It was probably not by chance that Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, dedicated the first of his Advent presentations to the Roman Curia to the theme of the reform of the Church. He did so from a particular angle: that of Francis of Assisi, of his extraordinary conversion and of his project of reform for the Church.
Father Cantalamessa explained that St. Francis did not «choose between wealth and poverty, nor between the rich and the poor, or belonging to a class rather than to another,» but he chose «between himself and God, between saving his life or losing it for the Gospel.»
Father Cantalamessa then stressed: «At the heart of the love for poverty or the poor, there is the love for Christ. If not, the poor will be instrumentalized in one way or another and poverty will easily become a source of polemics against the Church, or an ostentation of perfection with respect to others in the Church, as it happened among some of the followers of the Poverello.»
Moreover: the main goal of Francis of Assisi was not reforming the Church, it was living the Gospel. So, Francis «carried on the reform in himself, and he silently indicated to the Church the only way out of the crisis: embracing again the Gospel and men, particularly the humble and the poor.»
This is how Francis of Assisi leveled bastions, broke the Church’s isolation and brought it back to be in touch with the people. Father Cantalamessa explained that «the Gospel was obscured also because authority understood as service had been transformed in authority understood as power, and this produced endless conflicts within and outside the Church.»
Perhaps Father Cantalamessa’s words explain better than any other example the true sense of the reform of the Church put in action by Pope Francis. As it is expected by many that today, January 6th, Pope Francis will announce the name of the new cardinals –who will get their red caps in the February 22 consistory– it is appropriate to take a step back, and look at these nine months of pontificate by Pope Francis from a broader perspective.
Until now, many have found it difficult to understand what is Pope Francis’ project. His applying on himself and making visible the Gospel, touching the “flesh of the poor” and spending hours with people affected by different illnesses at the end of his general audiences and public events, has resulted in the Pope’s gaining great levels of approval among the people.
The numbers are clear: in the last year, more than 6,6 million pilgrims have been to Saint Peter’s Square to see the Pope, and this cannot but please a Church that seemed to be on the defensive and folding inwardly into a world of her own during the last period of Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
The reason for this inwardly folding back of the Church should be analyzed. Already in 2010, the annus horribilis of sex abuses by members of the clergy all over the world, some Vatican observers underlined that the Church was rapidly losing its influence internationally. “C’era una volta un Vaticano,” a 2010 book by the Italian analyst Massimo Franco, highlighted the controversies of the time (under Benedict XVI) as symptoms of a deeper crisis. The American vaticanista John Allen commented that there were «signs of the end of an epoch, in which the Vatican represented the religious and moral sentiments of Western civilization, and the dawn of a new era in which Catholicism has become a minority subculture. Neither the Vatican nor the hierarchy more generally has figured out how to respond to this new world.»
Benedict XVI’s resignation, in some ways, swept away this fatalistic perspective. Benedict XVI was well-aware of the need for the Church not to be self-referential, and warned about this danger as early as 1992, in his book about Europe (“Una Svolta per l’Europa”). During his pontificate, Benedict XVI also called on the Church not to close itself to the world with her rules and moralism, and – in his speech in Fribourg in 2011 – he also highlighted the need for the Church to be less focused on its internal structures.
However, Benedict XVI was only able to lay the foundations of this revolution, not to carry it out. A “Pope who came from the ends of the world” was needed to, at the very least, envision the attainment of this historic revolution.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio impressed his fellow cardinals with a speech based on the need to go out to the streets and to be in a sort permanent-mission state, as the Pope later wrote in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. In the secrecy of the conclave, we cannot know what made the cardinals elect Bergoglio at the end, when votes for him increased at an amazing pace in the last two polls. We can just surmise that some of the cardinals felt the need for a new narrative. Others probably saw in Jorge Mario Bergoglio the opportunity to regain visibility after Benedict XVI put aside many in the “old guard” during his pontificate, thus bringing into crisis a system of special interests entrenched during the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, when in the end the Pope himself was no longer making any decisions. These two points of view are the human components of a conclave that in the end is governed by the Holy Spirit, which acts is ways well-beyond human reasoning.
Certainly Pope Francis has produced surprises and raised expectations with his first actions, his speeches, and his way of being. A Latin-American Pope is, in any case, in tradition and culture, can be expected to be very different from any other Pope in the Church’s history. Pope Francis does not seem to be interested in a “government program.” He has underlined that «the first reform is that of attitudes.» He appreciates the notion that «the reform of the Church started with the Masses in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.» He is attentive to the Council of Eight Cardinals, awaiting concrete proposals to carry forward a reform of the Church’s organizational structures.
In fact, we still don’t know how this reform will be carried out. It is known that Pope Francis, when he was in Buenos Aires, regularly encouraged the bishops to be close to the people, as he did as well during the meeting with the Generals Superior of the Male Religious Congregations, as reported in the last issue of the Jesuit-run magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica.” These considerations by Bergoglio give rise to the possibility of a Curia with an ever smaller number of bishops and cardinals, and with more laymen and women in key posts.
But that would be a purely cosmetic “change”, as Pope Francis is well aware of. On the one hand, a Pope is always under the pressure of public opinion, and this is why good communications are crucial. In Germany, von Mitschke Collande, a McKinsey consultant, presented a whole project of Curia reform based on “business-world criteria.” Previously, he had written a paper about how the Church needed to “re-position” itself in the faith market. On the other hand, the professionalization of the Holy See’s public communications function, which began during Vatileaks, might have possibly contributed to losing sight of the real task at hand.
The real task is very well explained by Angelo Scelzo, Deputy Director of the Holy See’s Press Office and for years an official of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Scelzo wrote a book tracing back the 50 years of Vatican communications, starting with the Second Vatican Council Inter Mirifica. The book is entitled “La Penna di Pietro” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana). In the book, Scelzo explains that «as any good means and tools of communications, the Vatican media had always relied on an editorial perspective. This editorial line was not put together in a marketing office, but emerged from the documents that, mostly from the Second Vatican Council onward, supported the development of Vatican media as well as shaped its character.»
The increasing number of external consultants in the Vatican has not change the core of Pope Francis’ message. The Pope’s message is perfectly aligned with that of his predecessor and is completely “orthodox.” So orthodox that Georg Gaenswein, Prefect of the Pontifical Household and personal secretary of pope emeritus Benedict XVI, can rightly claim in an interview to the German magazine Cicero that the call for the Church’s spiritual demondanization was the spiritual legacy of Benedict XVI, as evident in his Fribourg speech. A speech – Gaenswein notes – «that so many have tried to interpret according to their particular special interests. I cordially invite all to read again and attentively the Freiburg speech. We should simply acknowledge that Francis is doing what Benedict XVI called for.» The Prefect then stressed that «the poor Church must not be misunderstood. Poverty does not mean misery. The Church must have space for beauty, greatness, and all that is noble, because they signal God. Pope Francis has a spiritual, not a sociological, notion of poverty, coming from Christ’s poverty. He was also deeply impressed by his experience as archbishop of Buenos Aires during the difficult Argentine economic crisis.»
Obviously there is an anxious eagerness to know what the Francis’ reform project is about. This anxiety affects the work of the journalist, more than that of the Vatican communicator. Until now, it is difficult to ascertain Pope Francis’ overall vision, and the statements by members of the Council of Cardinals sometimes do not help to really understand what is the overall design. This is typical of a work in progress.
But many questions are left pending. The journalist try to anticipate the answers, or at least to understand in which direction the wind is blowing. The sources, in this case, can play their game, or simply make mistakes with the analysis, since everything is brand new and unpredictable. The possibilities for a mistake are very high, simply because sometimes we try to read more than is warranted by the given facts. This is part of the dialectic between source and journalist. The journalist accepts this risk and the responsibility to write the news story on the basis of information from sources. In several occasions, the writer of this news piece gave wrong, or at least incomplete, information, even when confirmed by at least two different sources. There is no way to “fix” these mistakes other than by carrying on trying to give news with the maximum level of accuracy possible. To do so, the journalist needs the help of Vatican interlocutors.
Benny Lai, who recently passed away and was the dean of the vaticanisti, used to say that «the Vatican is a world of whispering and nuances» and recalled that he was negatively affected, like so many others, when Paul VI decided to move the Holy See Press Office outside the Vatican Walls. «Before – he said in an interview – we were able to be the confidants of monsignors, we could take a walk with them inside the Vatican, we could go and meet them in their offices. Since Paul VI chased us out of the Vatican, we lost that confidential trust.»
In a world continually searching for news, Father Federico Lombardi, Director of the Holy See’s Press Office, shared a valuable insight. In April 2013, Lombardi was recognized by the Italian insurance company Allianz as the “communicator of the year”, because «he was able to face complexity with irony, but free of superficiality.» During an event for the occasion, Lombardi stressed that he had always «tried to have the journalists understand that anticipating the coming news is not always the best way to communicate them, and that if you try to be the first sometimes you can make a mistake, even a big mistake.»
Perhaps there is the need to strike a balance between the urge to deliver news and providing a more in-depth analysis. Anyway, if Pope Francis’ reform is that of Francis of Assisi, it will hardly grab newspaper headlines. A reform of attitudes does not make much noise. It just grows silently within those able to nurture it.