ROME – Probably the single most commonly asked question this week in casual conversation, in grocery store lines and post offices, in telephone calls and messages on WhatsApp, and pretty much everywhere else humans interact, is some version of the following: “So, how was your Christmas?”
For most of us, answering that question requires a fairly simple equation involving family, food and fun, maybe with a dash of faith thrown into the mix. For a Roman Pontiff, however, the math is always far more complicated, and that’s certainly the case for Pope Francis in 2022.
As ever, judging what kind of Christmas Francis had this year depends on who you ask.
If you were to put the question to “Anna,” for example, the pseudonym employed by the Italian publication Domani for a Slovenian ex-nun who says she was abused sexually and spiritually for nine years by Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, she might not be terribly enthusiastic.
Two days before the holiday, the pope’s hand-picked Vicar for Rome, Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, announced that the diocese probably will have to take a series of unspecified “measures” to restrict Rupnik’s activities in the Eternal City, especially at the Centro Aletti, a center for art and theology founded by Rupnik in 1991 and inaugurated by St. Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Yet De Donatis also insisted that Rupnik deserves the benefit of the doubt, declaring that “we ministers of Christ can’t be less committed to the due process of law, and less charitable, than a secular state, automatically transforming an accusation into a crime.”
“The judgements that we see spread by many with particular vehemence,” De Donatis said in his statement, “don’t seem to manifest either an evangelical criterion of the search for truth, or a basic criterion upon which every law-based society is founded, a verbis legis non est recedendum” (“there must be no departure from the words of the law”).
De Donatis is widely seen as a key papal loyalist, and thus his words are presumed to reflect the pope’s thinking. Critics have wondered aloud if Francis is showing his fellow Jesuit special treatment, raising new questions about the handling of the abuse crisis, especially as it applies to offenses against women. An Italian advocacy group called “Women for the Church” warned that Rupnik is merely “the tip of the iceberg.”
For those folks, Christmastime 2022 probably won’t be counted among this pope’s finest hours.
To take a different point of view, if you were to ask Francis’s top diplomatic advisors how Christmas went this year, they might profess delight that somebody finally has signaled open to peace talks to end the war in Ukraine, but also a bit of melancholy that nobody seems interested in the Vatican’s offer to mediate that dialogue.
Since the beginning of the war Francis has aspired to play the role of peace-maker, and Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, his top diplomat, has publicly and repeatedly volunteered the Vatican’s mediation services. A recent apology to Moscow after Francis raised hackles by linking two ethnic minorities allied with Russia, the Chechens and Buryats, to war crimes, was intended to keep that possibility alive.
Yet on Monday, when Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba proposed that talks take place in February, he made it clear that Ukraine sees UN Secretary-General António Guterres, not the pope, as the right broker.
Most observers consider a February summit highly unlikely anyway, since Kuleba premised the proposal on Russia first facing a war crimes tribunal, something the Kremlin has rejected on principle. Still, it was at least a hint of openness, albeit one that would appear to suggest a cold shoulder to the Vatican’s obvious eagerness to play a key role.
On the other hand, Francis’s Christmas certainly had its bright spots.
The pope’s Christmas eve liturgy drew a standing room only crowd of 7,000 souls inside St. Peter’s Basilica and another several thousand outside in the square watching the Mass on Jumbotrons. (The Vatican, unlike most of the United States, benefitted this year from unusually mild weather over the Christmas holiday.)
The pope’s warning about “people hungry for power and money” who end up “consuming” their neighbors drew wide play in the global media, especially in light of ongoing images of destruction in Ukraine.
Likewise, the pope’s lament about a “famine of peace” in his Christmas Day Urbi et Orbi address, delivered before a crowd in St. Peter’s Square estimated at 70,000 people, led news broadcasts that day all around the world. In part, that’s because in a moment when most public figures turn upbeat and even a bit sappy, Francis has always been willing to deliver an eyes-wide-open Christmas message, mixing hope with realism.
Then there’s Giacomo Cofano, who, if asked, would probably tell you Pope Francis had a Christmas that bordered on the miraculous.
Cofano was, up until recently, a manager at a hotel in southern Italy near the city of Brindisi, while his wife, Viviana Delego, was an English teacher in town. Just before Christmas, she went into the hospital due to complications with her pregnancy. Despite the best efforts of her medical team, she died of hemorrhaging on Dec. 22 after having given birth to twins, one boy and one girl, a few days before. In addition to the newborns, she also left behind a six-year-old little girl.
Distraught by grief over the death of his wife, Cofano turned to his parish priest, Father Donato Liuzzi. In addition to offering his own consolation, Liuzzi also quietly informed Father Fabio Salerno, a private secretary of Pope Francis, of what had happened, knowing that sometimes Francis likes to reach out directly to people suffering tragedy.
Without explicitly tipping his hand, Liuzzi also advised Cofano that if he got any calls over the holidays from unrecognized numbers, he should answer. At 7:20 p.m. on Christmas Day, the phone rang. Cofano later reporters that he had just walked back into the house from the hospital, where he was able to pick up his newborn son, Edoardo Maria, and was amazed to hear the pope’s voice on the line.
“He understood the tragedy of a mother who gave her life for her children, and the anguish that’s struck my family,” Cofano said.
“I don’t remember the exact words, but I was stupefied by the fact that he thought of me and found the time to call,” he said of Pope Francis. “I swear, it seemed like talking to somebody who’s close to me, a friend. It was almost like a confession.”
“I know it seems absurd to say it, but it was a beautiful Christmas,” Cofano said. “He gave it meaning.”
Then he noted a striking coincidence: His twins were born on Dec. 17, which was also Pope Francis’s 86th birthday, so their lives will be forever intertwined.
So, to sum up: Christmas 2022 for Pope Francis was, alternatively, a disaster, a disappointment, a PR success or a pastoral bravura, all depending on the eye of the beholder. In reality, it may well have been all those things at once – a reminder, perhaps, of the complexity of the papacy, and why we should all consider it another Christmas gift that such a crushing burden doesn’t fall on us.