e lonely papal path
Two images of Pope Francis have circulated widely on the web in recent days. In the first, the Holy Father sits alone in a row of scarlet and gold chairs in the hangarlike Paul VI Audience Hall. Behind him curial officials chat away merrily, apparently oblivious to him. The brilliant priest/blogger Fr Ray Blake says the Pope’s face “seems full of unhappiness”. It is, he suggests, “just the saddest picture of our beloved Holy Father”.
In the other photo the Pope is bending to place a wreath before a casket. His face is tender and prayerful. Beneath the red and white flowers on the coffin lid lies the body of Miriam Wuolou. The 34-year-old Eritrean worked as a receptionist at the papal residence. She was, according to the Daily Beast website, “the smiling face [Francis] saw morning and night, the one who greeted him with his key and handed him his personal messages”. Which of these photos gives a truer impression of Francis’s life at the Vatican? Is he, as the first photo suggests, painfully isolated from his colleagues? Or does he enjoy a paternal relationship with those around him, as the second image implies?
There is, of course, a danger in generalising on the basis of a split-second seen through a camera lens. Other photos taken at the Paul VI hall that day show that Francis was soon joined by senior curial officials. As he sat listening to a meditation by the artist Fr Marko Ivan Rupnik, marking the Jubilee of Mercy for the Roman Curia, his expression seemed perfectly normal. We do know, however, that relations between the Pope and the Curia have been strained since at
It must be hard for Francis to be both a flinty reformer and a kindly shepherd least December 2014, when he gave his famous speech identifying 15 spiritual “ailments” gripping the Vatican workforce. But it might be a mistake to project that knowledge onto the photo of the forlorn-looking Pontiff.
Almost immediately after Pope Francis was elected tales of his kindness began to emerge from Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel he decided to make his home. One story had him making a jam sandwich for a tired Swiss Guard. He began to celebrate daily Mass in the chapel, inviting Vatican workers to attend. This was one of the greatest innovations of his papacy. Through these Masses, he has helped employees set aside petty differences and join together in worship of Almighty God.
Miriam Wuolou’s death is said to have deeply upset the Pope. He had congratulated her when she recently became pregnant. So in the photo he is mourning not just one but two people: Miriam and her unborn child. Speaking after the death of another worker who served at his residence last month, Francis said: “This group of men and women are part of our family. They form a family, they are not just employees.”
It could be that both photos express a partial truth: that Francis has a rather frosty relationship with the Curia, while enjoying a familial atmosphere at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. It must be hard, after all, to be both a flinty reformer and a kindly shepherd. Christian leadership, as defined by Jesus in Matthew 20:25-26, is incredibly demanding, and arguably impossible without grace. The Holy Father constantly asks us to pray for him. It’s the least we can do as he continues down the twisting – and, yes, sometimes lonely – pathway of Vatican reform.
Under the spotlight
Spotlight, the film that tells the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child abuse scandal in that city, has just won the Oscar for best picture. Its producer, Michael Sugar, in his acceptance speech said that the film “gave a voice to survivors” of abuse and that “this Oscar amplifies that voice. We hope it will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican. Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”
This direct call to the Pope is sobering for all Catholics, for it is a sign that the crisis of confidence in the Church sparked by child abuse is by no means over,
despite hopes to the contrary. Some may be tempted to reply to Mr Sugar that much has been done by the Church in many countries (though not all) to protect children, and that the Vatican has led these efforts. True as this may be, to insist on this would be counter-productive, as it would seem, once more, that the Catholic Church is concerned with its own reputation rather than with the wellbeing, first and foremost, of children and vulnerable adults. Taking up a defensive attitude is self-defeating.
Heartening in Mr Sugar’s words is the phrase “restore the faith”, and this provides us with a clue for action.
The Church needs to act in accordance with its tradition: charity and justice to all, and bishops and priests who are true pastors. The way abusive priests were moved around, allowing them to abuse again, was a failure of charity, justice and pastoral care, as well as a failure in accountability. What is needed, and what may take many decades, if not centuries, is a renewal of the Body of Christ. As with previous renewals, it has to start in the ranks of the clergy, in the religious orders and in the episcopate. Pope Francis’s role is to ensure the Church gets, among other things, better bishops.
CATHOLIC HERALD, MARCH 4 2016 3