Friday, June 20, 2014

For Summer "Vacation," Francis Meets the Mob

Fifteen months into his tenure as Primate of Italy, Papa Francesco has yet to visit Venice, Milan, Genoa or Naples, but in his fourth domestic trek beyond Rome, the weekend brings another stop at the "periphery" – and yet again, one which has already impacted his vision for the church in the "boot."

Early tomorrow, Francis will helicopter some 300 miles southward, to Cassano all'Ionio in the peninsula's lower arch. The visit makes good on a promise Francis made last December as part of his attempt at restitution for plucking the town's bishop, Nunzio Galantino (above), to come to the capital last December as his designated secretary-general of the Italian bishops' conference, the CEI.

Traditionally chosen from among the bishops, the secretary of the Italian bench has invariably given up his prior post on taking the reins of the CEI. Prior to his appointment, however, Galantino sought to do double-duty in overseeing both his diocese and the conference's Rome headquarters. While Francis has allowed the arrangement so far, the setup could prove complicated in the long term given the distance between the two and the size of the workload. Accordingly, in a letter he wrote to "ask permission" of the people of Cassano to take their bishop, the Pope said Galantino's twin roles would continue "at least for a certain time," the six-month point of which is coming next week.

In the note to the people, Francis said that – even if their bishop "would surely prefer to remain with you" – he "need[ed]" Galantino in Rome "for an important mission in the Italian church."

"I ask you, please, to understand me, and to forgive me," the Pope wrote, adding that their evident "brotherly and fatherly love" for the prelate "moves me and makes me thank God."

As previously reported, Francis stunned the home-turf Establishment on selecting Galantino, who served for 27 years as pastor of the same parish prior to his 2012 appointment to Cassano and didn't figure in the preliminary consultations for the national post. As a result, the new CEI chief has become the "poster prelate" of the type of episcopal nominee Papa Bergoglio seeks, the identikit for which he laid out most extensively in February on addressing his reconstituted Congregation for Bishops. Over the months since, Galantino made waves with comments criticizing his confreres for a perceived lack of enthusiasm for Francis' program and voicing his hope that the church could discuss controversial issues "without taboos." In addition, last month the Pope tapped his new confidant's local deputy, the Cassano vicar-general Francesco Oliva, to lead his own diocese adjacent to Sicily.

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Backdrop aside, while the one-day jaunt was primarily intended as a bright, flashing sign of Francis' regard for Galantino and his gratitude to the people for letting him go, the church context became just half the story after the January Mafia killing of a 3 year-old boy in Cassano, Nicola Campolongo, sparked a national outcry against the stranglehold organized crime continues to have in southern Italy.

At his Angelus on the weekend of the attack, the Pope himself weighed in, saying that the boy's death in a car bombing – an act of retaliation against his grandfather's unpaid debts – "seems not to have any precedent in the history of criminality."

Using the boy's nickname, Francis said "we pray with Coco, who surely is with Jesus in heaven, for the people who committed this crime, that they might repent and convert to the Lord."

While a public Mass on the shore of the Ionian Sea is slated to close the day, the Pope's schedule begins with an hour-long mid-morning stop at the local prison, at which a public speech is planned. Afterward, visits are scheduled with the local sick and elderly at two separate care facilities, the priests of the diocese in the cathedral. Francis will have lunch with the poor served by the diocese's charity arm.

In announcing the visit in March, Galantino warned that the day was not to become a moment of "unjustified expense" for either the church or the local authorities. The bishop likewise rapped "the temptation" some would have to seek "preferred treatment or privileged places," adding that any aspiring donors or others aiming for "front row" or similar perks for the day were "dispensed" from offering any contribution they'd expect a reward for.

"The only privileged ones here," he said, "will be the sick and those who've been coming to Caritas for a long time."

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The Cassano stop is just one of two summer getaways within Italy which Francis has planned – at least, so far.

On 5 July, the Pope is slated to go to Campobasso in the central province of Molise, another venue where the Mafia's toll has been prominent. And as with Galantino, the plan doubles as a "thank you" to another of Bergoglio's domestic allies.

This past Good Friday, Francis chose Campobasso's Archbishop Giancarlo Bregantini to write this year's reflections for the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum. Another career pastor and teacher before his appointment as a bishop, the bearded 65 year-old heads up the Italian church's national efforts on social justice, peace and the pastoral care of workers. It bears adding that Bregantini's most well-known target of criticism over the years has been 'ndrangheta, the group widely reputed to be Italy's most vicious crime syndicate, and one whose leaders were said last year to be "nervous [and] agitated" by Francis' attempts at "dismantling the centers of economic power in the Vatican."

Speaking of PopeTrips, it seems some could use reminding that while Francis has only left Italy twice since his election, three overseas journeys are now confirmed to take place before mid-January.

Following mid-August's visit to South Korea for a pan-Asian youth congress – which he intends to conclude in Seoul's cathedral with a "Mass for Peace and Reconciliation" between the country and the Communist North – at Sunday's Angelus the Pope suddenly added his first stop within Europe: a one-day trek on 21 September to the Albanian capital of Tirana, in order "to confirm in faith the church [there] and witness my encouragement and love to a country which has long suffered the consequences of past ideologies."

While an African trip is expected to emerge somewhere in 2015, next year's first stop is again to an Asian church which, on several fronts, arguably best represents this pontificate's "dream" of a vibrant, engaged and inculturated "missionary discipleship" – and thanks to it, has become the biggest winner under Francis to date.

Reportedly to begin with two days in Sri Lanka (a 12-hour flight from Rome) in mid-January, Francis will then head to the Philippines – global Catholicism's third-largest outpost – with the prime item said to be an outreach to the communities affected by November's Typhoon Yolanda, which claimed more than 6,000 lives and directly impacted over a million households. The Vatican advance team visit to plan both legs of the tour will take place in July.

Of course, that's not all. Awaiting little more than the Holy See's formal announcement, Francis' envisioned multi-city US stop in September 2015 has ostensibly added Mexico to the itinerary, according to indications there from church and civil quarters alike.

While the Pope has sworn off returning to lower Latin America until at least 2016, adding Mexico – the world's second-largest Catholic country – to the Stateside card makes sense: much as these shores' Anglo chattering-class has been embarrassingly late to the game, the influx of some 30 million Mexicans north of the border has, among other things, kept the US church from both aging precipitously and posting a net loss of roughly half its membership.

In other words, a visit to the church in the States would be incomplete without due focus on (and, indeed, tribute to) the driving force behind its new de facto majority... and to go full-bore toward that end, a report from Mexico's semi-official news service earlier this week said that – in the vein of Francis' penitential pilgrimage to Lampedusa and sudden stop at the Israeli wall in Bethlehem – the Pope was "consulting various trusted people" in Mexico's northern cities on his "wish" to spend a moment at the barrier separating it from the US.

In a way, the gesture could be seen as an outgrowth of the outdoor Mass at the border celebrated April 1st by several US bishops, led by Francis' principal North American adviser, Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap., who said in a recent interview with the Daily Beast that the Pope subsequently made reference to the "powerful" images of the event which had reached the Domus.