ROME – Six years ago, Romans awoke one February morning to discover that roughly 200 posters had been plastered around the city citing a series of crackdowns by Pope Francis on traditionalist groups in the Catholic Church, under a frowning image of the pope and the slogan (in Roman slang) “Frankie, where’s your mercy?”
In that instance, the authors of the posters were unknown, they apparently didn’t have permission to put the posters up, and Roman police quickly took down the offending images while threatening fines if they ever found out who did it.
Controversy over the posters went on much longer than their actual display.
Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, at the time the head of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for Bishops, declared that “These methods of anonymous posters are a work of the devil, who wants to divide us.” Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a key adviser to Pope Francis, called them a form of “threats and intimidation,” while liberal catholic commentator Alberto Melloni wrote that the posters betrayed “not love for tradition but a fetish for the antiquated, insensitive to the gospel and in need of visibility.”
Ten days after the posters went up, even the pope’s nine-member Council of Cardinals felt compelled to profess its loyalty.
“In relation to recent events, the Council of Cardinals expresses its full support of the work of the Pope, while ensuring full adhesion and support to his person and his magisterium,” their statement said.
Yesterday, Romans once again found Catholic-themed posters displayed around the city, seemingly directed at Pope Francis although he’s never actually mentioned by name.
Instead, three other popes – Pius V, John Paul II and Benedict XVI – are call cited in defense of the pre-Vatican II Mass, under the slogan, “For the love of the pope. For peace and unity of the church. For the free practice of the traditional Latin Mass.”
The organizers, whose identities have been made public in a press release, insist they’re not “rebels against the church” but rather acting out of “love for the pope.” They’re reacting to recent restrictions imposed by Francis on celebration of the old Mass, especially his 2021 decree Traditionis custodes, as well as two subsequent clarifications from the Vatican’s liturgy office further restricting the ability of bishops to permit the old rite.
So far this time, no one in the pope’s inner circle has fired back at the posters, though an Italian news site called Faro di Roma, directed by a veteran journalist sympathetic to Pope Francis, quickly weighed in.
“A billboard campaign based on thoughts attributed to predecessors of the reigning pope truly is not very ecclesial, since, among other things, it doesn’t make sense to attack the pontiff and his decisions in the name of the tradition that he himself, in reality, incarnates, as the Catechism of St. Pius X well understood, recommending unity of thought and purpose with the Successor of Peter – the actual one,” a Tuesday editorial said.
The posters contain a barcode which directs users to site that provides background on the traditional Mass. (The English version even contains a testimonial from Harrison Butker, the kicker for the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs, who’s also a devout Catholic and devotee of the Latin Mass.)
The traditionalist bloggers and organizations behind the campaign say the posters will remain up for 15 days, meaning through the close of Holy Week.
Writing in the Roman newspaper Il Messaggero, Vatican writer Franca Giansoldati suggests their aim may be to head off an absolute prohibition on celebration of the older Mass, which has been rumored but, to date, not yet implemented.
For the most part the posters are displayed near the Vatican, though one showed up in the Della Vittoria neighborhood where my wife and I live, right outside our parish of Cristo Re about a mile and a half away from St. Peter’s Square. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the location is a stone’s throw from the headquarters of RAI, the national radio and television network.)
Whatever one makes of the new posters, they build on a long Roman history.
Just off the city’s famed Piazza Navona is a “talking statue” called Pasquino, so-called because of the popular tradition of affixing anonymous bits of anonymous verse to the base satirizing the powers that be – which, from the 16th to the 19th century, when the tradition was at its peak, usually meant popes.
Back then, popes didn’t simply rely on their allies to issue statements. Popes Hadrian V, Sixtus V and Clement VIII all tried to have the statue removed and tossed into the Tiber River, only to find it back in place. Others, such as Pope Benedict XIII, decreed the death penalty for anyone found to have posted pasquinate, as the doggerel notes are called; in 1570, a poet named Niccolò Franco was hanged to death for the crime, but that didn’t stop the pasquinate from appearing.
Historians note, by the way, that although the verses displayed on the statue began as genuinely popular and spontaneous expressions, over time they sometimes were actually penned on commission for elements in the church, including cardinals of the Roman Curia, who wanted to weaken the sitting pope for one reason or another.
More recently, after the death of Pope Paul VI in August 1978, posters sprung up around town objecting to his liberal reforms, with the slogan “We want a Catholic Pope!” In 1986, when Pope John Paul II convened an inter-faith summit in Assisi, traditionalist critics of the event once again splashed posters around Rome accusing the pontiff of heresy.
In 2013, a group of students in Milan seeking to promote a film festival on homosexuality and religion put up posters depicting Pope Benedict XVI as a drag queen. In that case the posters were quickly removed, and the students involved apologized.
In other words, people with a bone to pick with popes will, periodically, resort to expressions of their discontent such as billboards, posters, and even updated versions of pasquinate. Pope Francis may at least take some comfort in the thought that he’s hardly the first pope to generate such public blowback, and he’s unlikely to be the last.