ROME — Can it really just be diplomatic happenstance that the date set this week for the prayer summit bringing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres together with Pope Francis at the Vatican is a day of particular moment on the Christian calendar?
The June 8 gathering, to which Francis invited the two leaders during his recent trip to the Middle East, will coincide with the Christian feast of Pentecost, when the Bible reports that the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples after Jesus had ascended to Heaven, transforming them from a timid bunch cowering in an upper room into the most fearless missionaries the world has ever seen.
Perhaps in private, Francis is hoping for a similar miracle this time around.
In public, however, the pope is setting the bar low. He told reporters during an airborne press conference on Monday that the encounter will be exclusively “a meeting of prayer, not to mediate or to seek solutions.”
“We’re meeting to pray, only that,” he said, “and then everyone will go home.”
That caution doubtless reflects the case-hardened realities of peace politics in the Middle East — high expectations are almost invariably dashed. But it may also reflect the lessons of Francis’s own trip, which brought daily reminders of how intractable the conflict remains.
When he visited Muslim leaders at the Dome of the Rock, the pontiff was forced to sit through diatribes vowing there will never be peace until Israeli “violence” and “occupation” end.
At the same time, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry testily dismissed the pope’s moment of silent prayer the day before at the barrier separating Israel from the West Bank as a “propaganda stunt.”
Whatever this summit achieves in terms of the peace process, it illustrates two key points about Francis’ brand of diplomacy.
First, he has adopted a distinctly religious approach.
While the basis for the Vatican’s activism has always been religious, in the past it would often act like any other small state or nongovernmental organization in conflict situations.
It might offer itself as a mediator, as it did in 1979 by negotiating a resolution to a potentially bloody war between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Islands. Or it might lend its support to movements in civil society, as Pope John Paul II did in the 1980s with Solidarity in Poland.
Such efforts will continue, but Francis apparently has decided that his personal role will come in a spiritual key, bringing parties together for prayer or convening special days of prayer and fasting, as he did in September with regard to Syria.
At first blush that may seem like naïveté, or withdrawal, but it’s the farthest thing from it. Many of the world’s deadliest conflicts have a strong religious undertone, and Francis is speaking a spiritual language in addressing them that no secular politician can approximate.
Second, Francis, an Argentine, is the first pope in history to bridge the planet’s northern and southern hemispheres — the first multipolar pope, that is — and so he doesn’t carry the baggage of being seen as a Western leader.
For centuries, the Vatican’s default setting was to align itself with the perceived great Christian power or powers. For a long time that meant deciding which European monarchy to enlist, while after World War II it meant embracing the European Union and, to some extent, the United States. The idea was that the Vatican’s natural partner would be in the West, which was especially compelling as long as popes were themselves all Europeans.
Today, that assumption no longer holds. Two-thirds of the Catholics in the world live outside the West, and Francis is the first pope from the developing world. His election has freed Catholicism to adopt an à la carte style of diplomacy, forging alliances on specific issues but no longer positioning itself as the de facto chaplain of NATO.
On some issues, such as the Syrian conflict, Francis’ line has been closer to Russia and China than the Western powers. The pope’s feel for a multipolar world can also be glimpsed from the fact that he’s announced two trips to Asia — South Korea in August, and the Philippines and Sri Lanka in January — before he will go anywhere in either Europe or North America.
All that may do little to raise the odds of comity, much less a breakthrough, at the June 8 prayer summit, which will also be attended by a rabbi and a Muslim religious leader. For one thing, the headaches aren’t just diplomatic but also theological.
Jews and Muslims have their own sensitivities about praying with followers of other religions, while for Catholics, Pope John Paul II’s 1986 prayer summit in Assisi, Italy, the birthplace of St. Francis, opened a debate about the limits of interfaith prayer that has never really ended.
It will be fascinating to see what kind of ritual organizers invent, and whether it includes joint prayer or rather separate prayers in the same space.
At the level of realpolitik, it’s not yet clear if the pope’s brand of politics can move the ball, but perhaps that’s not the right test for a distinctly religious actor.
“I realize political credibility is important in this world,” said American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, “but it’s more important to be faithful to God. ... He’s counting on the Lord, and you can’t tell the pope that’s not the right thing to do.”
McCarrick, a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter, spoke to the Globe in Jerusalem during the papal visit.
The pope, he said, “is not putting himself out on a limb, he’s putting himself up on the Cross, and that’s what he’s called to do.”
In any event, he’s certainly doing it in his own unique way.
Pope meets the charismatics
At least stereotypically, Catholics aren’t by nature “holy rollers,” in the sense of engaging in exuberant praise and worship and public fits of religious passion. As American writer John Sandford memorably had his fictional detective Lucas Davenport put it, “Catholics don’t scream about Jesus, they scream about the bishop.”
Somewhat below the radar screen, however, one of the most significant impulses in Catholic life over the last half-century has been the growth of what is today known as the “Charismatic Movement,” referring to a high-octane style of spirituality that in many ways mimics Pentecostal Christianity, especially in its zest for the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as speaking in tongues, visions, and miraculous healings.
Today the official estimate for the number of charismatic Catholics is 120 million, which would be 10 percent of the global Catholic population of 1.2 billion. In reality, however, the number likely is far higher, because in many parts of the developing world people might not recognize the word “charismatic” but they certainly identify with the spiritual practices and styles of worship it implies.
This weekend, Pope Francis is scheduled to impart the clearest papal seal of approval on the charismatic movement since 1975, when Pope Paul VI opened the door by calling it “a chance for the Church.” Francis will travel across town to join a charismatic rally at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, where the city’s professional soccer franchises play, and where more than 50,000 people are expected to gather.
Francis has said he wants to take part in the prayer and worship and to deliver a message to the gathering, which is sponsored by Renewal of the Spirit, the main Italian branch of the charismatic movement.
One of the featured speakers is American Catholic Ralph Martin, a longtime leader in charismatic circles who today teaches at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Martin sat down in Rome for an interview about the rally this weekend and the significance of the pope’s involvement.
Globe: What’s this weekend in Rome about?
Martin: The charismatic renewal is very strong in Italy, and they have an annual meeting. They usually have it in Rimini but this year they decided to do it in Rome, and when they explained it to Pope Francis he said, “I’m coming!” He volunteered to come. He’s going to be spending a fair amount of time with us, and more than 50,000 people signed up within a couple weeks.
The hope is that papal calls for a New Pentecost, which go back to St. John XXIII, and papal calls for a New Evangelization, which go back to Vatican II and especially to St. John Paul II, can come together. Pope Francis’ vision is to bring together the reality of a New Pentecost with the urgency of a New Evangelization.
Globe: Do you expect him to engage in charismatic practices such as speaking in tongues or healings?
Martin: Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised. We don’t know what he’s going to do. We know he wants to enter the stadium walking, he wants to participate in the worship that’s going on, and we also know that he wants to say something to us. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see.
Globe: What was the pope’s relationship with the charismatic movement in Argentina?
Martin: He’s said publicly that initially he didn’t know what to think, and he wondered if it was superficial emotion, but as he got to know [charismatics] he changed his mind. [Note: In a press conference during his return flight from Brazil in July, Francis said he used to think that charismatics “confused the holy liturgy with a school of samba,” but that he was “converted when I got to know them better and saw the good they do.”]
My hope for the weekend is that all Catholics will become more open to the presence and reality of the Holy Spirit, because I think we really need it.
Globe: What do charismatic Catholics make of Pope Francis? They tend to be fairly conservative theologically, yet they must like his free-wheeling style.
Martin: It’s pretty much what a lot of committed Catholics are making of him. They’re thrilled, they’re refreshed, they think it’s a breath of fresh air. Charismatics have seen pictures of Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires praying and asking Protestant pastors to pray for him. His friendship towards the charismatic renewal is there.
At the same time, they’re scratching their heads sometimes wondering, “What did he mean by that?” Is he pro-life? What does he mean, “Who am I to judge?” They think he’s fantastic, but they also wonder how some of these pieces fit.
Globe: Francis is going to be holding his prayer meeting with the Palestinian and Israeli presidents on June 8, which also happens to be the Feast of Pentecost. Do you think there’s anything significant about that?
Martin: Whenever people open their hearts to God in some way, the Lord wants to do something good. Even if it just got scheduled randomly for that day, I’m sure [Pope Francis] sees significance in that.
Globe: What do you hope the impact of this weekend will be?
Martin: I think there are a lot of closet charismatics out there. A lot of [clergy] personally have had their vocations saved because of their experience of Christ and the Holy Spirit through the renewal, but they discovered it wasn’t cool [to say so out loud] because it was considered fringe. They got the message from the environment not to talk about it very much. I think the time has come for the closet charismatics to come out. I think the pope’s presence might encourage it, along with a growing realization that an action of God may be the only thing that can save the Church today.
‘Trust but verify’ on finances
During that airborne press conference Monday night, Pope Francis was asked a question about where things stand vis-à-vis his push for Vatican reform. He replied that the work is ongoing, noting that the first concrete results have come in the arena of Vatican finances with the creation of a new “Secretariat of the Economy” to impose discipline and transparency.
Indirectly, the pontiff credited the media with the outcome.
“The economic part is the one that came out first because there were some problems about which the press spoke a lot,” he said.
The reference was likely to the case of Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, a former accountant in the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, or APSA, who was arrested in June on charges of being complicit in a $30 million cash smuggling scheme, and later also charged with using his accounts at the Vatican bank to launder money.
Despite the creation of a new bureaucratic structure, it’s not as if such headaches have disappeared. Since the new secretariat was announced, the Vatican’s former number two official, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, has been accused of illicitly transferring $20 million to a film production company, and a scandal has broken out over a sumptuous party organized on a Vatican rooftop during the April 27 canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II that allegedly cost $25,000, and which reportedly left the “pope of the poor” a bit disgruntled.
If nothing else, these imbroglios illustrate the depth of the challenge facing Pope Francis and his new team in trying to change the culture.
I was recently talking about all this with someone involved in the overhaul, who asked if I had read Benny Lai’s 2012 book on the tumultuous modern history of Vatican finances. Lai covered the Vatican for various Italian publications beginning in 1951, and this was his last book before his death in December 2013. (Alas, it’s not available in English.)
Lai documented how previous waves of reform came and went, often without noticeable effect. The person who recommended the book said his experience of working in the Vatican offers “full confirmation” of what Lai wrote, and in some ways that’s not a terribly encouraging assessment.
For instance, Pope Paul VI created a “Prefecture for Economic Affairs” in 1967 in an effort to provide an accurate overall picture of the Vatican’s financial condition. Four years later Paul VI was presented with the first balance sheet since the loss of the pope’s temporal power a century before, Lai reports, but felt he couldn’t make it public since no one would take it seriously.
Among other things, the various departments included in the report all used different methods for calculating the worth of their holdings — some relied on the purchase price, others on estimated current market value, others on what they thought they could realistically get for it, and so on. Moreover, the “Institute for the Works of Religion,” the so-called Vatican bank, wasn’t included.
It wasn’t until 1979, under John Paul II, that the Vatican actually released an annual financial statement, and it wasn’t until 2009 that it provided a figure for how much the Vatican bank gives to the pope each year.
Lai also describes the efforts of American Cardinal Edmond Szoka to right the Vatican’s financial ship during his difficult tenure at the prefecture from 1990 to 1997. Like Australian Cardinal George Pell today, tapped by Francis as his new financial czar, Szoka was brought in under John Paul II as a no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon who would whip the Vatican into shape.
While Szoka was successful in ending 23 consecutive years of deficit spending, Lai suggests his larger reform plan went basically nowhere. According to Lai, Szoka wanted to sell off the Vatican’s gold reserves and invest the income, along with some of the property the Vatican holds around Rome that’s currently used to provide low-rent housing for employees. He also aimed to switch the working schedule of the Vatican to a five-day, 40-hour week, to cut the number of low-level aides in each office, and to drastically trim the payroll at Vatican Radio.
In the end, little of that happened. As Lai wrote, “The men of the Roman Curia have always been masters at taking shelter until the storm passes.”
Overall, the moral of Lai’s story would seem to be a dose of caution about how quickly change may arrive, or how comprehensive it will be when it does.
Naturally, the situation is different today — partly because of Francis, the first pope since Paul VI to make internal governance a real priority; in part because of Pell, who’s nobody’s idea of a milquetoast; and in part because of the dynamics of the last conclave, which was the most anti-establishment papal election in a century.
On the other hand, insiders report cause for concern. For one thing, a cultural rift may be opening up between Italians and the international cohort to which the project has been largely entrusted. For another, some old-timers can’t help but see the talk about transparency as an indictment of what went before.
There’s also a still-unanswered question about what exactly “financial reform” means.
For instance, is it exclusively about maximizing income and minimizing expenses, thereby reducing the burden on dioceses around the world? That might imply revisiting Szoka’s suggestion and kicking Vatican employees out of their apartments so they can be rehabbed and sold. Or would that be an oddly off-key step in the Francis era? From a PR point of view, do you really want Vatican employees staging a protest in St. Peter’s Square demanding to know why the pope is calling for housing for the poor elsewhere while driving his own people from their homes?
Given the complications, perhaps it’s best to fall back on what we might call the “Benny Lai” rule vis-à-vis sweeping financial change: Trust, but verify.
Did Benedict resign?
Yet another point of interest from the recent press conference came when Francis took a question about papal resignation. He didn’t reveal his own plans, saying only that he’ll do “what the Lord tells me,” but did insist that he believes Benedict XVI historic decision to step down is not an “isolated case.”
In that connection, an essay on Tuesday by longtime Vatican watcher Vittorio Messori is intriguing.
Based on a recent study by Italian canon law expert Stefano Violi, who scoured Benedict’s Feb. 11, 2013, resignation announcement syllable by syllable for its precise meaning, Voli and Messori conclude that Benedict never actually abdicated the papacy. Instead, he renounced the exercise of the papal ministry — a crucial difference, in their eyes, which in effect means the Church really does now have two popes at the same time.
In truth, they believe, he didn’t even completely give up exercising the office.
The way Violi and Messori’s analysis goes, being pope has two basic components: agendo et loquendo — acting and teaching; and orando et patendo — praying and suffering. They believe Benedict laid down the former but never the latter, which explains his continuing residence in the Vatican and his continuing use of papal vestments. In effect, they believe he is continuing in some ways to function as pope, while leaving the work of governance to his successor.
As Violi puts it, Benedict “did not renounce the office, which is irrevocable, but only its concrete execution,” and even then only in part.
Messori argues that Francis may see things the same way, which perhaps helps explain why he prefers the title “Bishop of Rome,” of which he is unquestionably the only one at the moment, to “pope” or “pontiff,” of which there would now be two.
Messori gives all this a happy spin, writing that “it’s a gift [for the Church] that there is, physically shoulder to shoulder, one who leads and teaches and one who prays and suffers, for all, but above all to support his brother in the daily papal office.”
Time will tell if Francis himself will provide the next chance to see how a pontiff who steps down understands his act, and if he does, whether he’ll take the same approach as Benedict or blaze yet another a new trail.