With the appointment as president of Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, after that of the secretary general three years ago, Pope Francis now has full control of the Italian episcopal conference, one third of whose bishops have been installed by him, even in dioceses of the first rank like Bologna, Palermo, the vicariate of Rome, and soon also Milan.
Appointments are a key element in the strategy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. It should suffice to look at how he is reshaping in his image the college of cardinals, which in the future will elect his successor. After the latest batch of cardinals, announced one week ago for the end of June, chances are slimmer that the next pope could mark a return to the past.
Italy aside, however, winning the agreement of the bishops is anything but easy for Francis.
While on the contrary the more vital Churches of Africa are those that stood together, in the two combative synods on the family, against the innovations desired by the pope.
If one then looks at the Americas, both North and South, the picture appears even more unfavorable for the pope.
In Canada, the six bishops of the region of Alberta have publicly taken a position against the go-ahead given by Francis to communion for the divorced and remarried, while in the United States the episcopal conference last November elected as its president Cardinal Daniel N. Di Nardo, precisely one of the thirteen cardinals of the memorable protest letter that infuriated Bergoglio at the beginning of the last synod.
In the American media, this election was covered as a referendum on Pope Francis, and there was reason for this. One year before, on a visit to the United States, Francis had ordered the bishops to change course and to get into step with him; and he had accompanied these commands with a series of appointments close to his mentality, in the first place that of Blase J. Cupich as archbishop of Chicago and as cardinal.
But if there was a referendum, Bergoglio lost it altogether. In the preselection for the appointment of the president, out of ten candidates elected only one to his liking made it in. And the elections of the vice-president – archbishop of Los Angeles José H. Gómez, a member of Opus Dei – and of the heads of the commissions were also contrary to the pope’s expectations.
Even in Latin America, Bergoglio has few admirers.
In Colombia the bishops did not like – and they let him know this – the prejudicial support that Francis gave for the “yes” in the referendum on an agreement with the guerrillas of the FARC, an agreement that many bishops judged as a surrender and that in effect was rejected by the popular vote.
In Bolivia the bishops simply cannot stand the blatantly friendly relationship between Bergoglio and “cocalero” president Evo Morales, their bitter enemy especially since they publicly accused the “high structures” of the state of connections with drug trafficking.
In a Venezuela plunged into catastrophe, there is sadness and anger every time President Nicolás Maduro lashes out against them while appealing to Pope Francis, whose support he boasts having. And unfortunately for the bishops, the words spoken by the pope in commenting on the Venezuelan crisis during his latest in-flight press conference, on the way back from Cairo, sounded too benevolent toward the president and malevolent toward the opposition.
An analogous sentiment of being betrayed by the pope had also arisen among the bishops of Ukraine after the embrace between Francis and Moscow patriarch Kirill in Havana, which they saw as the latest of many shows of “support of the Apostolic See for Russian aggression.”
Not to mention China, where Francis continues to say that “one can practice religion” precisely while some bishops, precisely those who most want to obey the pope, are persecuted and imprisoned.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)
This commentary was published in “L’Espresso” no. 21 of 2017 on newsstands May 28, on the opinion page entitled “Settimo Cielo” entrusted to Sandro Magister.