Friday, March 28, 2014

In the Confessional, A Penitent Pope

Asked by Italy's most-prominent daily earlier this month for an assessment of his first year as Pope, Francis demurred, saying "I only do that every fifteen days, with my confessor."

Even if he's taken all the sacraments for his latest general audience series, over the last 54 weeks, Papa Bergoglio's spoken of none more frequently or urgently than Confession, Penance, Reconciliation – whatever you call it. And for a Pope who continues to be both championed and castigated as some sort of raving iconoclast, the ecclesial Left's post-Conciliar ambivalence at best toward "the box" should serve as a reminder that the reality of things is rather more complex than the chattering-class polarities of these days tend to admit.

Indeed, were the buzz to hold water, a truly "progressive" Pope would've already wound back his predecessors' crackdown on the "third rite" of the sacrament – the liturgical name for general absolution without individual confession, which had become prevalent in some quarters over recent decades until Rome took to enforcing the condition that the practice was intended only for situations where massive numbers of penitents were in imminent danger of death or another insurmountable reason. With Francis – who has attributed his own conversion to an experience in the Confessional – any return to "box"-free absolution is about as likely as the restoration of the tiara.

Even that, however, was merely a prelude for what happened in the Basilica tonight. At a Lenten service with the second rite of penance – the communal examination of conscience with individual confessions – Francis took it on himself to back up his words with example.

Fullvideo below – the camera pans away at points, but keeps returning....

The footage is indeed unprecedented – while John Paul II routinely heard the confessions of 12 laymen every Good Friday in St Peter's and B16 spent some time administering the sacrament in a Madrid park at World Youth Day 2011, no Pope has ever been seen as a penitent.

After his turn on the other side of the sacrament, Francis spent another 40 minutes hearing confessions.

The exercise wasn't just one for the Vatican – the penance service doubled as the global kickoff of "24 Hours for the Lord," an initiative of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization that asked the dioceses of the world to provide round-the-clock opportunity for confession in at least one church at some point over this fourth weekend of Lent. (In Rome, the church of Spirito Santo in Sassia right outside the Vatican walls was slated to open its doors for the night once the Vatican service ended.)

While Francis plugged the event as "a feast of forgiveness" at his Sunday Angelus – and the dioceses were reportedly alerted in February – as of press time, only two US churches are known to have joined the effort: San Antonio and Juneau. The PCPNE has expressed the intent that the "24 hours" will become an annual opportunity over the days around Laetare Sunday.

In general, meanwhile, beyond starting this Friday off with another Domus Mass homily on Confession, by midmorning the Pope did it yet again, telling a conference arranged by the Apostolic Penitentiary that the Confessional "is not a court of condemnation, but the experience of forgiveness and mercy!"

"In all the dioceses and in the parish communities," Francis urged it as "very important" that "the celebration of this Sacrament of forgiveness and salvation is particularly taken care of."

According to CARA figures, just 14 percent of US Catholics partake of the sacrament more than once a year. While many local churches have aimed to turn the tide – most prominently by adopting "The Light Is On For You," which sees every parish in a diocese open for confessions on each Wednesday evening of Lent – experience shows two things: first, the awareness and effectiveness of "Light"-style initiatives tends to be blunted unless all the dioceses in a given media market take it up together, and contrary to what many might think, confessions actually increase to the degree that a parish expands opportunities for them beyond the usual hour or less on Saturday afternoons.

In any event, it's worthwhile to recall that all of 17 months ago at the 2012 Synod, several prelates highlighted Penance as "the sacrament of the New Evangelization," while others urged that the church's effectiveness in re-sparking the faith required "a new humility."

Sure, those assessments have come to life in a powerful way over the last year... but perhaps today saw them resonate even more than before.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Talking Points: "Freedom, Life, Conscience"... And A Promise Kept

(Updated 1.45pm ET with White House readout.)

Three and a half hours after the Pope and President wrapped up their 52-minute talks, the Holy See has just released the following readout....

This morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which he met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.

During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.

In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.
* * *
Of course, the phrase "religious freedom, life and conscientious objection" refers above all to the US church's stringent opposition to the Obama administration's mandate for contraceptive coverage in benefit plans, which has seen nearly 100 church entities sue the Federal government to block the policy on religious liberty grounds.

The mention of immigration reform, meanwhile, fulfills a promise Francis made yesterday to a 10 year-old girl, Jersey Vargas, who asked the Pope after the General Audience to raise the issue of the rising number of deportations of undocumented immigrants with the president. Her father soon to be deported, Jersey was part of a group of immigrant advocates from Southern California who reportedly landed a prime spot at the Wednesday gathering thanks to an endorsement from the head of the nation's largest diocese, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles.

The White House statement still to emerge, it'll be run here as soon as it arrives.

SVILUPPO 6.45pm Rome/1.45pm Eastern: Instead of the customary statement, the White House has just issued the following exchanges from Obama's evening press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as its official summary of the papal audience....
Q. Mr. President, in your meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, did he register any objections with you about the contraception coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act or your efforts to advance the rights of gays and lesbians in the United States that worry so many Catholics? And what were his concerns?

And on Russia, with reports of troops building on the Ukrainian border, by taking the military option off the table are you sending a signal to Vladimir Putin that other parts of Ukraine are his for the taking? And why not send multinational peacekeepers to the Ukrainian border as a deterrent?

And to you, Mr. Prime Minister, the President said yesterday that the U.S. would defend any NATO ally. Are you making that same commitment when it comes to Russia?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: In terms of the meeting with His Holiness, Pope Francis, we had a wide-ranging discussion. I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.

And those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue. And he’s discussed in the past I think the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.

And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how illusive peace is around the world. There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians. And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world. But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.

I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don't look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy -- that that's critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.

In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on -- other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him -- was immigration reform. And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families. I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.

And he actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act. In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law. And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt. Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.

And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.

Q. Mr. President, I just want to follow up on Jim’s question on your meeting with the Pope today. Do you think some of the schisms that he referenced on social issues would stand in the way of you and Pope Francis collaborating or forming a strategic alliance to tackle income inequality?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, I just want to make clear -- maybe it wasn’t clear from my answer to Jim -- that we actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness. In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation. I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with. And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.

I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about. I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people -- who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.

And so, for him to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs -- he is not going to get into details of it, but he reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are. It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy. Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.

So he’s, hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively. And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.

Obama Comes to Francis

Lest anyone missed the first moments of this morning's much-awaited audience, here they are....

As of 11am Rome (6am ET), the Pope and POTUS have gone past a half-hour behind closed doors. (SVILUPPO: Per the White House, the private talks ended at 11.19am, running 52 minutes.)

The president having arrived a few minutes early, the traditional exchange of gifts and greeting of the visiting delegation remain to come; the US party is due to meet with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, at 11.25. The usual readouts – summaries from each side – of the talks should emerge around Roman Noon.

While Obama's Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough – the brother of two priests – was conspicuous by his absence, the delegation accompanying the president was led by three heavyweights: the National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose selection as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee (the first Catholic from either party since JFK) set off a high-octane ecclesiastical debate that echoes even into the present.

* * *
SVILUPPO – 11.55am Rome: As we await the readouts, perhaps the day's most striking image – well, beyond the sight of the US delegation's women all veiled in traditional, full-length black mantillas – was that of the Stars and Stripes flying over San Damaso courtyard (above) as the presidential party showed up. It's difficult, if not impossible, to recall that happening at prior presidential visits.

The gifts were pretty poignant, to boot. For his part – perhaps signaling a wish for a new springtime with the church – Obama gave Francis a collection of seeds used in the White House garden. The kicker, however, was the chest they came in: custom-made and engraved with the occasion and date, the case was fashioned of wood from the US' first cathedral, Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, which the Jesuit founder-Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe – the future architect of the Capitol – designed as a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment. Against the backdrop of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate which has roiled the Stateside church for going on three years, the significance is rather rich.

In a way, Francis responded in kind. As he has with other heads of state and government, the Pope is believed to have given Obama a copy of his programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, which condemned abortion in unstinting terms with its warning that "it is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life," but was still assailed by conservatives for its ridicule of those who "continue to defend trickle-down theories" of economics.

Before the massive motorcade rolled through St Peter's Square and the Arch of the Bells at midmorning, the buzz among the natives was that – unbeknownst to the press corps – Francis celebrated his morning Mass in the Basilica for a group of almost 500 members of the Italian Parliament, including the heads of both its chambers.

In his homily to the officials, Papa Bergoglio used today's Gospel as a springboard to advise against the temptation toward "compartmentalization" that public life can lead to – "people with good manners, but ugly habits."

"Compartmentalization" leads to "corruption," the Pope said, all of it born from people's "hardness of heart that became so great they could no longer hear the Lord's voice."


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

At the Vatican, It's Obama's Turn... But The Pope's Trip Takes Center Stage

A year into the new Rule of Francis, the Pope has met almost every key Western leader, with one particularly glaring exception.

That'll change first thing Thursday morning, as President Obama returns to the Apostolic Palace for his first meeting with Papa Bergoglio and second overall with a Pope after his July 2009 visit to Benedict XVI.

Given its late afternoon scheduling to accommodate Obama's schedule – and the now-retired Pope's desire to meet with him – that earlier visit upended standard Vatican protocol, which invariably sees heads of state and government received from mid-morning until noon. This time, with Francis enjoying Stateside approval numbers more than double those of the battle-weary, second-term president, Air Force One is touching down in Rome tomorrow night to allow for the morning time-slot.

A keen morning person, Francis prefers to hold the daily rounds of courtesy audiences for high-profile visitors before lunch. Despite the new reality of the Pope residing at the Domus, almost all of his formal meetings are still held in the Papal Apartment atop the Palace, which he continues to employ as his daytime office.

In another change from the last POTUS-Pope summit, the First Lady won't be meeting Francis alongside her husband; together with the couple's two daughters, Michelle Obama is on a visit to China. As the Vatican stop is part of a six-day swing through Europe and Saudi Arabia, the makeup of the delegation accompanying Obama on Thursday remains unclear.

Of course, amid the Democrat's prominent support of legal abortion and the seeping of the wider political polarization into American Catholic life, no modern Commander-in-Chief can visit the Pope without a spate of controversy, or the desire for it from media or lobbying circles. A year since Francis' emergence, however, the Obama White House has come to warmly embrace the new Pope, with the president even taking to pulling quotes from the pontiff on the stump.

At a preliminary briefing for the visit, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Obama "has long looked forward to meeting Pope Francis.

"He has very much admired the leadership he has provided in his first year as Pope, his commitment to address issues like income inequality, and his leadership of the church more broadly," Carney said, adding that the president was especially intent "to hear about the very ambitious agenda that [Francis] has launched in his first year."

Following the president's sit-down with the Pope – likely to comprise around a half-hour one on one, then the usual exchange of gifts and Francis' greetings to the traveling aides – per custom, geopolitical issues will come into further focus as Obama meets with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Among the phalanx of secular heavyweights who've been beating a path to his door since his ascent to the papacy, Francis has already met with the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Spain, the United Nations and European Community, as well as most of the heads of state or government from his native Latin America. Last week, the Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner paid her third visit to the country's most celebrated export, which this time included a long lunch for the duo alone. With Kirchner running late due to a leg injury, keeping to his own form, as the Pope waited for the president at the door of the Domus, he walked over alone to start chatting with the press corps on hand. (Above, Francis is shown walking with the granddaughter of the Maltese President, George Abela, who brought his family to his audience on Saturday.)

Next week, another top-flight visit's in store for Francis as Queen Elizabeth II returns to the Vatican to meet with the seventh Pope of her 62-year reign. Given the British monarch's historic role as supreme governor of the Church of England, the encounter brings an added ecumenical dimension, all the more given the queen's intense personal faith and commitment to a prominent place for religion in society.

Set to be accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, in a sign of the Pope's esteem, the royals won't be received at the Palace, but for a more personal visit at the Domus. Soon to turn 88 and in the process of handing over an increasing amount of duties to her heirs, the queen's Rome swing will be her first overseas trip in three years.

Back to Obama's stop, meanwhile, as domestic affairs always tend to frame the stage for an American president at the Vatican, this week brings converging storylines featuring a couple key threads on the US' church-state front.

First, underscoring the bishops' prime clash with the administration over recent years, today brings the oral arguments at the Supreme Court in two cases seeking an overturn of the Federal health-care reform's mandate for contraceptive coverage in benefit plans. As opposed to the scores of suits filed by church-related entities nationwide over the Obamacare mandate's exemptions for religious employers, however, the cases at issue today involve the ability of for-profit businesses to opt out from covering contraceptives on religious freedom grounds.

With the church suits encountering a clash of outcomes as they wend their way through lower courts, Supreme Court review for those cases is likely in the next term. As the mandate took force for non-exempt religious institutions last January, several injunctions were issued to Catholic entities, allowing them to not comply without penalty until the cases were settled. Most prominently, the SCOTUS granted a stay for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other church organs enrolled in its Christian Brothers-administered plans.

While the issue of the mandate was raised as a concern of the Holy See during Secretary of State John Kerry's January meeting with Parolin, for his own part, Francis has indicated his preference that matters of domestic issue engagement are optimally addressed by the relevant conference of bishops. That signal began at home – within weeks of his election, the Pope told the Italian bishops that their national body would lead the response to the country's political affairs, ending a longtime tug of war over that role between the Vatican and the CEI, as the conference is known.

And lastly, even if this week has Obama in Rome, in an unusual twist, the center-stage element of the president's visit is the Pope's return of the favor.

As has been understood among church officials on both sides of the Atlantic for several months, what's likely to be Francis' lone US tour – not to mention Jorge Bergoglio's first-ever trip to these shores – is widely expected to take place at the end of September 2015. While the date has been locked in for over a year following B16's June 2012 announcement that Philadelphia would host the Holy See's eighth World Meeting of Families at that time, the change of pontificates has altered the shape and focus of the last commitment Papa Ratzinger wrote into his calendar, and the response to the new Pope has inspired hopes for the most extensive papal journey to the States since John Paul's epic two-week, seven-city swing in 1987. Yet only this week is the requisite protocol machine rolling into motion.

For any PopeTrip to happen, as a head of state, the pontiff must be invited by his civil counterpart in the country in question, as well as the national church via its episcopal conference. Accordingly, Obama will ostensibly follow the precedent set by George W. Bush in inviting Francis for just the second papal state visit to the US. And even before the president touches down, a high-powered delegation of Philadelphia officials led by Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. alongside Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the city's Mayor Michael Nutter are spending this week in Rome to discuss planning for the families' event (below) before a brief private meeting with the Pope prior to tomorrow's general audience.

Beyond the Philadelphia meeting, as both John Paul II and Benedict visited Washington for the diplomatic formalities at the White House on their respective first US trips, the capital would almost certainly be on a September 2015 itinerary in any case. Adding to the papal pile-on, however, is an invite for Francis to address a joint session of Congress – a rare privilege for a foreign leader – extended earlier this month by Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Catholics. Should he accept, Francis would be the first Bishop of Rome to appear at the Capitol; while John Paul was also given a joint session invite before his first visit, he declined. (Earlier this year, Francis likewise became the first Pope to be asked to address the European Parliament in Brussels; to date, no response has been announced.)

In addition, it is no accident – and, again, fully in keeping with tradition for papal scheduling – that the Vatican slated the Family gathering to coincide with the peak period of the UN General Assembly in New York, an address to which was a core element of John Paul's visits in 1979 and 1995 and Paul VI's historic 13-hour trek to Gotham on St Francis' Day 1965.

As only the Holy See can publicly confirm the Pope's travel – and, in this instance, isn't expected to do so for some time yet – officials have been forced to tiptoe the fine line of anticipating Francis' attendance without conveying it as definite. Speaking of the Families' Meeting at a late-morning Vatican press conference today, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, illustrated the exercise with his statement that even as "the Philadelphia Meeting is looking first of all to gathering the churches of the Americas... there is no doubt that the presence on the Chair of Peter of the first Latin American Pope makes the event even more meaningful."

The longtime chaplain to the Sant'Egidio movement, Paglia playfully ducked a subsequent question seeking a timetable on Francis' confirmation of the visit plans. Out of deference to the local media who've swarmed Rome to cover the trip, today's briefing was a rarity for the Press Office, being conducted almost entirely in English as opposed to Italian.

For purposes of context, it bears noting that senior US prelates first received word of B16's April 2008 visit to New York and Washington all of seven months in advance, and the trip was publicly confirmed two months later. While Benedict delighted the Secret Service-led security team with his preference for smaller venues for the twin public Masses and his understanding of the needed "bubble," planning for Francis – who famously reveled in having his car swarmed in Rio and once mused that "a bishop behind bulletproof glass is crazy" – is bound to make for a rockier negotiation between the Pope's premium on closeness to the crowds and the paranoia of those charged with his protection.

Initially slated to be revealed today, the theme of the 2015 gathering still awaits Francis' signoff. Regardless, next year's Meeting plays squarely into the issue the Pope has designated as his ecclesial centerpiece for the next two years – the role and challenges facing the family in the life of the church.

Amid ongoing skirmishes between senior prelates over possible evolutions of pastoral practice in addressing difficult situations, this October's Extraordinary Synod and an ordinary assembly in October 2015 are intended to discern new ways of proceeding.

Speaking of Francis' road calendar, after months of rumors, only earlier this month did the Vatican confirm a mid-August PopeTrip to South Korea for a pan-Asian youth gathering. Aiming to clear out his long-haul travel before anything else, Papa Bergoglio is likewise expected to visit Africa in either late 2014 or early next year. After July's triumphant homecoming in Rio for the already-planned World Youth Day, the Pope has repeatedly said that his next return to South America won't come until 2016 at the earliest.


Friday, March 21, 2014

After 13-Month Wait, Liverpool Lands a Preacher

A month after the Pope described his ideal picks, a fascinating cycle of choices from his rebooted Congregation for Bishops was capped at Roman Noon this Friday with Francis' appointment of Malcolm McMahon OP, 64, as archbishop of Liverpool, Britain's largest local church.

An engineer who entered religious life in his late 20s, McMahon had served as bishop of Nottingham since 2000, months after finishing his second term as Dominican provincial in England and Scotland, in which post he succeeded Timothy Radcliffe upon the celebrated theologian's election as Master of the Order. Beyond his work in the East Midlands, the archbishop-elect heads the education and catechetical apparatus of the church in England and Wales.

A moderate progressive in the mould of most of the Brit bench, in McMahon's case the comes with a stylistic twist: over recent years, the appointee has shown a striking affinity for the Tridentine Mass, leading several public celebrations of the 1962 Missal and, in the foreword to a recent reprint of the rite, praising the active use of Latin as being "as important for our culture and worship as Hebrew is for the Jewish people." At the same time, the new archbishop is fresh off his annual trip to last weekend's Los Angeles Religious Education Congresshardly a mecca for traditionalists – where he's long held a speaking slot, usually focusing on ecumenical and interfaith relations.

In any case, as one op – a longtime friend of McMahon's – observed, "I have never heard a word [from him] about traveling down the conservative path." Perhaps the most prominent example of the point came in 2001, when the prelate was quoted as saying "I look forward to the day when we will have women priests" during a conversation with a diocesan youth group, and was forced to clarify after a meeting with then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

Thirteen months since Archbishop Patrick Kelly's early resignation from the post following a late 2012 stroke, the move comes all of five days after the dominant Liverpudlian of the moment, now-Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster (above right, with McMahon), made his homecoming to the "Mersey Funnel" – Liverpool's modern Cathedral of Christ the King (left) – to celebrate his elevation at last month's consistory.

Having used the spotlight of his elevation to fiercely decry the coalition government's cuts to welfare programs, Nichols was named by Francis to the membership of Bishops at its December reshuffle, giving the president of the English conference de facto oversight of the appointments on his turf.

The prime bastion of England's Irish diaspora, Liverpool's Catholic population is larger than Westminster's by some 30,000 members, according to the figures in the Annuario Pontificio, the Vatican directory of the global church.

Introduced in the cathedral as the Appointment Hour struck in Rome, McMahon used a favorite term of Francis' in calling Liverpool Catholicism's "long and proud history... rich in the tradition of missionary discipleship.

Looking ahead, "there is much work to be done," he said, "because the challenges which we face as a community are real. But we are a people of hope.

"Just as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King is visible for miles around, speaking to us of God’s presence in our midst, I pray that all of us in the archdiocese of Liverpool will be living signs of God’s eternal love, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ in all that we say and do."

McMahon's installation is scheduled for 1 May, the feast of St Joseph the Worker.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"If They Didn't Have Dusty Shoes, They Had Some 'Splainin To Do" – A Year On, Brown Papi on Francis

First and forever the Premier See of American Catholicism, tonight in Baltimore brought the US' biggest event to mark this "Francisversary" – a panel symposium on the Pope before an estimated crowd of 3,000 in the arena of Loyola University, the Jesuit school in the Society's cradle on these shores.

For this crowd's purposes, though, the evening's principal talk is literally the key-note: named as Francis' "regional assistant" for North America a month after the election – now a veteran of three "Super 8" meetings, to say nothing of multiple Pope-calls in any given week – the following assessment of a man and a moment he's experienced like few others was given by Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap....


"In the Name of Francis, Get Up and Walk" – On Pope's Anniversary, The Nuncio's Message

A year into the new Franciscan Rule, perhaps no figure symbolically reflects the change of ecclesiastical seasons more than Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.

Thirty months since being exiled to Washington after his outrage over fiscal mismanagement and corruption in Vatican City's government became too much for the Curia's Old Guard, what had been seen as the 73 year-old Italian's "punishment" has suddenly birthed a new springtime. Among the US bishops and most of the rest of the Stateside scene, Viganò's delicate effectiveness has made him the most universally well-regarded holder of the DC posting in some three decades, while in Rome, he's reportedly forged a keen bond with the Pope his criticisms helped create.

Even before the last Conclave, the Nuncio's return in triumph under a reformist Pope was advanced as a sign that the new pontiff "means business." As the move hasn't happened to date, its absence can likely be chalked up to Francis' reluctance to antagonize the natives too much too quickly by making the ultimate bomb-drop on the Establishment he inherited. Accordingly, a fresh round of chatter over recent weeks has indicated that its coming could finally be at hand.

In any case, having made an impassioned call for the bishops to follow Francis at the November meeting – a stemwinder that served even to upstage Cardinal Timothy Dolan's farewell address from the USCCB presidency – at the close of Sunday's National Mass of Thanksgiving for the Pope's anniversary in the capital's Basilica-Shrine, Viganò launched another high-octane reflection, by turns both potent and poignant, on Papa Bergoglio and his mission....


Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Year with Francis

So, folks, it has been a year... and until the smoke went up, anyone who tried predicting any of this would've been sent to a mental hospital.

Sure, the 266th Bishop of Rome continues to ride a wave of goodwill in the wider world and across broad swaths of the church, while a vocal minority within the walls encounters new concerns at every turn. Whatever one's leaning, though, there's one thing we can all agree on – actually, two.

First, these days have been extraordinary proof of the degree to which the Papacy matters, and whether in failure or success, can command the world's attention like no other office. Second, in the immortal line of an earlier Italian-American of the same name as Papa Bergoglio, you just can't deny that, as Chairman of the Barque, this Francis likewise "did it his way"... and if anything, he's just warming up.

Even with Round Two now upon us, the aforementioned risk of perceived derangement for clearly seeing the road ahead continues to present itself... and, well, we'll just have to deal with it in short order. Today, however, belongs to a retrospective on this first year: the journey that gradually introduced Francis to the world and in the process, the new opening it created for the church in the work of pastoral conversion and missionary discipleship.

Below you'll find a "greatest hits" collection from the last year: ten mile-mark pieces along the way as the Pope's emphases on policy, governance and pastoral priorities – and the reaction to them – began to emerge. Published here in reverse chronological order, it's not as long nor comprehensive as Evangelii gaudium...but in any case, if there's one thing we've learned from Francis this year, it's that things often need to be repeated to be remembered.

As a "bonus round," those who haven't of yet would be remiss to let this day pass without reading the two major talks of recent days: the sweeping vademecum Bergoglio launched at his reconstituted Congregation for Bishops on 27 February laying out his identikit for the ideal appointee, and last week's vision statement on ministry to the priests of Rome.

Most of all, as the calendar turns into the second of this pontificate, let us pray...
O God,
who in your providential design
willed that your Church be built
upon blessed Peter,
whom you set over the other apostles,
look with favor, we pray,
on Francis, our Pope,
and grant that he,
whom you have made Peter’s successor,
may be for your people a visible source and foundation
of unity in faith and of communion.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
...and just like Year One, covering the road ahead can only be possible thanks to this readership's support:


Just Bring It – On His 77th, Francis' "Action Plan"... and Birthday "Hope"

(Originally published 17 December 2013.)

While the shop was bogged down with a Christmas-sized appointment drop, Tuesday saw the 77th birthday of the 266th Bishop of Rome... and to mark his first cumpleaños in the driver's seat, Francis went on yet another joyride – well, as much of one as he can have these days.

(For the record, the 186,000-mile used Renault famously given the Pope in September by a rural Italian pastor is already parked in the Vatican's transport museum, which features the carriages and cars of pontiffs through the ages. As Papa Bergoglio's come to employ the midnight blue Ford Focus for his usual ride, something just as exceptional has largely gone ignored – the car never carries the "SCV 1" license plate historically reserved for the Pope, which has been used by every... well, until now.)

After Birthday Mass and breakfast with the staff of his Domus-home and four homeless men found with their dog outside the Vatican (below) by the new Papal Almoner, Archbishop Konrad Krajewski – who Francis rapidly whisked into the ancient post on learning of the veteran Polish MC's impromptu nighttime ministry to the poor in the surrounding streets – the first Jesuit Pope fulfilled a centuries-old aspiration of his religious family by inscribing the name of Blessed Peter Faber, the first companion of Ignatius and Francis Xavier, into the company of the saints, short-circuiting the normal canonization process.

In his August interview with Antonio Spadaro SJ for Civiltà Cattolica – the complete, six-hour transcript of which will soon be published in English under the title My Door Is Always Open (Bloomsbury) – Francis spoke of Faber as a "model" for himself, both as a Jesuit and now in the governance of the universal church.

The Pope said he admired Faber for his ability to "dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving."

As the Italian Jesuit explained it, for Francis, the new saint exemplifies the figure of "'the reformed priest,' for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable." Accordingly, the title Spadaro gave the first blockbuster papal interview – "A Big Heart Open to God" – came neither from the Jesuit Constitutions nor anything of Ignatius', but from the spiritual diary of Peter Faber.

To cap off the festivities, yesterday's General Audience (fulltext) saw a return pilgrimage of Papa Bergoglio's hometown soccer-squad – los Cuervos (the "Crows") of San Lorenzo Almagno – who brought the pontiff their championship trophy from Argentina's Premier Division three days after claiming it.

A lifelong booster of the team, San Lorenzo dedicated its win to the Pope. In return, they got prima fila (front row) at the final audience of the year, plus a private half-hour with their honorary chaplain afterward.

On a related note, the prefecture of the Papal Household revealed earlier this week that Francis' 30 Wednesday gatherings since his election have seen the attendance of over 1.5 million ticketed individuals within St Peter's Square itself. The figure doesn't include the non-ticketed overflows down the Via della Conciliazione which have made the Wednesday turnouts almost routinely swell beyond 100,000. The figures for the new Pope's Sunday Angelus appearances – which, earlier this year, required a last-minute reroute of the Rome Marathon away from the Vatican due to the newfound throng – remain to be released.

Francis' double-sevens comes with equally perfect timing, as the close of a stunning year brings even more incredible developments to Peter's doorstep. As it's impossible to summarize the whole of these months in any succinct form, though, we'll just have to pick one moment – even if, the way all this is rolling, something tomorrow could upend the cycle all over again.

Indeed, that's happened more times since the evening of 13 March than we could count.

Needless to say, to single out any one thing from this year-long thrill-ride is anything but easy. Sure, the outside world has been fixated on the images of these months, yet even for as moving and extraordinary as they've been, the focus here is different by definition: the preaching and teaching that'll be translated into policy, the message that informs and is formed into ecclesial substance.

Sure, the textbook on that front is Evangelii gaudium. The sweeping Apostolic Exhortation laying out the program of this pontificate might be the most readable (and, yes, shocking) papal document in memory... "Francismania," however, apparently has its limits – even within the church, getting a wide audience to take up what's actually in its pages has proven a more fraught exercise than overhauling the Curia will ever be.

Long story short, folks: it's very easy to "read" events through the opinions of whatever teachers tickle your ears. The problem is, it's even more stupid – at least, if you ever seek to think for yourself.

That said, perhaps the best convergence of the Pope's program and the short attention-span of our "throw-away" information culture dates back to late July in Rio, over what became the first American Pope's triumphant "homecoming" at the long-scheduled World Youth Day.

The scenes were surreal from the get-go, culminating in a crowd estimated at 3 million – the largest gathering in the continent's history – for the finale on Copacabana Beach. Along the way, though, Francis carved a slot in his schedule for the Argentine pilgrims to the event, who became the largest foreign delegation... just only after the Conclave.

Some 25,000 crammed into Rio's modern, stadium-like cathedral that Thursday afternoon, while another 35,000 couldn't fit and were easily heard shouting and cheering amid the rain outside. The cathedra had been adorned with the papal arms, but Francis went nowhere near it, bounding instead to the pulpit, where the Pope gave the following spontaneous message, with all the intensity one would expect from being able to let loose in his native tongue for the first time in four months....

Um, I wanted to say something – to express my hope for what'll happen from [this] World Youth Day: I hope for noise. Noise here, OK. Here in Rio there will be plenty of noise, sure thing. But I want noise in the dioceses, I want for it to go out, I want the Church to go out into the streets! I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything of clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going outward ... and if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the Church cannot be an NGO! May the bishops and priests forgive me if some of your noise creates a bit of confusion after this. But this is my advice. Thank you for whatever you can do.

Look, at this moment, I think our world civilization has gone beyond its limits, it has gone beyond its limits, because it has made such a cult of the money-god that we are now faced with a philosophy and a practice of exclusion of the two ends of life that are most full of promise for a people. They exclude the elderly, obviously. You could easily think there is a kind of hidden euthanasia, that is, we don’t take care of the elderly; but there is also a cultural euthanasia, because we don’t allow them to speak, we don’t allow them to act. And the exclusion of the young. The percentage of our young people that are without work, without employment, is very high and we have a generation with no experience of the dignity gained through work. This civilization, in other words, has led us to exclude the two peaks that make up our future. As for the young, they must come forward, they must assert themselves, the young must go out to fight for values, to fight for these values; and the elderly must open their mouths, the elderly must open their mouths and teach us! Pass on to us the wisdom of the people!

Among the Argentine people, I ask the elderly, from my heart: do not cease to be the cultural storehouse of our people, a storehouse that hands on justice, hands on history, hands on values, hands on the memory of the people. And the rest of you, please, don't put yourselves away from the elderly: let them speak, listen to them and go onward. But know this, know that at this moment, you young people and you elderly people are condemned to the same destiny: exclusion. Don’t allow yourselves to be excluded. Got it? That’s why I think you must work.

Faith in Jesus Christ is not a joke, it is something very serious. It is a scandal that God came to be one of us. It is a scandal that he died on a cross. It is a scandal: the scandal of the Cross. The Cross continues to provoke scandal. But it is the one sure path, the path of the Cross, the path of Jesus, the path of the Incarnation of Jesus. Please, do not water down your faith in Jesus Christ. We dilute fruit drinks – orange, apple, or banana juice, but please do not drink a diluted form of faith. Faith is whole and entire, not something that you water down. It is faith in Jesus. It is faith in the Son of God made man, who loved me and who died for me.

So then: make your voices be heard; care for the two edges of the people: the elderly and the young; do not allow yourselves to be excluded and do not allow the elderly to be excluded. Secondly: do not “water down” your faith in Jesus Christ. It all flows together naturally. "What must we do, Father?" Look, read the Beatitudes: that will do you good. If you want to know what you actually have to do, read Matthew Chapter 25, which is the standard by which we will be judged. With these two things you have the action plan: the Beatitudes and Matthew 25. You do not need to read anything else. I ask this of you with all my heart.

Well, I thank you for your closeness. It hurts me to see you all penned in, but let me tell you something – I've been feeling this myself, if I'm going to confess from my heart. What an ugly thing it is to be penned in. I openly admit it, but still, I understand it. I would've liked to come closer to you, but [I know] that for security reasons, it just isn’t possible. Thank you for coming, thank you for praying for me; I ask you from my heart, I need it. I need your prayers, I need you to pray for me, I need it very much. Thank you for it.

OK, I want to give you my blessing now.... But don't forget: bring the noise; take care of the two ends of life, the two ends of our people's story: the elderly and the young; and do not water down the faith. And now let us pray, so as to bless the image of the Virgin, and then I will give you the Blessing.
On a translation note, while the word "lío" was officially rendered by the Vatican as "noise" or in other, more sensational places as "a mess," the intended expression in English would be more akin to "a ruckus" – or, as one Latin friend put it, "[to] raise hell."

Either way, Church, remember: it's only just beginning.

Virgin most holy and immaculate,
to you, the honor of our people,
and the loving protector of our city,
do we turn with loving trust.

You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you there is no sin.

Awaken in all of us a renewed desire for holiness:
May the splendor of truth shine forth in our words,
the song of charity resound in our works,
purity and chastity abide in our hearts and bodies,
and the full beauty of the Gospel be evident in our lives.

You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you the Word of God became flesh.

Help us always to heed the Lord’s voice:
May we never be indifferent to the cry of the poor,
or untouched by the sufferings of the sick and those in need;
may we be sensitive to the loneliness of the elderly and the vulnerability of children,
and always love and cherish the life of every human being.

You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
In you is the fullness of joy born of life with God.

Help us never to forget the meaning of our earthly journey:
May the kindly light of faith illumine our days,
the comforting power of hope direct our steps,
the contagious warmth of love stir our hearts;
and may our gaze be fixed on God, in whom true joy is found.

You are all-beautiful, O Mary!
Hear our prayer, graciously hear our plea:
May the beauty of God’s merciful love in Jesus abide in our hearts,
and may this divine beauty save us, our city and the entire world.

–Pope Francis
Omaggio all'Immacolata
Piazza di Spagna
8 December 2013

Palace Notes: Already, Parolin's Under the Knife... and At the Hat Shop, Francis' Curial "Cinderella"

(Originally published 15 October 2013.)

For Pietro Parolin, this was supposed to be "Coronation Day" – the moment when, at a noontime audience with the Pope, the three-decade veteran of the Diplomatic Service formally stepped into the line of Gasparri, Pacelli, Casaroli and Sodano to become Secretary of State.

Yet, alas, there was a hitch. While Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB formally took his leave by offering a eulogy for Benedict XVI and receiving his walking paper from Francis'  own hand, the Pope stoked some surprise by explaining that the welcome for his chosen top Curialist would have to be "in absentia" due to "a little surgical procedure" Parolin was undergoing.

The new Secretary "will take possession of his new post some weeks hence" Francis explained, offering neither a precise timetable, nor the cause of Parolin's infirmity. (SVILUPPO: According to a Catholic News Agency brief, the incoming SegStat was sidelined from his Big Day by a case of appendicitis.)

Even if the lapse creates a de facto operational vacancy at the helm of the First Dicastery – at least, as it remains of this writing – it bears reminding that the role of Stato in a Francis-reformed Curia is likely to undergo some surgery of its own... just of the amputation kind.

On Parolin's 31 August appointment as Secretary, officials stressed that the nominee's mandate would focus on the ad extra side – the Second Section work of geopolitical affairs where the 59 year-old archbishop made his name. Alongside this, reports from this month's first meeting of the "Council of Cardinals" indicated the body's considerable discernment of the future of the Curial "clearinghouse" functions currently run out of Stato's First Section (General Affairs), with the establishment of a new "Moderator of the Curia" structure to handle interoffice coordination advanced as a very distinct possibility.

Whatever the case, one thing's clear. Though State had maintained its founding function – namely, that of the "Office of the Pope" – for nearly five centuries, even before today, that distinction has already departed San Damaso for the Domus.

*   *   *
Even if the helm of State is the ultimate "brass ring," for the lifers of the Curia and the Diplomatic Corps, another post has long been almost as coveted toward the end of a cleric's rise... and over the weekend, the Pope used it to send a message sure to resonate like an upending of file-cabinets.

In yet another move few, if anyone, could foresee outside the Domus, on Saturday Francis named the Brazilian Msgr Ilson de Jesus Montanari (right) – a 54 year-old junior staffer at the Congregation for Bishops – as the all-powerful Hat Shop's new secretary, at the same time elevating him to the customary rank of archbishop. (I
t shouldn't be lost on anyone that, to further punctuate his intent, the Pope's choice was announced on the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil's patroness, to whom Francis consecrated his Petrine ministry over the summer.)

An entry-level minutante who's only been at Bishops since 2008, Montanari – a good Italian name, of course – succeeds Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was plucked to oversee Papa Bergoglio's intended bulk-up of the Synod of Bishops last month.

As the #2 of Bishops traditionally doubles as secretary of the College of Cardinals, the newly-chosen Francis kept with long-standing Conclave tradition by conferring his red zucchetto on Baldisseri, 73, at the close of the March election to fill his own seat in the Pope's "Senate." Said to have formed a close bond with the new pontiff, the so-called "semi-cardinal" is expected to be properly elevated at the Pope's first Consistory, which could come as soon as sometime this winter.

The daily taskmaster overseeing much of the Curia's most sensitive – and, indeed, most obsessively-watched – material, for the last several decades the deputy at Bishops has usually been chosen from among the top tier of veteran Nuncios, who would be fluent in the appointment process after decades of preparing vacancy dossiers in their respective assignments. (Baldisseri, for example, had spent two decades serving by turns as the Vatican legate in Haiti, India and Brazil before landing at the congregation in 2012.) After a couple years in the job, each was then moved to a post that guaranteed a red hat, and the next Stato product to be rewarded would come up.

By marked contrast, especially for such a crucial role, Montanari's sudden ascent is roughly equivalent to tossing a sledgehammer at a plate-glass precedent. With Francis, however, no one should be terribly surprised at that by this point.

For starters, the promotion of a minutante (in English, a "desk-clerk") to #2 of a major congregation flies in the face of practically every convention of the Curia, where – at least, until now – top officials have either been gradually bumped up through the ranks or recruited from significant duties outside. Simply put, for Vatiworld, this is the closest thing to a "Cinderella" story anyone will be able to remember.

Keeping with the "pecking order" thread, as age goes, it's been a quarter-century since the post's holder was last in his mid-50s: not since 1989, to be precise, when Archbishop Justin Rigali (likewise 54 at the time), was moved into the slot from the helm of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican diplomatic school where the LA-born future cardinal was serving as its first-ever American president. Perhaps most pointedly, though, over the last 50 years since the Conciliar reforms – and perhaps well longer – not one choice for Secretary of the old "Consistorial Congregation" (its roots dating to 1588) has, until today, been drawn from the office's own staff. Beyond giving a boost to in-house morale and knowing the "guts" of the operation firsthand, the move marks a significant shift of perspective as the appointment process is markedly different from a staffer's vantage as opposed to that of a Nuncio or other senior official.

Accordingly, that's part of the rationale for the appointment, which – personnel being policy – underscores Francis' push to markedly change the way things "have always been done" (a mindset he specifically took to the woodshed some days back in Assisi).

Even for a 2nd class staffer with only five years on the job, Montanari is an unusual case in that he didn't come to the Curia until the tail-end of his forties, unlike the bulk of minutanti, who arrive some two decades younger, whether to put in a five-year term or two, or stay on for the long haul. Yet in particular, what the now archbishop-elect did over that time bears noting: though trained at the Gregorian – and aside from a two-year return there (2002-4) for a licentiate – from his 1989 ordination until arriving at Bishops, the incoming secretary served as a parish priest, teacher and vicar forane in his home archdiocese of Ribeirão Preto, at the outskirts of Brazil's Sao Paulo state. That Montanari has returned to minister at his old parish during vacations would, of course, be even more music to the new Boss' ears.

As for how the new Vice-Hatman came to Francis' attention, two figures stand out. Beyond ostensibly enjoying a solid relationship with Baldisseri – who served in his now-successor's home country for a decade before they worked together – until recently, Montanari was stationed alongside another Latin American named Fabián Pedacchio Leaniz. That arrangement changed shortly after the Conclave as Don Fabián – a priest of Buenos Aires said to have been Jorge Bergoglio's Roman agent – was brought over to the Domus as the Pope's co-private secretary.

Pedacchio serves alongside Msgr Alfred Xuereb, the Maltese personal aide who the new Pope inherited from B16.

* * *
Speaking of the rising "Argentine mafia," with the first Latin American pontificate having reached the seven-month mark over the weekend, it's rather astonishing that essentially no one has grasped what might just be the most interesting internal nod the Pope has made to date.

Though Francis brought no one from Buenos Aires to be part of his formal household, five weeks after his election, he did quietly summon one key lieutenant from home to his side – at least, to "himself" in an unofficial capacity.

The longtime judicial vicar of Buenos Aires, head of its tribunal and dean of the canon law faculty at Argentina's national Pontifical University, on 20 April Papa Bergoglio named Fr Alejandro Bunge an auditor (judge) of the Roman Rota, the church's second-highest appellate court. Yet with the impending Curial reform, Francis' interest in studying issues of marriage and other sacramental law and all the usual issues that tend to arise on a pontiff's plate – not to mention the reams of airtight decree-writing that will be required to codify his desired results and execute them into praxis – even if he doesn't bear the title in the daylight, perhaps the 61 year-old jurist is most accurately described as the legally-unsteeped Pope's "pocket canonist."

Given much of Francis' internal thrust to date – namely, the beginnings of a movement toward enhancing synodality and collegiality across the board – it's likewise of note that the formation and evolution of modern consultative structures has been a keen focus of Bunge's research: among the published works of the new Prelato Uditore (above) is an examination of the statutes and praxis of the CELAM, the Latin American mega-conference of bishops which, responsible as it is for nearly half the global church's entire membership, comprises Catholicism's largest collaborative entity of ecclesiastical authorities... and a remarkably effective one at that.

Back to Montanari, it's most likely that he'll be formally elevated at the first episcopal ordination over which Francis will preside, slated for 26 October. Two other archbishops-elect are already on-deck to be invested at the rite.

And as for the congregation he'll help lead, it is indeed conspicuous that while the Pope has already reconfirmed or reshuffled the leaders and/or memberships of several dicasteries over the last six weeks, no such announcement has yet been made for Bishops. Then again, given the detail which Francis has devoted to scouring the various office-lists before moving to sustain or shake up the current compositions of each major Curial organ, the delay in this instance can seemingly be chalked up to the massive clout of the Hat Shop's vaunted "Thursday Table" – the meetings of the congregation's 27 cardinal-members – in recommending nominees for episcopal appointment to a Pope who's still getting a crash course in the global church... thanks to whom Montanari now has a seat where it counts.


"Service, Yes – Servitude, No!": "Woman's Day," Francis Edition

(Originally published 12 October 2013.)

On a Saturday where the exaltation of woman was already center stage at the Vatican, this morning the Pope touched on the more hot-button side of the perennial issue in ecclesial life, receiving the participants in a conference organized by the Pontifical Council for the Laity marking the 25th anniversary of Mulieris dignitatem – the John Paul II treatise which was the first magisterial statement on women ever given by a Pope.

Here, from Francis' address:

There are two ever-present dangers, two diametric opposites that undermine woman and her vocation. The first is reducing motherhood to a social role, to a task, however noble, but one which places a woman with her potential aside, not fully valuing her in the building up of the community. This happens in the civil realm as well as in the ecclesial one. And as a reaction to this, there's the other danger, in an opposite sense, of promoting a type of emancipation that, to occupy the spaces taken from men, abandons women of the precious traits that characterize them. And here I'd like to underscore that woman has a particular sensibility for the "things of God," above all in helping us to understand mercy, tenderness, and the love God has for us. I like thinking, too, that the church is not "il chiesa" [masculine], but "la chiesa." The church is woman, is mother, and this is beautiful. You must think and more deeply reflect on this.

Mulieris dignitatem places itself in this context, and offers a profound, organic reflection within a solid anthropological base illumined by Revelation. Yet from here we must return to the task of deepening and of promoting, for which I have hoped for so long. Even in the church it's important to ask ourselves: what presence does woman have? I suffer – to tell you the truth – when I see in the church or some ecclesial organizations that the role of service – which all of us have and should have – that the woman's role of service slips into a role of servitude [Orig.: "servidumbre" – español]. I don't know how you say this in Italian [Ed.: servitù]. You understand me? Servizio. When I see women doing things of servitude, it shows that they don't grasp what a woman should do. What presence does woman have in the church? Can it be better valued? It's a reality that I hold much in my heart and for this I wanted to meet you – and break the rules, because this kind of meeting wasn't planned – and to bless you and your work. Thank you, let's carry this forward together! May Mary Most Holy, a great woman, Mother of Jesus and all the children of God, accompany us. Grazie.
On a context note, when it comes to an enhanced "presence" for women in the church, a major proof-test of Francis' commitment to his pledge will be what ensues in the reform of the Roman Curia.

With Papa Bergoglio already having named women to the twin Pontifical Commissions he respectively established to advise on the Vatican Bank and reforming the "economic-administrative structure" of the church's central government, as of this writing, well-placed indications remain that it would be more of a surprise if a woman weren't tapped to head a Vatican dicastery at some point during the structural earthquake coming over the next several months.

All of fifty years since the Australian Rosemary Goldie became the first woman appointed to "Superior" level of a Roman office, only three others have since been called into the top rank, but never the top job, and two of the trio were religious. Of the group, two remain in office: the Undersecretary of the "Congregation for Religious," Holy Blood Sister Nicoletta Spazzati, named in 2011, and Dr Flaminia Giovanelli, a specialist in development issues who was elevated to the #3 post at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2010.

On the more general front, the role of laypeople in church governance was termed "fundamental" by Francis in his Assisi talk to representatives of the local church – an event that unusually included the members of parish and diocesan pastoral councils. And what the Pope deems "fundamental" in the trenches won't mean anything less at the Vatican... if anything, by way of example, it might end up being all the more.