoriously a female business manager named Cecilia Marogna who’s been dubbed “the cardinal’s dame.”
For many observers, especially in the Italian and English-language press, to hear that the pope decided to drop in on Becciu for one of the holiest nights on the Christian calendar couldn’t help but be taken as a show of support, if not an indirect papal mea culpa. (The fact that Francis often visited Becciu’s apartment in years past on Holy Thursday is irrelevant, because Becciu wasn’t facing the Vatican equivalent of indictment before.)
One joke making the rounds had it that since Pope Francis skipped the usual foot-washing ritual at the Holy Thursday Mass, he decided to cleanse Becciu’s reputation instead.
In some Spanish and Portuguese commentary, the opposite conclusion was more instinctive. The pope’s decision to visit Becciu was seen as of a piece with his habit of going to prisons and treatment centers for drug and alcohol addicts on Holy Thursdays, i.e., reaching out to people who’ve fallen and are in need of conversion. The underlying assumption was that the pope has concluded Becciu is guilty and was trying to show him compassion.
These competing interpretations metastasize and go viral, at which point the now-inevitable other shoe drops: Another leak goes out, again from sources close to the pope – in this case, the same journalist who originally broke the story – indicating that Francis is upset that his simple private act has been misunderstood and manipulated, with the pontiff blaming “media instrumentalizations.”
Here’s the thing.
It’s entirely possible the visit was nothing more than a purely pastoral act. Perhaps Francis simply wanted to show gratitude for the long years when Becciu was the pope’s most important aide as the sostituto, “substitute,” in the Secretariat of State, and also, in the spirit of Easter, to offer the consoling idea that no matter how the current legal process shakes out, spiritually there’s always the possibility of rebirth and new life.
Yet from a PR point of view, it doesn’t really matter what the pope’s intentions may have been. Francis and the people around him are anything but naïve about media dynamics, and they knew full well the frenzy the visit to Becciu would trigger. If they didn’t want speculation, they would have put out a version of the statement I sketched above.
The only possible conclusion is that Francis wanted the visit to be open to multiple interpretations, but he didn’t want to own any of them.
In any event, it’s disingenuous to call those interpretations “instrumentalizations.” If you stand on a balcony and chuck a brick over the side, and that brick ends up hitting somebody in the street, it’s no defense to blame the law of gravity. Similarly, if you build a PR bomb and take no steps to defuse it, you don’t get to blame the media for the blast.
If clarification is needed, it’s now on the pope to provide it.
In the meantime, Pope Francis, once again, has put an exclamation point on another indisputable truth of the media universe: Even in the COVID-19 era, he hardly needs to be on camera, or in front of a crowd, to be the talk of the town.
As we say here in Rome, Buona Pasqua a Tutti! Happy Easter to All!
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.