Pope Francis’ letter to the priests of the Diocese of Rome on August 7 arrived almost unexpectedly. Nothing suggested that the Pope needed to write to the priests of the diocese he presides over, and it was not an special occasion. And that is why the letter is particularly relevant. Because, as always, Pope Francis uses the ploy of a letter, in a circumscribed form, to deliver a message to the whole Church.
The letter went somewhat unnoticed because the following day, Pope Francis changed the form and substance of the personal prelature, thus transforming the only personal prelature of the Church, Opus Dei, into something comparable to a lay association. But this provision was in the air; it was expected since the Pope had already intervened in the structure of Opus Dei, among other things, by defining that the prelate of Opus Dei could never again be a bishop.
Instead, the letter to the priests of the Diocese of Rome, which may appear mainly local, has a double value. On the one hand, it is yet another slap in the face from the Pope to his vicar for the Diocese of Rome, Cardinal Angelo de Donatis. Ever since de Donatis and the Pope collided over the management of the pandemic emergency (De Donatis had decided to close the churches in consultation with the Pope; the Pope then complained about the matter in a homily in Santa Marta; de Donatis had said that no, they would not close the churches, but that it was the Pope who decided anyway), the relationship between the two has never been the same.
The Pope did not want de Donatis as vicar. His candidate was the then auxiliary of Rome, Paolo Lojudice, who had forcefully returned to the spotlight when the Pope wanted him as president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. The CEI, however, chose Zuppi, and the parish priests of Rome, in an overwhelming majority, supported de Donatis as their vicar. In both cases, the Pope had to adapt.
And yet, de Donatis found himself progressively marginalized by: the appointment of the vicegerent Baldassarre Reina; the reform of the diocese of Rome, which makes the vicar equal to any auxiliary of the diocese; the appointment of the new rector of the Roman minor seminary, Michele Di Tolve; the reform of the Pontifical Lateran University, carried out bypassing its Grand Chancellor, i.e. the cardinal vicar; and now this letter.
Thus, Pope Francis sends an unmistakable message. In the Diocese of Rome, there is a threat for priests, a spiritual worldliness that leads to clericalism. Nothing new, after all, because Pope Francis has constantly been repeating it. So why the letter?
Perhaps to affirm that the Pope is the one and only true bishop of Rome, to reaffirm his importance, and to do so against any contrary opinion. And to leave a legacy or, in any case, a testimony of what he wants, of what he wants priests to be. Finally, to underline displeasure with how the Diocese of Rome is run and to ask for a change of course.
In short, as he did in many other circumstances, Pope Francis put the issue directly into his own hands. He is the bishop of Rome, has acted as a special delegate of the Order of Malta, has personally involved himself in the affair of the London property (which is now the subject of a trial in the Vatican), acts as head of dicasteries (now, and forever, of Propaganda Fide, but for a long time as head of office ad tempus of the migrant and refugee section), and is the top diplomat of the Holy See with actions that, at times, overshadow official diplomacy.
Pope Francis is a guarantor Pope, who asks for changes and new processes and guarantees that everything goes well. At the same time, he is a Pope who is not afraid to change if things do not go according to what he thinks or intends.
In short, the letter to the clergy of Rome has many facets. But, if you look closely, it also presents another trait of Pope Francis’ way of governing: the use of often decontextualized phrases and terminology. Not incorrect, but taken out of context, and used to shape a precise vision of the world.
Thus, in the letter, Pope Francis refers to the great French theologian de Lubac and his concept of spiritual worldliness. All correct. But de Lubac is also the theologian who warned priests not to become mere government officials, i.e. not to become themselves officials of their episcopal conferences, but rather to live a living faith.
De Lubac was also the theologian who highlighted the risk that the episcopal conferences would take over and of priests relying on an administrative structure rather than evangelize and make decisions personally.
Yet, the Pope never mentions all this and only uses the part of “spiritual worldliness.” And yet, he has witnessed an ever greater pervasiveness of episcopal conferences, and priests increasingly linked to government structures rather than the pastoral mission in recent years. After all, the synodality that Pope Francis is asking for would be an answer to all of this. However, the problem is not in the method or structure. It’s in the people. It is in personal formation.
And here comes the second decontextualized theme: clericalism. Talking about clericalism is very fashionable, and so is Pope Francis, and it is undeniable that, when the Church was still a structure of power that was listened to, questions of power had the upper hand. But by clericalism, we mean a confident attitude of priests to enter into political questions, an attitude that looks outwards. On the other hand, Pope Francis looks inside the Church, engages in a change of meaning, and in doing so, even those who, in the end, respect the hierarchy, in some circumstances become clerical.
In short, this reasoning carries a risk when everything is contextualized. But, in the end, this is not what Pope Francis is interested in. The Pope carries on with his narrative, which must work well. The rest seems to be secondary. But you have to be careful how Pope Francis uses phrases and words. He could also mean the opposite of what he says.