ROME – In American politics, the term “October surprise” refers to the possibility that an incumbent president trailing in the polls may use executive authority to try to shake up the race late in game. Going to war would be the classic scenario, but it could also be some major economic, social or foreign policy twist.
Popes, of course, don’t have to stand for reelection, yet every year Pope Francis nonetheless has delivered what we might call an “August surprise” – doing or saying something that shakes up the status quo.
The surprise usually isn’t so much whatever the pope did, but the fact he’s doing anything at all during a month when Italians are trained from birth to believe they have a natural law right to an undisturbed vacation.
Consider Francis’s August history.
- 2013: The new pope cemented his profile as a man of the people by cold-calling an Italian teenager who’d written him a letter, taking selfies with an ecstatic Vatican crowd, and hanging out with soccer great and fellow Argentine Lionel Messi in the Vatican. He also made a Top 5 decision of his papacy by naming Italian Pietro Parolin as his Secretary of State.
- 2014: The pope travelled to South Korea, his first outing in Asia, and on the papal plane on the way back to Rome he appeared to offer conditioned support for the use of military force against ISIS, which then busily occupying much of northern Iraq on the Nineveh Plains.
- 2015: During a Wednesday audience, Francis said pointedly that divorced and remarried Catholics are not excommunicated and should be shown greater understanding. The statement foreshadowed his tumultuous two synods on the family, culminating in Amoris Laetitia. He also confirmed his gay-friendly approach by sending a friendly letter to the author of an Italian children’s book touting different models of the family, at a time when the book actually had been banned by the city of Venice.
- 2016: The month began with the end of a trip to Poland, with Francis telling reporters on the way back it’s wrong to identify Islam with violence, and also the creation of a special commission to study female deacons, opening what’s been one of the more enigmatic chapters of this papacy. In the middle of August Francis had a group of Syrian refugees over for lunch, and towards the end he held a meet-and-greet with Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerburg.
- 2017: Two of Francis’s closest friends and allies fired a shot across the bow at Catholic conservatives in the US, publishing an incendiary article accusing them of forging an “ecumenism of hate: with like-minded Evangelicals. It was a defining chapter in stoking probably the greatest blowback against Francis anywhere in the world.
- 2018: The pontiff traveled to Ireland, where the impact of clerical sexual abuse scandals has been keenly felt, hard on the heels of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania that reignited criticism of the Church’s response, and later issued a dramatic letter “the people of God” on the abuse crisis. Francis also revised the catechism, the official compendium of Catholic teaching, to make the death penalty unacceptable in all cases.
- 2019: Francis gave a blockbuster interview to an Italian news outlet directly taking on right-wing populism in Europe, including the governing coalition in his own backyard in Italy. He also issued new statutes for the Vatican bank in August, approved the first bishops’ ordinations in China under the terms of a controversial Rome/Beijing deal, and issued a letter to the priests of the world reflecting anew on the abuse crisis.
- 2020: Last year at this time, Francis was busy trying to lead Italy and the world through the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet he also found time to send a shout-out for a group of nuns in Argentina who were drawing fire for their work with transgendered persons; to make diplomatically and political sensitive statements about Lebanon, Belarus, and other hotspots; and to cut lose a powerful Polish archbishop who’d been accused of covering up sex abuse cases.
With a record like that, about all one can say regarding August 2021 is, “Stay tuned.”
Cumulatively, it shows that Francis doesn’t slow down a bit in August. I mean, his family is from the northern Italian region of Piedmont, for God’s sake … has he seriously never heard of ferragosto?
The term is an elision of the Latin term Feriae Augusti, meaning “the holidays of the Emperor Augustus.” As the name suggests, it’s a traditional summer break that reaches all the way back to ancient Rome. Though technically ferragosto falls on August 15, the feast of the Assumption, in reality it’s a period rather than a single day. Most Italians take at least the week off, and many take the entire month.
While Americans and other cultures may stagger vacations throughout the year, Italy basically crams them all into one somnambulant month.
Rome during ferragosto is thus a bit like a scene from the “Walking Dead.” Though tourist areas remain active, most other parts of town are deserted – shops, restaurants and bars are all closed, homes shuttered, cars immobile and seemingly abandoned, and an eerie silence hangs in the air. Sometimes it’s so quiet you think you can actually hear the sizzle of the August heat on the asphalt.
The Vatican is no exception. Anyone who’s ever tried to get anything done during the month of August usually has come away frustrated, with decision-makers nowhere to be found, phone calls unreturned, correspondence vanishing into a black hole, and the typically slow pace during the best of times grinding to a complete halt.
Not so, however, with Pope Francis himself. Of all the ways in which this Argentine pontiff has shown himself to be a break-the-mold maverick, his penchant for August surprise may be the most counter-cultural of all … at least measured by the standards of Italian culture, where the pope’s obliviousness to ferragosto presents a classic case of an irresistible force colliding with an immovable object.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr