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ROME – Let’s face it: Prelates of the Roman Catholic Church aren’t generally known for their comedic stylings.
Naturally there are exceptions to every rule, so you occasionally get a Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who, in a different life, probably could have been Jimmy Fallon – though, given the G-rating of most of Dolan’s wisecracks, maybe the better comparison would be Johnny Carson.
But for every Tim Dolan, usually there are about 100 successors of the apostles whose talks could rival Nytol or melatonin as effective ways of putting people to sleep.
Thus when you find a bishop who seems to have some flair, it’s often a shock to the system – which, by a short path, brings us to Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan and a recent talk that’s generated plenty of reaction here in Italy for his frank commentary about being passed over, again, for a red hat by Pope Francis.
Some are trying to turn the situation into a scandal, with one Milan-area newspaper headlining its banner coverage, “The Archbishop derides the Pope … the Video that’s Making the Vatican Tremble.”
Sorry, but … please. First of all, the Vatican didn’t “tremble” facing hostile empires and dictators over the centuries, so it’s hardly like one bishop’s version of Evening at the Improv is going to bring them to their knees. Second, Pope Francis isn’t exactly known for being cowed by critics.
But more basically, come on, man … if you can’t tell the difference between humor and hostility, you’re missing a Catholic gene. Remember your Belloc: “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there’s always laughter and good red wine.”
Delpini, 71, was named to Milan in July 2017. Since that time, Francis has held four consistories, meaning the event in which new cardinals are created. Not only has Delpini never been invited to the party, last week Oscar Cantoni of Como, a small town just 30 miles away, was named a cardinal instead, making the snub seem all the more deliberate.
For many Milanesi, the omission is galling not primarily because of any injury to Delpini personally, but because, frankly, they believe the city itself has almost a natural law right to a cardinal.
This is the see of Ambrose, after all, the archdiocese led by giants such as St. Charles Borromeo, and, more recently, Giovanni Battista Montini, now St. Paul VI, and Carlo Maria Martini. Lombardy, the surrounding region, has given the church a robust 10 popes, including three in the 20th century. So engrained is the expectation that in March 2013, when news first broke that the cardinals had elected a pope, the Italian bishops’ conference actually dispatched a pre-prepared email congratulating Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan “on his election as the Successor of Peter,” only to quickly try to retract it when it became clear it was actually the Cardinal of Buenos Aires.
Milan even has its own liturgy, for God’s sake, the Ambrosian rite, and it’s widely considered perhaps the most complicated and influential diocese in the global church.
So, when you’re the Archbishop of Milan and you’re repeatedly ignored, it’s not like people aren’t going to notice. In such circumstances, other prelates might try to put a brave face on things, desperately pretending that the elephant in the room isn’t there.
Not Delpini, however.
During a recent ceremony in Como’s cathedral, Delpini was called upon to deliver a salute to the new cardinal on behalf of Lombardy’s bishops. Obviously, Delpini was aware of what his audience was thinking, and so he dealt with it head-on, saying he wanted to respond to all those “little bit cheeky” people who wonder why Milan had been bypassed.
Delpini floated four possible explanations.
First, he noted, the pope is a Jesuit, and “not even the Eternal Father knows what the Jesuits are thinking.”
Some pious souls took that as a dig, but I’d bet good money the first people to get a laugh out of it were Jesuits themselves, up to and including the pope, who know their reputation for inscrutability better than anybody.
Next, Delpini suggested, maybe the pope just thought that “the Archbishop of Milan already has plenty to do,” prompting laughs and applause from the crowd.
As it turns out, he was just getting warmed up.
Maybe, Delpini added, the pope actually thought that “those bigmouths up in Milan don’t even know where Rome is, so it’s probably best not to involve them too much in the government of the universal church.”
(Delpini actually used a bit of Milanese slang, bauscia, which literally means spittle, and is conventionally used to describe someone who slobbers all over themselves singing their own praises. It’s a bit of self-deprecating humor acknowledging the fact that people from Milan often tend to feel, well, a little superior to the rest of Italy.)
Finally, Delpini riffed off a subject that’s at least as important to Italians as the church – soccer.
“The pope’s a fan of River,” Delpini said, referring to an Argentine soccer club, “and they’ve never won anything. Maybe he thought Como would be simpatico, since everybody knows that the trophy is in Milan.”
The reference was to the fact that AC Milan won the Italian championship last year. Along with crosstown rivals Inter, Milan’s two top-flight teams have won 38 league titles over the years.
(We have to deduct a point here from Delpini’s scoresheet since Pope Francis is actually a fan of San Lorenzo more than River Plate, though both are teams from Buenos Aires. Still, no real harm done, as the same joke applies.)
In an artful touch, Delpini then turned the quip into a serious observation about what Francis is looking for in his cardinals.
“It seems to me that the pope is suggesting to you,” he said, looking squarely at Cantoni, “that he wants you to cheer for the losers, to be on the side of those who are the weakest and who don’t always win.”
All in all, it was a bravura performance.
To be sure, some were shocked that Delpini would so openly address his exclusion, but most people seem to be giving him props for being able to laugh it off, not to mention acknowledging out loud what everyone else was thinking. For whatever it’s worth, as someone who gets paid to listen to Catholic bishops all the time, Delpini’s outing came across to me as a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps, in other words, we should come to praise a bishop with a sense of humor, not try to bury him.