This week, Pope Francis granted a lengthy radio interview to COPE, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference radio. In an hour and a half, he tackled various issues, some of them very thorny, such as the trials in the Vatican, the reform of the Curia, his resignation. His answers, however, reveal not only the way of thinking but also the way of telling or perceiving all things Pope Francis. It almost seems that, with that interview, Pope Francis wanted to take hold of the narrative.
The idea of taking hold of the narrative is immediately perceived by the answers to the questions about his health. Pope Francis reveals that he entered the Gemelli as early as 1 pm, that 33 centimeters of intestine were removed, and that a nurse saved his life. And he reassures all that he is fine, that he leads a regular life, that it is only his brain that has to process that 33 centimeters of intestine are missing.
With this response, Pope Francis appropriates the narrative about his illness. The rumors about Pope Francis’ illness broke in some media, and the hypothesis of the Pope’s resignation was built on that idea. However, it is an answer that leaves obscure points: if the Pope checked in at Gemelli so suddenly, was the surgery actually scheduled at the time or was the decision to conduct surgery taken later? And why does he say a nurse saved his life? Does this mean that he is facing something more serious? These are questions that remain open but which, however, disappear when the Pope, taking up the narrative, closes any possibility of denial.
It is the Pope’s response to what appeared to be a crisis of power. By his very own admission, Pope Francis confirms the reform of the Curia has slowed down due to his illness. In the same interview, Pope Francis says that the planned trip to Glasgow for COP26 (not yet formalized) will depend significantly on how he is feeling. There is, therefore, an uncertainty, which, however, Pope Francis tends to minimize. And he minimizes it because – again from the interview – as soon as the Pope falls ill, he feels the breeze of the Conclave. Indeed, the thinking about his successor, which began in the Vatican corridors on the news of the hospitalization, did not escape the Pope’s attention.
The question of processes is also interesting. For example, we know that the upcoming trial in the Vatican on the so-called Sloane Avenue case (the investment by the Secretariat of State in a luxury property in London) is possible because Pope Francis drafted four rescripts that suspended some procedural guarantees. There was even talk of a “special tribunal,” and Vatican prosecutors refused to hand over the complete audio-video testimony of one of the key witnesses at the trial, Monsignor Alberto Perlasca.
I have repeatedly spoken of a Vaticanization of the Holy See, where the Pope, acting like an absolute monarch, in practice does not respect the procedural rights that the Holy See upholds through international treaties.
The Pope, however, does not delve into this. Instead, he ignores it or pretends to ignore it. Instead, he is keen to emphasize that everything started from internal complaints and favored this modality. He even says that he hopes that Cardinal Angelo Becciu is innocent but notes that he now has to submit to the decisions of the Vatican City State court. Before, the cardinals were only judged by a college of cardinals (the Pope only refers to himself in the interview).
This alleged transparency, however, contrasts with various issues raised during the investigations. More than procedural justice, we face a Vatican judiciary that was able to act arbitrarily, taking decisions that even suspended office secrecy. The narrative of a process done for transparency is being carried forward when nothing in the preliminary procedures has been transparent. Again, the Pope knows and pretends not to know. He focuses everything on the Vatican alone, not considering that the Holy See is an international entity. But, in doing so, he covers up the consequences of his decisions. Because of the way the process has been carried out, the Holy See could find itself isolated internationally. And not even the Pope’s charisma could save her.
Pope Francis also addresses the thorny chapter of Vatican reforms. The publication of the Praedicate Evangelium, the constitution that regulates the Curia, is expected next autumn. Pope Francis was keen to say that his reforms are nothing more than the reforms requested during the General Congregations, the pre-conclave meetings. He said he was surprised at his appointment but knew well what to do because everything had been outlined in the General Congregations.
In this way, Pope Francis secures his every choice, saying that he is carrying out a mandate that has been entrusted to him. The Pope, however, is not, nor can he be, an executor of mandates. And, although the General Congregations also talked about the necessary reform of the Curia – which has been under discussion for years, anyway – not everyone has promoted this type of reform.
The question then remains whether these are fundamental reforms. Pope Francis is keen to downplay the idea of reform; he says that nothing changes with the Curia reform, other than some reorganization of the dicasteries and mergers. We know, however, this is not necessary so, and that any reform does not only concern the organization but also the substance of the dicasteries. If, for example, apostolic charity becomes a dicastery, it will no longer be part of the Pontifical Family. So, will the Pope give his personal charity only through the offices of the Holy See? Will it be the end of the symbolic impact of the Pope’s charity bestowed directly by the Pope?
These issues are excluded from the debate. Whoever questions them is immediately called anti-pope. The possibility of any discussion is closed. There is only one Pope. He makes his own decisions. In the end, however, Pope Francis himself wants to show that his decisions do not fall from above but have been consulted. If they were consulted, why the many perplexities? Why the concerns about the new line?
Pope Francis said that he also consulted on the Traditions Custodes, which effectively canceled the liberalization of celebrating Mass with the ancient rite. The Pope says that after ten years, an evaluation was made and that this gesture of openness had become an invitation to take ideological positions, which could not be allowed. Do all those who prefer to celebrate with the ancient rite have ideological prejudices? Can we thus make broad generalizations regarding a question that has many nuances, different from nation to nation?
Pope Francis also dwells on the meaning of the “Mass in Latin,” underlining that “the proclamation of the Word must be in a language that everyone understands.” Otherwise, it is “making fun of the Word of God.” In the end, the Pope shows his clear preference, among other things, by denying the use of Latin according to the Missal of Paul VI. However, Latin is still the official language of the Church. How, then, should we interpret the Pope’s words?
In fact, every speech of the Pope contains hiddenly a series of minor contradictions. As if the Pope were pursuing a line, but did not want to be criticized for that line and was trying to avoid criticism by creating a narrative. Maybe all this is overthinking, and perhaps Pope Francis does it naively.
But if he is not being naive, we would be faced with a narrative to be deconstructed because every action must be understood from its roots. The statements of a Pope are not enough. We need to analyze the facts. And the facts say that Pope Francis, in some cases, says one thing and does another.