ROME– On Saturday, posters appeared around Rome featuring a stern-looking Pope Francis and asking “Where’s your mercy?” The unsigned images referred to the “decapitation” of the Knights of Malta and other actions Francis has taken against groups and individuals perceived as conservative.
“Ah Francis, you’ve taken over congregations, removed priests, decapitated the Order of Malta and the Franciscans of the Immaculate, ignored Cardinals… but where’s your mercy?” it reads.
All around the Vatican in Rome, but also in several other venues, many of the posters were quickly removed or covered by another, smaller one that said they were “Illegal Postings,” but by then the impression had already been made.
Though there’s no logo on the image, nor any clue as to who might be behind them, the content of the poster makes it clear that they come from conservative, if not traditionalist, quarters within the Catholic Church, many of whom feel ostracized, ignored and even attacked by the more progressive Argentine pontiff.
For instance, by talking of a decapitation of the Order of Malta, they mean Francis’s decision to interfere in the firing of the Grand Chancellor by the Grand Master and American Cardinal Raymond Burke.
The issue concluded with Francis asking Grand Master Matthew Festing for his resignation and with the appointment of a papal delegate that is to be the sole spokesman between the pope and the order, virtually leaving Burke without a job.
As for the pope ignoring cardinals, once again taking for granted that the posters come from conservative quarters, it’s a clear reference to the four prelates, Burke included, who late last year sent a letter to Francis with a series of yes or no questions regarding what they perceived as doctrinal problems of Amoris Laetitia, the papal exhortation on the family.
Technically known as a dubia, the letter was made public once it became clear the pope wasn’t going to answer the questions. The other three cardinals who signed it were Germans Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner, and the Italian Carlo Caffarra.
The language on removal of priests likely refers to allegations made by several conservative sites that the pope asked Cardinal Gerhard Müller to fire three priests from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It was first reported by long-time Italian Vatican watcher Marco Tosatti, and then picked up by several U.S.-based outlets, such as One Peter Five and Church Militant.
As for the Franciscans of the Immaculate, they’re a religious order in which Francis intervened early on in his pontificate, restricting the use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass by the friars.
The poster uses Romanesco, the dialect of Italian native to the city of Rome, which may suggest that whoever’s behind it is local.
Though uncommon, it’s not unprecedented to see Italians using street advertising to talk about Vatican goings-on.
For instance, in 2013, before the conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolgio as pope, there were spoof posters pasted around the city calling for voters to choose Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, today head of the Vatican’s office for Integral Human Development.
Today’s posters, by way of contrast, hardly seemed a joke.
In 1986, while Pope John Paul II was heading an interreligious summit in Assisi, the traditionalist Society of Pius X, known as the Lefebvrist, handed out small cards with the pope’s image and denouncing the event as heresy.
There have also been cases of groups that openly challenge Church teaching organizing poster campaigns in Rome.
For instance, last year, as part of a “jubilee for women priests”– to which Pope Francis has repeatedly said he is opposed — there were a series of posters pasted in the Roman neighborhood of Trastevere and around the Vatican.
In one of them, for instance, former nun Michele Birch-Conery, who is now serving as a “bishop” against church law, wears a purple shirt and a crucifix around her neck and drinks out of a chalice. Above her image are the Italian words, Alcune donne disobbediscono (“Some women disobey”).
This is, however, the first time in most Romans’ memories that the city has seen posters in major public venues complaining about the policies of a given pope.
Papal advisers largely seemed unfazed by the posters, with one, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, saying they’re “a sign that he’s doing well and causing A LOT of annoyance.” In a subsequent tweet, Spadaro said, “They’re trying to separate him from the heart of the people, but the effect is the opposite!”
— Antonio Spadaro (@antoniospadaro) February 4, 2017