Monday, May 19, 2014

Before the Holy Land, Francis Meets the Home-Bench

Apologies for the recent drop-off, folks – having spent most of the last two weeks on the road with the peak of the usual spring speaking season, it's good to be home.

'Round these parts, meanwhile, another peak season's about to kick into gear. On Saturday, of course, the Pope heads to the Holy Land for a three day pilgrimage fraught with no shortage of both security concerns and interfaith tensions.

For those who can't get enough of Francis' messages, prepare for a pile-on – no less than 14 speeches are planned. In addition, the densely-scheduled swing through Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel will feature two separate encounters with the region's refugees.

While that's the end of the week, the first major moment of the days to come is just hours away: at 5pm Rome (11am ET), Papa Bergoglio will upend custom by giving the opening address for the annual Vatican meeting of the Italian bishops conference, the CEI, in the Synod Hall. Though prior Bishops of Rome – all of them likewise Primate of Italy – have routinely appeared and spoken at the home-bench's plenaries, the programmatic keynote has traditionally belonged to the CEI president (who, in a situation unique to Italy, is a papal appointee).

Last year, Francis – lest anyone forgot, the first Pope to have the presidency of an episcopal conference on his CV – was content with giving a talk to the prelates in St Peter's during a public Profession of Faith at the plenary's close. This time, having removed the current CEI chief Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco from the Congregation for Bishops at its December reshuffle, the Pope's taking the mic to open the plenary represents a further sidelining of the Genoa prelate, to say nothing of a far cry from the era when Bagnasco's predecessor, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, reigned for a decade and a half as one of secular Italy's most influential power-brokers.

What's more, an already rich subtext has become even more eventful over recent days. Still settling in as Francis' de facto agent at the conference's Rome headquarters, the CEI's new secretary-general Bishop Nunzio Galantino made waves after encouraging the church to discuss hot-button internal issues "without taboos" in an interview with an Italian newspaper group.

Citing "married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, [and] homosexuality" as examples, Galantino qualified the remark by adding that any discussions of the kind can only "start from the Gospel and give the reasons for their proposals." In any case, both in the Italian and English-speaking commentariats, the primary reaction was drawn by the bishop's statement – in response to a question about the CEI's prior investment in "non-negotiable values" – that "I don't identify myself with the inexpressive looks of people reciting the rosary outside clinics which practice the interruption of pregnancy, but with those young people who are against this practice [i.e. abortion] and fight for the quality of people's lives, for their rights to health care and work."

In December, Francis stunned the Italian ecclesial Establishment by plucking Galantino, 66, from his diocese of Cassano all'Ionio (located in the lower arch of the country's "boot") to make the almost 300 mile trip to Rome and take over the CEI offices. Before his 2012 appointment to Calabria's smallest local church, the new strongman had spent 27 years as pastor of the same parish.

In a way, Francis seemed to echo part of Galantino's comments at his Regina Caeli yesterday. Still, the CEI address offers the Pope another chance to delve into detail not simply on his wishes for the Italian church, but for episcopal governance worldwide.

Asked whether today's address would "push" the Italian bench as last year's did, Don Nunzio didn't deny that an encore would be in store.

When Francis "insists on the church as a field hospital, on mercy and attention to people," Galantino said, "it's because he's understood that not all the fringes of the Italian church have taken into account what the world needs – that which, in the name of the Gospel, we believers are called to give."