Vatican in Disarray. Twice the Pope Gives an Order and then Retracts It
The coronavirus tsunami has ravaged Vatican life and the pope’s schedule. But it has also unveiled serious disruptions in the chain of command and in communication, with decisions first announced and then withdrawn the following day.
A first serious incident had to do with the reform of the curia, which has been underway at the behest of Pope Francis for a good seven years.
On Friday March 6 – while the curia was half empty, with all its leaders on a spiritual retreat in the Castelli Romani and Francis in semi-retreat at Santa Marta due to a “slight indisposition” – the daily bulletin that acts as the “Official gazette” of the pope’s decrees gave news of the institution of an important new office:
“Accepting the proposal of the Council of Cardinals and of the Council for the Economy, His Holiness Francis has arranged for the institution of the ‘General Directorate of Personnel’ in the Section for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State.”
The press release went on to describe in detail that the new personnel office would have exercised its powers not only over the Vatican dicasteries and entities properly speaking, but also over all the entities connected in various ways, including the Institute for the Works of Religion, and concluded:
“This is a step of great significance in the journey of reform launched by the Holy Father.”
Over the following hours, the specialized media covered and commented with emphasis on this news.
Except that the next day the Holy See press office retracted everything, issuing this stunning press release:
“In reference to the announcement made yesterday about the establishment of the General Directorate of Personnel, it is specified that at present this is a proposal made to the Holy Father by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Coordinator of the Council for the Economy, and by Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, Coordinator of the Council of Cardinals, that he establish this structure. The Holy Father will study the proposal and, if he deems it appropriate, will in due time establish the structure in the manner decided by him with a special Motu Proprio.”
All canceled in the span of 24 hours.
On the American portal “Crux” its director John L. Allen, a well-known vaticanista, poked quite a bit of fun at this “epic flip-flop,” explaining how disastrous personnel management is in the Vatican – too many employees, overlapping roles and offices, arbitrary promotions and transfers, a lack of specific professional training – and therefore how demanding and feared its reform must be, rung out by the drumbeat of the first of the two releases.
The fact is that the new personnel office died even before it was born, further aggravating the confusion.
Supposing, in fact, that the Vatican press office did not invent anything, it is only from the secretariat of state and ultimately from the pope that the order could have come to issue the press release of March 6. As well as the order to retract, the following day.
An unfortunate day, that Friday March 6. Francis was scheduled on that very day to make a surprise visit to Portacomaro, the village in Piedmont from which his grandparents and father emigrated to Argentina and where some of his relatives still live.
But in the end the trip was canceled. In this case, however, it was nobody’s fault that the pope had a cold.
A second sensational incident had to do directly with the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 8, the second Sunday of Lent, the Italian episcopal conference suspended for the whole country the celebration of Mass with the faithful present, but left the churches open.
The ordinance of the CEI does not concern Vatican City. Two days later, however, on Tuesday March 10, the press office of the Holy See announcedthat “as of today, the Square and Basilica of Saint Peter will remain closed to guided visits and tourists.”
The ban still seemed to allow the ordinary faithful access to the square and basilica. But in fact this did not happen, because at the entrance gates to the square the Italian police blocked everyone’s way, except for proven work needs.
On March 13, however, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, stated to Vatican News, the online portal of the Holy See:
“I want to clarify that the Basilica of Saint Peter has always been open these days, never closed, from 7 in the morning until 6 in the evening. Clearly people have difficulty coming, but the few who do come pray.”
One can imagine that these rare faithful arrive not from the square, which is blocked off, but from inside Vatican City.
But why did Cardinal Comastri feel such an urgency to declare that St. Peter’s Basilica “has always been open these days, never closed?”
Because that same Friday March 13 and the previous Thursday the 12th were two hectic days in Rome and at the Vatican.
At noon on March 12, the cardinal vicar for the diocese of Rome, Angelo De Donatis, had issued a decree that not only confirmed the suspension of Masses but ordered the complete closure of all the churches of the diocese of which the pope is bishop, and as a result also of those located within the Vatican borders, until April 3.
Except that the following morning, Friday March 13, at the beginning of the Mass that he celebrated in solitude at Santa Marta and that was streamed – like every morning in these times of calamity – Pope Francis practically disavowed that ordinance. In these words:
“Drastic measures are not always good. For this let us pray: that the Holy Spirit may give pastors the capacity and the pastoral discernment so that they may provide measures that do not leave the holy faithful people of God alone.”
Not only that. On the same morning came an appearance by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the pope’s “almoner” and his highly trusted operative arm, who stated to Vatican News, from the entrance of the church of Santa Maria Immacolata of which he is rector, in the Esquiline district of Rome: “It is my right to guarantee an open church for the poor, and so I came here at 8 this morning and opened wide the door.” And as if that were not enough he added in an interview with “Crux”: “It is an act of disobedience, yes. This is an act that should bring courage to other priests.”
Floored by this deadly double broadside – with the addition of Cardinal Comastri’s statement on the basilica of Saint Peter being “never closed” – there was nothing for the cardinal vicar to do but retract. And in fact, around noon on the same Friday March 13, De Donatis issued a counter-decree that reopened, if not all the churches of Rome, at least the parochial ones and their equivalent.
Of course in the media, not only Italian, it exploded with a great uproar that Pope Francis had repudiated his vicar, forcing him to reopen the churches.
But unfortunately, apart from rare exceptions, almost all the media had failed to verify what was being shouted from the housetops.
Cardinal vicar De Donatis, in fact, had accompanied his counter-decree with a letter to the faithful of the diocese of Rome, in which he provided another piece of news of the highest importance, which meant that the whole story had to be rewritten.
The extra piece of news news was in the very first lines of the letter:
“With an unprecedented decision, after consulting our bishop Pope Francis, we published yesterday, March 12, the decree that establishes the closure of our churches for three weeks.”
So the cardinal vicar had not decided on the closure all on his own, but had simply done what his role requires of him: executing the decisions of the bishop of Rome, named Francis.
That Francis would then want to backtrack – seeing the many reactions of which Krajewski was the flustered main actor – was in the logic of things, as the cardinal vicar confirmed, a little further on in the same letter to the faithful:
“An additional consultation with Pope Francis, this morning, drove us however to take another need into consideration. Hence the new decree that is sent to you with this letter.”
But there are ways and ways. Francis could have spared his cardinal vicar from being publicly treated by him as incapable, without discernment, insensitive to the poor. And instead this is exactly what happened.
This incident, like the previous one, has laid bare not only the breakdowns of the Vatican communication system – on Monday March 16 communication dicastery prefect Paolo Ruffini was received in audience by the pope – but even more those of the chain of command.
Starting with its first link, Francis.Condividi:
- 19 marzo 2020