I wonder: what’s it like to be Pope Francis, waking up each morning in the Vatican knowing he’s surrounded by people praying fervently, and that many of them are begging God to make him die before noon?
Not everyone around him wants him dead, of course. Francis has fans and supporters too. And even some harsh
critics only aim to make him so miserable that he’ll resign and go away, as his predecessor Benedict XVI mostly did. If he fades away quietly, he’ll get a big funeral, and then be forgotten.
But those praying for Francis to meet his maker sooner rather than later are clearly very numerous, especially among U. S. and other English-speaking Catholic authorities. Their legions are very well-funded. They’re also the noisiest, and relentless.
Nor are they merely rattling their rosaries; they’re working day and night to stymie Francis and his programs, discredit his pronouncements, scatter his friends and block or roll back his reforms.
Think this is exaggeration? Think again. History is certainly on my side: being pope, no matter how fulsome the pomp and glittering the vestments, is an occupation with a hazardous history.
Look back, for starters: thirty-plus of the first popes are listed as having been martyred, that is to say, murdered, by Roman emperors, Ostrogoth invaders, and assorted other tyrants. Another dozen at least were killed for non-martyristic reasons, such as dynastic rivalries. In 964, pope John XII was reportedly bumped off by the husband of one of his papal mistresses, when the pair were caught en flagrante.
Skip the next millennium, and that Protestant kerfuffle, though it was hardly quiet. Nine popes in these centuries reigned for less than a month each; Urban VII, in 1590, didn’t survive a fortnight, in and out in September; malaria.
Jump to September 1978: newly-elected Pope John Paul the First was found dead in bed after a mere 33 days in office. Conspiracy theories abound alleging he was murdered. [But there is no evidence for the rumor that his successor first considered calling himself John Paul George and Ringo.]
Less than three years later, though, on 13 May 1981, Pope John Paul II was shot and severely wounded as he entered St. Peter’s Square. The gunman was Mehmet Ali Ağca, who was working with Bulgarian hitmen. (The pope recovered, and afterward visited and forgave his imprisoned assailant. Agca is said to have later converted to Catholicism).
No more papal shootings since then; but wait — if it’s a body count you want, look up the long-running (nearly 40 years & counting) scandal around the Vatican Bank.
Skip over the troubling fact that hundreds of millions of church endowments and the donations of the faithful have gone missing; overlook the copious evidence of ties to (and plunder by) mafiosi, money-laundering Russian oligarchs, corrupt Italian politicians and secretive terrorist cells.
But take note that the bank’s longtime top manager, Roberto Calvi, turned up hanging under a London bridge in June 1982. Calvi’s death was ruled a homicide, but the killers have not been found. Numerous other corpses have piled up around the incredibly complex (& costly) bank scandal, which isn’t yet over. No popes among them (so far), but a number of Vatican-adjacent casualties.
Francis knows this church history (of which there’s plenty more). He also knows personally about other contemporary Catholics being murdered and tortured. The Jesuit order he belongs to has produced numerous martyrs. And while serving as a Jesuit superior in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, Francis (then bishop, Jorge Bergoglio) had to survive and deal with a bloody military dictatorship that kidnaped and murdered up to 30,000 people.
Two Jesuit priests Bergoglio supervised were among those snatched and tortured. Francis insisted later that he had worked behind the scenes on behalf of the priests and other prisoners. But in public, he kept his head down, and survived to land in Rome.
There he found (no surprise) that today’s versions of political and cultural polarization had not spared the Vatican. To be sure, heresy hunts have waxed and waned since the days of the apostle Paul and his rivals. And who can forget the Inquisition? But newly militant reactionary factions continue to agitate inside the church, pushing back against change and trying to restore what they consider the “true” faith, which was an authoritarian status quo that reigned in the church up til the mid-1960s.
They’re also working to gain hegemony in public institutions, and have made serious inroads in the U. S., with the capture of the U. S. Supreme Court as their biggest prize (so far).
This wave of papal and hierarchical resistance to “modernism” was a special project of Pope Pius X (reigned from 1903-1914). In 1907, Pius devoted an entire long encyclical, an official letter, to denouncing the many terrible “doctrines of the modernists.” In it he ordered a worldwide campaign of censorship, local “watch committees” and purges of suspect Catholic scholars, priests and bishops, aimed to root them out.
“Don’t say, ‘Modern,’” was the 1907 Catholic version of “Don’t say ‘Gay.’”(And wouldn’t you know, Gov. Ron DeSantis is also a Catholic. The Catholic Herald recently enthused that “For many conservative Catholics, DeSantis looks ideal – a family man who champions freedom and traditional [NOTE: especially “traditional” white] values. Whether he can export his brand of conservatism nationwide is another matter.”)
Pius’s inquisition-like campaign earned him a halo, and inhibited much Catholic scholarship. But ultimately it failed to stem the “modernist” infiltration. Fifty-plus years later, in 1962, a wave of modernizing change was loosed by the Second Vatican Council, which was called by a real (and unexpected) reformer, Pope John XXIII.
In this assembly, several thousand bishop-delegates voted for changes of many kinds. One of the biggest turns came at the very last minute, in December of 1965: the Council finally declared that freedom of religion was, well, mostly okay with God, or at least with the prelates as the Divine’s designated spokesmen (“okay,” that is, except for a lengthening list of court-enforced exemptions, subsidies and preferences).
Some wags said the Vatican Council moved the church ahead 500 years in relation to culture. Less sanguine pundits agreed, yet noted that much of the church was rather more than 500 years behind the times. For freedom of religion, it was almost 2000 years. (Exaggeration? Ask any historically-informed Jew.)
While many Catholics welcomed the Council’s reforms, other, more traditional-minded, especially among bishops, fiercely rejected the changes.
Those who resisted most Council reforms soon found champions in two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose reigns stretched from 1978 to 2013. John Paul II and Benedict were known for demanding stricter adherence to pre-council patterns of hierarchy and hostility to nontraditional participation in church affairs by women. They also worked assiduously to blunt the impact, visibility and enormous cost of the ever-rising tide of sexual abuse exposés.
As part of this defensive agenda, the “traditionalists” have doubled down on permanent crusades against LGBT recognition and access to abortion, and to these ends forged alliances with non-Catholic political extremists, particularly in the USA.
Pope Benedict intended to cement this era of strict enforcement. He had spent years as an active head of the modern successor to the legendary, much-dreaded Inquisition. Rebranded as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it had (reluctantly?) given up the rack and the screw, but was still busy sniffing out hints of heresy (including excessive devotion to the “spirit” — aka actual implementation — of the Vatican Council reforms).
They detected such heterodoxy in any signal of openness to loosening limits on the church role of women, openness to divorced people, rethinking priestly celibacy, easing bans on birth control or condemnation of all abortions and LGBT persons. Not to mention independent “modernist” thinking especially among priests and theologians.
When Pope Benedict unexpectedly resigned, the anti-reformers, in particular Cardinal George Pell of Australia, lobbied the cardinals in conclave to stop Francis (then Bergoglio) from being elected as his successor.
But while most of the politicking during such conclaves is opaque, the outcome was clear: their lobbying failed.
Since Francis was elected in March 2013, from my outside liberal perspective, his reign has been welcome but hardly radical. He has been appealing in his shedding of most papal luxuries,, and downplaying the pomp. But there’s still no women priests, though he’s willing to hire a few more females as midlevel bureaucrats; no budging on abortion or birth control, no letup in the anti-LGBT stance, despite an occasional non-hostile remark or two. And if the church is any closer to opening up institutionally, I can’t see it.
Nevertheless, Francis looks much more “progressive” when contrasted to his authoritarian, inside-the-church adversaries, who idolize, among other earlier anti-modernist pontiffs, the now-sainted Pius X.
To the anti-Franciscans, particularly Cardinal Pell, who worked under him for five years, almost everything Francis has done has been shocking, outrageous, frightening, or all three. The fact that their former leader, ex-pope Benedict, lingered for nine more years, just down the street, a living ghost, cheering them on in stage whispers, only stoked their ire.
This outrage machine, modeled on American technology pioneered by Fox News and talk radio, was soon cranked into high gear, fueled by lots of American dark money, and has never since let up. Besides the nonstop propaganda barrage, they are counting the days, and scheming to build a coalition of cardinals which will vote in a suitably authoritarian new pope once Francis can be pushed aside or his candle is snuffed out.
I don’t know which cardinals are that party’s favorites, or papabile — “pope material” in Vatican watcher Italian slang (their equivalents of DeSantis in Florida); but there’s no doubt that the, um, grooming (and plenty of gossip) are well underway.
A manifesto/battle plan, drafted by Cardinal Pell, one of their most influential figures, was leaked last year by an Italian blogger. At first circulated pseudonymously, the memo began:
“Commentators of every school, if for different reasons . . . agree that this pontificate [of Francis] is a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe.”
Then Pell told them what he really thought:
“The first tasks of the new pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity in faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition. . . .
[Otherwise] If there was no Roman correction of such heresy, the Church would be reduced to a loose federation of local Churches, holding different views, probably closer to an Anglican or Protestant model, than an Orthodox model.
An early priority for the next pope must be to remove and prevent such a threatening development, by requiring unity in essentials and not permitting unacceptable doctrinal differences. The morality of homosexual activity will be one such flash point. . . .
Schism is not likely to occur from the left, who often sit lightly to doctrinal issues. Schism is more likely to come from the right and is always possible when liturgical tensions are inflamed and not dampened. . . .”
Conservatives cheered the Pell memo, as well as the tacit alliance it implied with ex-pope Benedict. As one Catholic paper, Crux, put it:
“Benedict was, in a sense, the Thinker-in-Chief for conservative Catholicism, while, especially in the English-speaking realm, Pell was more akin to its field general. He was a born battler, a former Australian Rules Football star and the son of a heavyweight boxing champion, who could translate Benedict’s lofty defense of Catholic orthodoxy into the hurly-burly of both secular and ecclesiastical politics.
Over the course of his life, [restoring the triumphalist Pius X model was] one of the “titanic battles” which “defined much of Pell’s public legacy. . . .”
Defending Catholic orthodoxy on the global stage and in Rome . . . Pell did everything in his power to promote like-minded conservatives and to resist the inroads of figures he saw as compromised or fuzzy. Among other things, Pell played the role of kingmaker among English-speaking cardinals in two conclaves, lobbying successfully for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, who become Pope Benedict, and unsuccessfully in 2013 [against Francis and] for Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola.”
Paul Collins, an Australian priest and historian, is a Vatican Council supporter and often debated Pell: Collins told the Sydney Morning Herald that,
“Pell was ordained in Rome in 1966; I was ordained in Melbourne in 1967. Our clerical careers took us in different directions until the visit to Australia of Pope John Paul II in 1986, when we both became prominent in the media.
By then, Pell was convinced that if the church was to have a future, it would have to maintain a fortress Catholicism that was “the one, true church” founded by Christ. It was guided by an infallible pope; it never changed its doctrines and its structure was divinely ordained. It was triumphalist Catholicism in which there was no room for questions or compromise. The church was there to teach the secular world the truth, not to learn from it.”
Pell took heart when Francis underwent major colon surgery in 2021, and was soon obliged to use a wheelchair. Pell thought he saw light at the end of the gloomy Franciscan tunnel.
In August 2022, according to the Jesuit magazine America, Pell evidently felt he would soon have a third chance at being a Vatican kingmaker. He “began telling people that Pope Francis was not in good health and was suffering from a serious illness.”
Last month, John Allen, a longtime friend of Pell, said
“‘during one of our recent exchanges, Pell speculated that Pope Francis was suffering from an undisclosed illness related to his colon surgery in 2021 and that we’d have a conclave before Christmas .’”
Allen added that “It was no secret in Rome that the Australian cardinal and several other cardinals were meeting regularly and, some said, discussing the next conclave. They shared a common unhappiness, even dislike, for the pontificate of Pope Francis and looked forward to the election of his successor, whom they hoped would be in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
They weren’t alone. But fate or Providence (take your pick) has a notoriously fickle finger: Christmas 2022 is past, and in early January Cardinal Pell died suddenly, of a heart attack after surgery of his own.
And as these notes are written, Francis is deep in central Africa, undaunted in his wheelchair, finishing a visit to the Congo and South Sudan. Besides calling for peace in and aid to these war-torn, mineral-rich, yet impoverished nations, Francis is also breaking ecumenical ground there:
In Sudan he’s traveled with the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields. Both denominations also have churches there. (Will such open consorting with these confirmed heretics give Francis’ critics who are now carrying Pell’s banner ammunition, or at least heartburn?)
This trip is an example of what Francis, in one of his earliest public messages, called evangelization by attraction: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’.”
I like the sound of that, but am not sure what it means concretely. Francis gave some tantalizing hints of it in a (campaign) speech he made to the cardinals’ conclave in 2013 the morning he was elected. A Cuban cardinal took notes and checked them with Francis:
Pope Francis issued a strong critique of the church before the College of Cardinals, just hours before he was selected, according to comments published Tuesday [12/13/2016] in Palabra Nueva, a Catholic magazine in Cuba.
According to Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio gave him a version of the speech. In it he urged the Vatican to eschew self-absorption and refocus its energies outward.
“The church is called on to emerge from itself and move toward the peripheries, not only geographic but also existential (ones): those of sin, suffering, injustice, ignorance and religious abstention, thought and all misery,” Bergoglio said, according to Ortega. . . .
In his statements, the future pontiff also warned of the dangers of stagnation.
“When the church does not emerge from itself to evangelize, it becomes self-referential and therefore becomes sick. … The evils that, over time, occur in ecclesiastical institutions have their root in self-referentiality, a kind of theological narcissism.” Bergoglio said.
He also criticized “a mundane church that lives within itself, of itself and for itself.” Bergoglio told the cardinals that whoever became the new pope should be “a man who … helps the church to emerge from itself toward the existential outskirts.”
Hmmm. The “existential outskirts.” From a Eurocentric standpoint, the Congo and Sudan are at these outskirts. But Francis likely also meant to include more than geography: also facing up to the tough issues like learning to accept LGBT believers, and divorced catholics, getting more serious about female equality, and more.
Also, “existential outskirts” would seem to imply really cleaning up the bottomless muck around the Vatican Bank. (Was finding the bank’s Roberto Calvi hanging under that London bridge sufficiently out on the “existential outskirts”?) It’s not only the theological throwbacks who are tempted to go off the rails to protect their turf: George Pell’s memo had one thing right when he said “For decades, the Vatican has dealt with disreputable financiers avoided by all respectable bankers in Italy.”
Another question: will the pope’s comparatively “progressive” agenda yield much “growth by attraction” and bring converts streaming back into Holy Mother Church?
In a word, no. As much credible analysis has shown, the secularizing trend in the West has continued uninterrupted even in liberal-minded denominations that have become “welcoming” and are working seriously on racial justice issues. Those matters are still worth pursuing, because they are right; but quality research has shown them not to be spiritual magnets that will pull the legions of “nonverts” streaming out the doors back into the pews. (Sorry.)
(Catholic numbers are shrinking in North America and Europe, and growing a bit in the global south.) Maybe in the West, it’s just fated that Christianity, in most of its flavors, is to become a shrinking minority community, despite all the electronically enhanced evangelistic megachurch fervor. None of the nostrums and fixes by church growth huckster consultants have stopped the exodus.
Maybe many churches are simply like an endangered species, whose numbers are disappearing because the environment changed; that happens all the time in nature, even without global warming to blame.
Still, I hope Francis sticks by his motto that “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”. There are other kinds of “growth” than by sheer numbers.
Anyway, this week, Francis was on the outskirts, in central Africa, visiting the Congo and South Sudan. Huge crowds cheered for him there. He called for an end to their civil wars, and just treatment of Africans by other nations. The crowds asked for (& got) his blessing.
But the papal plane will soon touch down back in Rome, the Eternal City . . . . And Francis will again awaken and be up to his wheelchair rims in alligators, some of which want to eat him, others determined to sideline him and chew up the church instead.
Hardly had ex-pope Benedict been buried in December but the Telegraph in London and La Stampa in Rome ran stories about a revised conservative plan to pile so much stress on Francis that his health would give out, forcing retirement, getting him out of their way, breathing or not:
The Telegraph: Pope Benedict surprised the world when he announced his resignation in 2013, informing, in Latin, a hall full of cardinals of his decision.
There are many in the Catholic Church who “dream of hearing those words again, but this time in (Pope Francis’) unmistakable Spanish (Argentinian) accent,” Gianluigi Nuzzi, a prominent Vatican commentator, wrote in La Stampa. . . .
Vatican conservatives are waging a “secret plan” to put Pope Francis under such stress that he resigns, it has been claimed.
The campaign against the Argentinian pontiff began just days after the death of his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Despite previously stating he will resign if his health deteriorates, it was thought highly unlikely that Francis would decide to step down while Benedict was still alive to avoid there being three Popes living in the Vatican – a situation without precedent that would have embarrassed the Catholic Church.
But with Benedict’s death on December 31, resignation is now a real prospect. That has opened the way for conservatives, who oppose his stance on issues ranging from homosexuality, abortion, communion for remarried divorcees and celibacy for priests, to start moving against him.
They have long seen him as being too critical of capitalism and too liberal on illegal immigration, with some going so far as to deride him as a “communist”.
“The secret plan will be formulated on various axes and phases, but it will have one objective – to place the pontificate under such stress that Francis will have to resign,” an Italian cardinal told La Stampa newspaper on Sunday.
The campaign would depend on “the progressive weakening of the Holy Father as well as his doctrinal choices, which will create a great deal of discontent which can be used against him.
“The opponents of Francis know that right now they are in a minority, that they will need time both to win consensus and to weaken Bergoglio,” said the cardinal, referring to Francis’s name before he became pontiff a decade ago.
Some of his enemies will operate “in the shadows’, while others will be more open in their criticism, the cardinal said.
This report, with its unnamed sources, might be only a rumor. But the targeting of Francis is real enough, and well-documented. And the deaths of Benedict and Cardinal Pell’s death are but bumps in the road for those financing and operating the machinery of outrage and reaction.
Francis, however, has one more big trump card: cardinals tend to be older, and mortal turnover among them is, um, relatively rapid. During his ten years, Francis has appointed most of the cardinals who will gather in conclave to elect the next pope. Each year that he remains pope, he’ll appoint more. If he has put his stamp on them, there should be a strong base for a successor who would continue his legacy.
But there are no guarantees; fickle finger of fate, and all that. [At left: The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award, a “prize” given out on “Laugh-In”, a once-famous comedy TV show from the late 1960s.]
In 1958, after Pope Pius XII died, the cardinals who voted for Angelo Roncalli to succeed him reportedly thought his would be a brief, uncontroversial reign.
They were half right: As Pope John XXIII, Roncalli only served five years. But his unexpected calling of the Vatican Council shook the church like an earthquake. Its tremors still reverberate sixty years later, and its impact reaches far beyond the realm of the Church.
Some still resent the shaking, and have vowed to bring down Francis, as its current embodiment.
Ahhh: “civilization.” And true religion?
After coming through years of dictatorship in Argentina, and a decade of navigating the perpetual intrigues of the Eternal City, at 86, Francis is physically weaker, but has so farshown dogged survival skills.
But what a scene to wake up to. How much more of such a siege can he endure?
God bless him; but I’m still wondering.