ROME – Sometimes a week on the Vatican beat doesn’t offer up one grand narrative, but instead supplies a series of vignettes illustrating the state of play across a variety of fronts. Such was the case over the last seven days, with events ranging from lofty questions of geopolitics to the grubby challenges of urban traffic, all capturing some truth about today’s Vatican.

Saturday night’s big event was the first edition of “World Children’s Day,” which brought together an estimated 50,000 young children from all around the world to Rome’s Olympic Stadium, including groups from both Palestine and Ukraine.

The event will be capped off this morning with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica featuring a monologue prepared for the occasion by legendary Italian actor Roberto Benigni.

From a certain point of view, the main take-away from Saturday night was the very fact it happened, and that the 87-year-old Pope Francis was in good form, delivering his remarks in a strong and clear voice, engaging the children in several back-and-forth exchanges, and also leading them in prayer.

It was not, in other words, the picture of a pope on his last legs.

Despite the basic innocence of the gathering, there was also a political subtext with the clear anti-war message. At one point, the pope addressed the children and said: “I know some of you are said because of wars. I ask you: Are you sad for the wars?”, eliciting a strong cry of Si! inside the stadium.

“Peace is always possible,” the pope intoned, and at another point he lamented that there remain hungry children in the world while countless resources are poured into the arms trade.

Francis became especially emotional meeting Ukrainian children from a hospital in L’viv who’ve been mutilated as a result of the war, some missing arms or legs. A visibly moved pontiff could be heard muttering the world “terrible” as he took in the scene.

Such moments were a reminder that even at his most pastoral, Francis is still a political animal too, and never more so than in opposing what he’s described as a “world war in pieces.”

Speaking of politics, Rome’s Urban University staged a conference on Tuesday marking the 100th anniversary of the Council of Shanghai, which laid the basis for the modern Catholic presence in China. The event drew a cross-section of Vatican heavy-hitters and leaders of the Chinese state-backed Church.

To some extent, the event almost seemed an exercise in what the late Pope John Paul II called the “purification of memory,” with one speaker after another lamenting the excesses of foreign missionaries in China over the years, faulting them for creating a colonialist mentality that created resentment and mistrust between the Chinese people and the Christian faith.

That line came through especially clearly in remarks by Bishop Joseph Shen Bin of Shanghai, who was appointed to his role without the pope’s authorization, in apparent violation of a still-secret 2018 deal between Rome and Beijing over the nomination of bishops, although Francis later recognized Shin’s transfer.

In one sign of the sensitivities involved, it was striking that despite the fact this was Shen Bin’s first visit to Rome since his appointment, and despite the fact that he serves as president of the state-backed bishops’ conference, the Vatican did not announce any meeting between Francis and Shen Bin – hinting, perhaps, that Chinese authorities didn’t want to create an impression of submission to Roman authority, and that the Vatican wasn’t inclined to press the issue.

Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, told the conference that while genuine inculturation of the faith in China is essential, so too is “direct dialogue…between the Holy See and the authorities of the country.”

In the past, Parolin has suggested opening an office for a permanent representative of the Vatican in Beijing, as a downpayment on eventual diplomatic relations.

Tuesday’s event seemed to confirm the broad outlines of the Vatican’s China policy: A willingness to be flexible on local control, in exchange for greater levels of official recognition and dialogue. Whether that will lead to a gradual relaxation of restrictions on the Church in China, as the authors of the policy hope, or whether it represents a sell-out to a hostile regime, remains in the eye of the beholder.

Also this past week, reverberations continued to be felt in Italy from an incident that took place at the University of Turin May 17, in the atrium of a building on campus that’s been occupied by pro-Palestinian protestors. Roughly 30 Muslim students, most from other counties, organized a Friday prayer service in the space, inviting a local Muslim leader named Brahim Baya to deliver the sermon.

Baya agreed, offering a fiery talk in which he described Israel’s military campaign in Gaza as a “furious homicide, a furious genocide, one of the worst barbarities in history which doesn’t take any humanity into consideration.” He also praised the resistance shown by Gazans, using the term jihad to describe efforts to repel the Israeli incursion.

A video of his sermon quickly went viral and created a national sensation, with critics objecting both to the content and to the fact that a makeshift mosque had been erected in a secular university. Conservative Catholic commentators criticized the Vatican and the Italian bishops’ conference for remaining largely silent about the affair, styling it as an example of the shadow side of Francis’s peace advocacy – i.e., an unwillingness to confront Islamic radicalism.

One irony is that prior to this incident, Baya had been seen as a leader in inter-faith dialogue in northern Italy. He recently appeared on a panel sponsored by the Diocese of Cuneo-Fossano to discuss the legacy of Archbishop Aldo Giordano, who died in 2021 and had served as the Vatican’s envoy to the European Union. Baya also recently helped host Bishop Derio Olivero of Pinerolo, president of the Italian bishops’ commission for inter-faith dialogue, at an Iftar dinner in Milan during Ramadan.

In effect, the incident is a reminder of how violence can often turn friends into perceived enemies, and make what had been even positive relationships problematic.

Finally, a nationwide taxi strike this past Tuesday also offered a worrying hint of things to come vis-à-vis Pope Francis’s signature initiative for next year, which is the Great Jubilee expected to bring as many as 35 million additional people to Rome throughout the year.

The strike essentially brought the city of Rome to a standstill, leaving visitors attempting to reach hotels from airports and train stations stranded for hours. It also highlighted the fact that Rome is ridiculously under-served in terms of taxi capacity, with only around 7,800 official taxi licenses issued for an urban population approaching 3 million.

Proportionally speaking, Rome has only about one-third of the taxi fleet that serves other major European cities such as London and Paris. That’s in large part because of powerful taxi unions which don’t want competition, either from more cabs or from private services such as Uber.

The city government has promised to release 1,000 additional taxi licenses ahead of the jubilee, but given that the competition to distribute those licenses hasn’t even begun, many observers take the promised timeline with a grain of salt.

Bottom line: Francis is clearly hoping for a spiritual boom from the jubilee, but visitors to Rome may have to put up with some very this-worldly frustrations in order to reap those transcendent fruits.