ROME – Right now we’re in the middle of what I’ve taken to calling “World Series Week” on the Vatican beat. We tend to reserve the “Super Bowl” metaphor for transition events, i.e., the death or resignation of a pope, but this is basically the next step down in terms of significance and media interest.
Think about what’s coming over the next few days.
We’ve got a consistory to create new cardinals, by a pope whose increasing physical limits can’t help but invite questions about what might come next, coupled with two days of meetings with all the cardinals of the world – i.e., all the plausible candidates to take over. In between, a pope who’s dropped hints about resigning someday will be visiting the tomb of the last pontiff to step down voluntarily before Benedict XVI.
As these events unfold, speculation will fill the air: What might cardinals be looking for in the next pope? Is Francis “stacking the deck” in terms of his successor? Will Francis resign? Is talk about his resignation itself a sign of impatience or discontent?
That’s just to scratch the surface, because when you start down the “what if” highway, there’s no telling where it might end.
Here’s the thing, however: As much as those questions may fascinate pundits and church affairs’ junkies, there’s a broad swath of the global Catholic population for whom they’re likely to seem irrelevant at best, and maybe even willfully oblivious to reality.
Consider, for instance, Elise Allen’s interview today with Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the Greek Catholic prelate of Philadelphia. Born in Syracuse to Ukrainian parents, he founded the Institute of Church History in L’viv, Ukraine, then served as rector and president of the Ukrainian Catholic University before becoming a bishop in 2012.
Naturally, Gudziak’s focus right now isn’t on the papal sweepstakes, but on Ukrainians who are fighting and dying to try to prevent their country from being subsumed by Russian aggression. Thousands of Ukrainians, both combatants and civilians, have already lost their lives in the struggle, and an estimated 12 million people have fled their homes since fighting began in late February.
Gudziak sees the struggle in Biblical terms, viewing Ukrainian victims as paying the same price as Christ on the cross for refusing to capitulate to power.
“There’s something very Christ-like in sacrificing your life for others,” Gudziak said.
“We see large sectors of a population, hundreds of thousands of people, saying with their lives, this is good and this is absolute evil; this is true, and this is wrong. They say it not as abstract or philosophical constatations, but they say we’re willing to risk our life for it,” he said.
Although Gudziak is in Rome this week, the betting odds on the next pope are pretty much the farthest thing from his mind.
Or, consider the likely reaction of members of the Sisters of Jesus the Savior, a religious community of women located in the Rivers State in southern Nigeria. Over the weekend four sisters belonging to the order were kidnapped, becoming the latest Nigerian Christians to be either abducted or killed amid an unraveling security situation in Africa’s most populous nation.
Yesterday the four sisters were freed amid complaints from many Christian observers in Africa that the Nigerian government not only has failed to address a rising tide of anti-Christian violence in the country, but may actually be complicit in it.
According to groups which monitor anti-Christian persecution worldwide, Nigeria has become one of the deadliest places on earth to be a Christian. In 2020, some 3,305 Nigerians were persecuted because of their Christian faith. In the first six months of 2022, there have been more than 20 Catholic priests who have been kidnapped, and in some cases, killed.
Like other victims of this sort of carnage, the Sisters of Jesus the Savior, in all likelihood, would have little patience right now for idle shoptalk about who might be up or down in Vatican power games.
Then there’s Nicaragua, where Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa remains under what amounts to house arrest in the capital city of Managua, where several collaborators and aides of the bishop are languishing in one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
The pretext for Alvarez’s arrest was a charge of attempting to “organize violent groups,” but in reality his crime was a simple unwillingness to shut up in his criticism of the government of President Daniel Ortega, who sees the country’s bishops as a main source of opposition.
Earlier this year, the government suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican and declared the pope’s envoy, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, persona non grata. Catholic priests have been jailed, religious events have been either banned or curtailed, and Masses have been disrupted by security forces.
In perhaps the most absurd abuse of power, Nicaragua has also expelled 18 members of the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa – and if you’re in a position where even the Missionaries of Charity strike you as a security threat, you really might want to reconsider the road you’re on.
Nicaragua’s 2.5 million Catholics probably could be forgiven for regarding the parlor games that will go on this week in Rome as fairly far removed from their realities.
These three situations happen to be in the headlines right now, but we could go on multiplying examples almost indefinitely.
Of course, none of this is to say that thinking about the future of the papacy is a waste of time. Depending on how a pope exercises the powers of his office, he can affect such situations, either for good or ill, and a great deal depends on which way it goes.
Nonetheless, Ukraine, Nigeria, and Nicaragua are also timely reminders that for all the undeniable mystique and allure of papal politics, for people who are literally dealing with life and death, excessive focus on such matters can come off as fiddling while everyplace other than Rome burns.