The appointment of Archbishop Georg Gänswein as nuncio to the Baltics closes a circle. Pope Francis had asked Benedict XVI’s former secretary to return to his diocese of Fribourg without assignment after announcing the termination of his role as prefect of the Papal Household. After a year and a half, Francis assigned Gänswein to a nunciature—a job Gänswein has never done—thereby getting Benedict’s man even further away from Rome.

Based as it is in Vilnius, the nunciature to the Baltics may appear peripheral. It would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the Baltic countries now find themselves on the border with Russia and in close contact with the conflict in Ukraine.

That probably has little to do with why Pope Francis sent Archbishop Gänswein there to be his ambassador.

The first rumors about Gänswein’s appointment spoke of an act of mercy by Pope Francis.

Francis, after having suffered Archbishop Gänswein’s accusations in a book published just after the death of Pope Emeritus and after having dismissed the archbishop, leaving him without office, would have decided to give him a new assignment and forgive him for his mistakes.

But can Pope Francis’ decision be defined as an act of mercy, or was it instead an act of opportunity?

In recent months, Pope Francis has clearly defined the narrative he wants to give to his pontificate. He has published two interview books of a certain depth, a personal biography and a book on his relationship with Benedict XVI.

He went so far as to reread the 2005 Conclave.

He gave indiscretions in 2013—ones only he could provide and no one could deny—and he recreated historical situations, which seem to have faded in the Pope’s memory. Various details of Pope Francis’ reconstructions need to be added up, starting with how he says he felt used to block Ratzinger’s election in 2005.

Also, Pope Francis had defined the exit of Gaenswein’s in the week after the dead of the Pope emeritus as “a lack of nobility and humanity,” - words that somehow could have been interpreted as  extended to the Gaenswein’s behavior so far.

Let’s be clear: the publication of the memoir in the aftermath of the death of Pope Emeritus was not a prudent move, and Gänswein’s reconstruction of a few things could very reasonably be considered an unnecessary “kiss and tell.”

It is also true that the publishing house makes the publication decision, just as the book’s cut reflects an editing phase that a non-communications professional may need help understanding. It happens that men of the Church trust each other. It happens that the people or companies they rely on do not work for the Church. It happens that scandals are created, sometimes even exaggerated.

However, Pope Francis’ reaction was very harsh.

A bishop cannot be forced to reside in a diocese unless he is the incumbent of a diocese or there is a canonical sanction against him. But Gänswein was treated as if there were a canonical sanction. Furthermore, the termination of his role as prefect of the Papal Household was communicated only two months after the end of the mandate. However, it was established precisely at the end of the mandate. A choice that did not allow Gänswein to ask for a Vatican pension by paying compensation to the pension fund – a request that can only be made within a month of the end of the assignment.

And no, Gänswein had never worked as a bishop in Germany and, therefore, did not have the rich benefit of the pension of the German clergy.

These decisions of the Pope did not go unnoticed.

They made clear a modus operandi of Pope Francis that had never before been revealed in such force. For example, the Pope no longer gave a position to Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller after he, at just 70 years of age, suddenly announced the end of his work in the Vatican at the end of his first five-year mandate. But Müller was a cardinal; he had been a bishop in Germany and did not receive any residential imposition from Pope Francis.

Then there was the case of Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, whom the Pope removed from his role as patron of the Order of Malta following the governance crisis within the Order, and from whom the Pope had recently removed his health care and the Vatican apartment he used. Cardinal Burke’s “punishment” would have been communicated by the Pope at the end of an interdicasterial meeting, even if there is no news of measures by the Dean of the College of Cardinals or at least by the APSA—the legal owner of the Cardinal’s house—against the Cardinal himself.

These are just two examples, but other situations can be recalled.

The case of Cardinal George Pell, whom the Pope formally retained in his role for a while but essentially left to face an unjust trial in Australia. The case of Cardinal Woelki, forced into a six months’ vacation due to a “miscommunication” (words of the nunciature) concerning a report on abuse in his archdiocese, which he had denied. And how can we not mention the case of Cardinal Becciu, subjected to trial in the Vatican after the Pope revised the rule requiring that cardinals be judged only by peers and needed to resign from all positions? The Pope then asked him to resume participating in consistories and public acts without stopping the trial or rehabilitating the cardinal, who was still in the pillory.

Each example has different details and nuances. The Pope generally governs with an iron fist when expediency is necessary. When the reasons of opportunity change, however, the Pope changes his approach.

In the particular case of Gänswein, the Pope likely understood that the “punishment” of Benedict XVI’s secretary, especially after the discussions that followed the modest way in which Pope Francis celebrated his predecessor’s funeral, could have had an impact on the very judgment of the pontificate.

The reconstructions of the funeral, the words about Gänswein, and the fact that Pope Francis himself had spent time talking about it were not enough.

A gesture was needed.

That gesture was the assignment of a nunciature in a peripheral place, but not too peripheral. This decision will allow the Pope to say that he has been able to forgive as he had allowed observers to notice the Pope’s benevolent attitude towards Becciu when he reinvited him to the consistories.

Backtracks of this kind are not new to Pope Francis.

After the publication of the document of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, which prevented the blessing of homosexual couples, Pope Francis underlined at the Sunday Angelus that the language of God is “compassion and tenderness,” and these words were immediately read as a change of tone from Pope Francis.

It was too bad that the Pope had read and approved the document.

The document’s author, Archbishop Giacomo Morandi, was then sent bishop to Reggio Emilia. Interestingly, he was appointed president of the regional Episcopal Conference of Emilia Romagna, a sign that his fellow bishops do not dislike him.

The question remaining, however, is whether Pope Francis’ backtracking can be trusted or whether many things should be read according to the logic of the altar of hypocrisy, which the Pope himself used in explaining his decision to accept the resignation of Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit.

Aupetit fell victim to a press campaign and accusations from which he was later wholly acquitted.

If everything is a method of government and everything is narrative, what is the true face of Pope Francis’ pontificate? Is there a line in the pontificate that goes beyond the pope’s personal and personalistic decisions?

In the end, Pope Francis showed differences in approaches even on the traditionalist question: Ferocious with those who want to celebrate according to the older books, relatively soft with realities already structured in the Church that do so; very harsh in attacking some traditionalist “oases” (the Franciscans of the Immaculate at the beginning of the pontificate, but also the suspension of priestly ordinations in the diocese of Frejus – Toulon in France).

Every situation is indeed a story in itself.

It is also true, however, that the main characteristic of Pope Francis’ pontificate is its ambiguity.

There is no line. Approximations and errors define the image of the pontificate. Or, better said, there is a line, but there is also the understanding that this is a controversial line, which would create division. Indeed, division has been created every time Pope Francis made a clear and personal decision.

With the appointment of Archbishop Gänswein as nuncio, Pope Francis closes a circle. However, he certainly does not close the debate on his relationship with the Pope Emeritus or the fundamental aspect of his pontificate.

This theme will be food for thought in view of the conclave to come.


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