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ROME – By the time most Americans wake up today, those of us who are American ex-pats in Rome will either be a) well into our Thanksgiving revels, even though it’s not a holiday in Italy and thus most of us have to play hooky or b) scrambling to keep up with the latest bombshell development on the Pope Francis front, because work managed to find us anyway.
The last time a uniquely American holiday rolled around, July 4, Francis chose that day to enter Rome’s Gemelli Hospital for what the Vatican described as a “planned” but never revealed colon surgery. Not only did it trigger the biggest Vatican story of the summer, it also laid waste to the holiday plans of most Americans living in the Eternal City.
Whether or not there’s a similar bolt from the blue this time around, this is nonetheless a day for giving thanks for the blessings one’s received. In that spirit, here’s a rundown of what various figures in the Church might give thanks for today, should they be so inclined.
Francis has many things to be grateful for, including what appears to be basically robust health despite the colon scare a few months ago. Today, however, he might offer a special note of gratitude for a basically favorable media climate, because it means he never really has to explain things other leaders would find impossible to avoid.
The most recent example, though by no means the only one, is his no-show at the Glasgow COP26 climate change summit. The Scottish bishops announced it in July, and the pope himself said he was going in an interview with a Spanish radio station in September, adding that his speech was already being prepared and the only reason he wouldn’t go would be if he didn’t feel well at the time. In the end, however, he didn’t go.
Had this been the President of the United States, journalists would be howling for an explanation, and it would be difficult for the administration to do or say anything until it provided an answer. Here, however, life goes on, and the press continues to dutifully report the pope’s words and deeds as if nothing is awry.
The U.S. Bishops
American prelates these days might be forgiven for thinking there’s not an abundance of motives for gratitude, facing the continuing fallout of the clerical abuse crisis, the toxicity of a deeply polarized political climate and the stark economic impact of Covid on many parishes and diocese.
Still, under the heading of “it could always be worse,” American bishops right now probably ought to be offering up a note of thanks for the gentleman’s club ethos of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, according to which disagreements among members are generally tolerated but encouraged to be kept well out of public view.
Were it not for that bit of institutional culture, the bishops could be licking their wounds right now from a verbal bloodbath over politicians and abortion at their fall assembly in Baltimore. It’s well known that some conservative prelates want a hard line on the issue, seeing anything less as moral cowardice, while doves view it as sprinkling holy water over a political agenda and weaponizing the Eucharist.
Yet the bishops managed to keep all under wraps in Baltimore, focusing instead on the pastoral aim of promoting a revival in Eucharistic faith and practice in America designed to culminate in a national Eucharistic Congress in 2024.
That focus doesn’t mean their differences on what to do about Catholic politicians who support abortion rights such as President Joe Biden have gone away, but it does mean they managed to avoid another self-inflicted wound – and some days, that’s more than enough to make anyone feel grateful.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu
As the very first Prince of the Church ever to face criminal charges in a Vatican civil trial, Cardinal Angelo Becciu might not be imagined to be in an especially grateful mood right now. He should be, however, because missteps by the prosecution seem to be making it steadily less likely his trial will even get off the ground.
First the Promoter of Justice, basically the Vatican’s equivalent of a District Attorney, flatly refused to turn over key evidence to the defense. Then, facing a second court order to cough it up, they handed over 52 DVDs worth of material, including videotaped interviews with their star witness, but also containing roughly two hours’ worth of omissions justified only by the vague phrase “investigative exigencies.”
Now they’re facing yet another court order – the third, for those keeping score at home – to turn over all the material to the court, including the stuff left on the cutting room floor the last time, and we’ll see if they comply. Defense lawyers are already claiming their ability to make their case has been fatally compromised, and even the judge, veteran Italian jurist Giuseppe Pignatone, recently used the key word “if” in talking about whether the trial would ever get underway.
None of this has anything to do with whether Becciu is actually guilty of the various financial crimes with which he’s been charged, but it does mean that the odds of him ever being convicted seem longer … and that, too, might just be enough for him to feel a little grateful.
It’s been a rough stretch for the Italian bishops too of late, facing not only the earliest Covid crisis in Western Europe and its related pressures, but also declining resources for other reasons. This year, for example, for the first time the percentage of Italians choosing the Catholic Church to receive a small share of their income tax set aside to support charitable activities fell below 30 percent, in a county that’s ostensibly about 75 percent Catholic.
In that light, every bishop in the country right now ought to be on bended knee giving thanks for the late Cardinal Attilio Nicora, whose claim to fame is that he led the renegotiation of the Vatican’s concordat with Italy in 1984.
Under a codicil of Italian law known as the “otto per mille,” Italians may choose from a number of private organizations or the public system to receive a share of their income tax in order to carry out charitable aims. The Catholic Church has long been the single most popular choice, but the percentage has been going down steadily in recent years.
Under the system Nicora devised, however, the church doesn’t have to rely just on the number of Italians who check the “Catholic Church” box on their tax returns. Instead, the agreement was that with all those Italians who don’t specify a choice, who are a strong majority, their contributions are apportioned based upon the percentages of those who express a preference.
The church, therefore, gets 30 percent of the whole pie, not just the small slice it was actually served, usually amounting to more than $1 billion in annual income. If that’s not something to be thankful for, it’s had to know what might be.
In late May, a French Catholic woman named Anne Soupa made headlines around the world by announcing she was “applying” for the vacant post of Archbishop of Lyons, after Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin amidst an intense abuse crisis in the archdiocese.
Of course, nobody actually “applies” for a bishop’s appointment – it’s not like there are “help wanted” ads in L’Osservatore Romano – and, anyway, Pope Francis has made it clear that he has no intention of ordaining women to the priesthood, let alone the episcopacy. Nevertheless, as a publicity stunt designed to call attention to the issue of women’s roles in the church, Soupa’s gesture worked wonders.
In the end, Francis named Bishop Olivier de Germay of Ajaccio as Barbarin’s successor in late October, prompting protests from Soupa and other French Catholic women who had followed her example and “applied” to be made clergy.
In fact, Soupa ought to be grateful she didn’t get the gig, because any bishop who’s ever stepped into an archdiocese in meltdown will tell you it’s not exactly a walk in the park. In many ways, serving as a Catholic bishop is a tough job right now no matter where you are, but in that handful of places where scandal has been most intense, it’s basically a via crucis.
Finally, those of us who make our living on the Vatican beat ought to give thanks every day for the chance to pursue the most rollicking, entertaining, endlessly compelling story in journalism.
The Vatican rolls up history, romance, intrigue, politics, scandal, mystery, the deepest passions of the human heart and the loftiest aspirations of the human spirit, into one big, fascinating ball, and with production values rivaling a Broadway performance of “Cats” to boot. If you can’t get your juices flowing for this story, then you may not belong in journalism at all.
We’re also lucky to be working in the Pope Francis era, because no matter what one makes of this pontiff on substance, as a journalistic matter it’s unlikely we’ll see such a surprising, polarizing, maverick Bishop of Rome again anytime soon.
So, to Pope Francis on this very American holiday, from journalists everywhere – even if you do find a way again today to lay waste to our plans – a hearty “thanks.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr