María-Paz López. Church, Communication, and Culture. Volume 4, Issue 1, 2019.
Drawing up a list of Catholic Church communication highlights is somehow intimidating. Every year, there are thousands of news stories and news analyses regarding a vast institution that encompasses 1.3 billion faithful around the world, and whose leader, the pope, is a prominent global figure.
Therefore, the selection of topics must be to a certain extent subjective. Also, for language reasons, it runs the risk of being too Western-oriented. The main criterion for selection has been the level of journalistic attraction that these issues received from mainstream international news outlets-most of them from Western countries-and consequently the high probability that church leaders and communication officers have had to address them during the year.
In that sense, the following highlights arguably represent the most significant news about the Catholic Church in the year 2018, the things that generated the most copious media coverage, and quite often, public controversy. They are listed here in chronological order:
- Pope Francis’ January trip to Chile and Peru
- The fifth anniversary of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope
- Wim Wenders’ documentary film Pope Francis – A Man of His Word
- Pope Francis’ August trip to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland
- The clergy sexual abuse crisis and the Viganò letter
- The agreement between the Holy See and China on appointment of bishops
- The canonization of Archbishop Romero and Pope Paul VI in Rome
- The Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment
It can be said that the scandal of cases, most of them dating from the 20th century, of sexual abuse by priests and its cover-up by prelates reached in 2018 an unprecedented peak, and that it got intertwined in many other stories about the Church. It dominated headlines, often overrunning the main point of the news event itself. In short, in global perception, sexual abuse became definitely the most serious issue that Francis is bound to solve during the rest of his pontificate.
There were obviously other developments in 2018 worthy of being reviewed, such as the consistory on 29 June in which Pope Francis created 14 new cardinals from 11 countries, thus shaping an even more international body of electors in an eventual conclave to choose his successor; or the beatification on 8 December in Oran of 19 murdered clerics from Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, which was the first ceremony of its kind in a Muslim nation.
There were also two papal trips with interesting features: the ecumenical pilgrimage to Geneva on 21 June to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the apostolic journey to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on 22 September to 25 September. But for various reasons, these events got relatively less attention from international media, if compared with the eight topics selected for discussion.
For church communication itself, it is worth mentioning that Dario Edoardo Viganò, prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communications, resigned on 19 March. He did so following the revelation that he had blurred sentences of a letter of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI that was made public. On 5 July, Francis appointed Paolo Ruffini, director of Tv2000, the television station of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, as new prefect for the dicastery. Ruffini is continuing the task of merging and reorganizing the various Vatican media offices. A new development occurred on 18 December, when the Pope appointed Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli as editorial director of the dicastery, and Italian author and University professor Andrea Monda as editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano, the papal newspaper.
On 31 December, quite by surprise, the Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, an American and his deputy, Paloma García Ovejero, a Spaniard, suddenly resigned. A brief Vatican statement issued on the last day of the year gave no reason for the resignations in these positions, whose official titles are director and deputy director of the Holy See Press Office. Italian journalist Alessandro Gisotti, who had been handling the Vatican’s social media, was appointed spokesman ad interim. The consequences of all these changes will certainly be subject of analysis in the Church Communications Highlights paper of 2019.
In communication terms, it is also illustrative that during the year 2018, Pope Francis has insisted that journalists at his inflight press conferences limit their questions to topics connected with the trip. With occasional mistakes, he has always been a media-savvy world leader. But the escalation of scandals may have changed his initial way of thinking towards reporters’ inquiring.
Pope Francis’ January Trip to Chile and Peru
Each international trip of a pontiff carries its own, particular joys, pains and controversies. For religion reporters and news analysts, these trips provide a genuine opportunity to dive into local approaches to the faith, expressions of diversity of cultures, and global problems, but most importantly, into the way the Holy See and the Catholic Church look at them. Our trips say a lot about who we are, and certainly popes are not an exception to that common rule.
Yet ‘trips outside Italy’—according to Vatican language—often put the focus on ongoing unsolved sensitive issues that touch the Catholic Church directly, issues that receive an extraordinary amount of media attention worldwide precisely because the traveling pope is present in the picture as a prominent character.
This is what happened with the apostolic journey of Pope Francis to Chile and Peru, from 15 January to 22 January 2018. It was his first trip of the year, and the sixth of his pontificate to South America, his native continent. It turned out to be a relevant and difficult trip in terms of news coverage, because it was tainted by clergy sexual abuse scandals even before its very beginning, and because it opened a news storyline that would unfold during the whole year, as more cases were revealed in different countries.
The titles of the journey were promising: “Mi paz les doy” (My Peace I Give You) for the Chilean part, and “Unidos por la esperanza” (United by Hope) for the Peruvian one. Pope Francis planned to address—and he did—crucial topics in the region: poverty and grievances of indigenous peoples, protection of the environment, and corruption at various levels of the administration. There were delightful waving crowds at his open-air masses, although they were less packed than expected.
Nevertheless, the issue that prevailed most in the news during the journey was the failure of the local churches and the Vatican to take prompt action against priests who committed sexual abuses, or else the founded accusation that some bishops had actually protected the abusers. Since Chile and Peru have experienced notorious cases, the reputation of the Catholic Church was by then seriously damaged in both countries.
On 18 January in Iquique (Chile), heading to celebrate mass, Francis stepped down from the Popemobile and talked briefly to journalists. He was asked about his support for Juan Barros, bishop of the Chilean diocese of Osorno, who he appointed in 2015 although by then he was accused by many of having covered up pedophile Fernando Karadima, an influential priest that had abused boys. Barros had always insisted that he knew nothing about Karadima’s crimes. Karadima had gained recognition in Chile in the formation and spiritual guidance of numerous priests and lay people, but in 2011 he was found guilty of sexually abusing minors, and the church ordered him to spend the rest of his life in prayer and penance. He lives now in a congregation in the suburbs of Santiago.
Francis got angry at the question. ‘The day they bring me proofs against Bishop Barros, then I will speak’, he answered. ‘There is not a single piece of proof against him. Everything is slander. Is this clear?’ he said.
The matter accompanied him to Peru. On 10 January, prior to this Latin American trip, the Holy See announced closer control of a Catholic movement named Sodalicio de Vida Cristiana (Sodalitium of Christian Life, from sodalis, the Latin word for companion) started in the 1970s in Peru, and which had attracted thousands of young Catholic men. In December 2017, Peruvian prosecutors examined the movement’s founder, layman Luis Fernando Figari and other leaders of the group, on charges of sexual and psychological abuse of their young male disciples. And an internal investigation by Sodalicio itself at the beginning of 2017 had concluded that Figari was responsible for mistreating young people, and thus the Vatican ordered him to stay away from the fraternity. He is living in Italy now.
Of course, the Sodalicio case showed up in the Peruvian part of the journey. The photo of a protest banner hanging from a building in Lima with a sentence in Spanish: ‘Francisco, aquí sí hay pruebas’ (Francis, here there are proofs), a reference to Francis’ words in Iquique, was widely reproduced by international media.
During the trip, the pope met privately with a small group of victims of sexual abuse by priests, and he publicly asked for forgiveness. He had done it actually in his first speech in Chile, in the morning of 16 January at the presidential palace La Moneda in Santiago. ‘I feel bound to express my pain and shame, shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the church’, Francis said. He also said that, in communion with his brother bishops, he felt ‘it is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again’.
As various press colleagues have written, these gestures, though necessary, were seen by most Catholic faithful as no longer sufficient. The handling of sexual abuse by the Catholic hierarchy in Chile and Peru has caused enormous damage to the credibility of the church and led many faithful to move away.
Another aspect of this journey that made headlines, although to a much smaller scale, was the fact that Argentinian Francis did not visit his native country. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, has not set foot in his homeland since his election as pope in March 2013. Most news analysts argue that this behavior obeys to Francis’ unwillingness to get caught in the polarized politics of the country.
In any case, it caused sadness and disappointment among many Catholic faithful in Argentina. It seemed particularly blatant, Chile being a border country, and also because Francis has devoted significant attention to his native Latin America in his trips. He visited Brazil in July 2013 (for World Youth Day, ‘inherited’ from Pope Benedict’s agenda,) Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay in July 2015, Cuba in September 2015, Mexico in February 2016 and Colombia in September 2017.
Still, tens of thousands of Argentinians traveled to Chile to see him and listen to his words there. They will probably have to wait long to welcome the 82-year-old pontiff in the country. A month later, in February, Francis received in Rome a delegation of Argentinian bishops. After the meeting, they disclosed that the pope had told them about such trip: ‘It is not the opportune moment’.
The Fifth Anniversary of the Election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope
Anniversaries are classical providers of features for the media. They bestow a newsworthy opportunity to look back at the past in order to refresh memories and analyze hits and misses. With the perspective of the elapsed time, they also allow for an evaluation of the consequences in the present, and for drawing hypotheses for the future. Generally speaking, they give good headlines.
Following this simple, traditional journalistic rule, the fifth anniversary of the election as pope of Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio was widely remembered and explored by most media outlets in the days around the official date: 13 March.
Invariably, the historical account of that vibrant day in 2013, when Bergoglio was elected by the conclave of cardinal electors in the Sistine Chapel, was linked in the coverage to the fifth anniversary of the other event determinant to the development: the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 11 February. The age of both popes, the one in office and the other emeritus, was brought up largely in articles. In March 2018, Francis was 81 years old, and Benedict, who leaves in peaceful seclusion in a monastery inside the Vatican walls, was 90.
News analysis and essays around the anniversary recalled the row of records in history of the then newly elected: the first Jesuit pope, the first from Latin America, the first from the Southern hemisphere, and even the first from outside Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who served in the 8th century.
Commentators would also underscore the importance of the name he picked as pope: Francis, as the saint of Assisi (Italy) who chose poverty and praised nature in the 13th century. They would also stress that he decided not to move to the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, and chose to live in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a guesthouse built by John Paul II to provide decent accommodation for cardinals in conclave.
Most quoted was a fragment of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, ‘on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world’, which was given on 24 November 2013, and which is regarded as a programmatic plan of his pontificate. ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security’, Francis wrote in number 49.
It is clear that, from the very beginning, his demonstrative humility and nearness charmed the world’s press. Articles on the five first years of pontificate applauded Bergoglio’s unique style of ministry and his emphasis on humility and compassion as authentic blows of fresh air and renewal to the Catholic Church.
The word mercy was often mentioned, chiefly because Francis instituted the 2015-2016 Year of Mercy. News summaries insisted on how the pope had addressed the crisis of values in the Western world by invoking mercy towards the outcasts, the migrants, the poor, the children and the elderly, and towards the planet itself. This last was the case with the green encyclical Laudato Si’, ‘on care of our common home’, which incidentally also opened the path to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue about the protection of the environment.
Commentators underlined how the Argentinian pontiff has definitely shifted the church’s focus to the global South. In September 2015, as waves of migrants and refugees were struggling through the so-called Balkan Route and drowning in the Mediterranean in their desperate efforts to reach Europe for safety, he spoke out in horror and sorrow. His visit to a refugee center in the Greek island of Lesbos in April 2016 was repeatedly mentioned. It summed up to his systematic denounce of the ‘throwaway culture’ as one where people and things which cannot immediately generate money or power are seen as disposable.
Media reports remembered that while in 2013 Francis told journalists that he would not travel as much as his predecessors, he actually travelled a lot. As of March 2018, he had made 22 trips outside of Italy, which meant visiting 32 countries.
Media largely agreed that in these five years of pontificate Jorge Mario Bergoglio has turned himself into a huge global figure, a great and valuable brand for the Catholic Church in many countries, particularly in the eyes of the secular world.
The various analysis often checked the results, if any, of the great hopes he aroused when he was elected. In particular, two areas were scrutinized: the reform of the Roman Curia, and the protection of children and vulnerable adults from clerical sexual abuse, including bringing accountability to those who covered up for the abusers.
Francis was generally praised for his efforts to reform the Vatican structures and for cleaning up the so-called Vatican Bank (more correctly, Institute for the Works of Religion, or IOR). It was recalled how in September 2013 he formed the Council of Cardinal Advisers, composed of 9 cardinals and thus colloquially known as C9, with the aim of reviewing and renewing curial operations and also the Vatican’s entire governing composition. The work ahead looked vast and complicated, and years later, in December 2017, Francis himself said that curial reform is like ‘cleaning the Egyptian sphinx with a toothbrush’. The press pointed out at the frustrating lack of progress, but showed understanding for the difficult position of the pope, often caught between opposing forces.
However, Pope Francis received much less credit, when not open criticism, on the issue of the handling of sexual abuse, even though in March the worst of world news about it was still to come. Mentions of the laudable initiative of establishing the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on March 2014 to advise him in his policy of ‘zero tolerance’ (those were his words), were followed by the recollection of the resignation of the only two of its members who were survivors of abuse, particularly the well-known Irishwoman Marie Collins.
Among other criticisms in the media, there were also those regarding the change in style of church governance. Since ascending to the papacy, Bergoglio has favored informal encounters in the Domus Sanctae Marthae to the traditional routine of formal meetings with heads of departments, even though this routine has been maintained. The mechanism looked fresher, but critics said it has kept him too bound to a small circle of advisers both inside and outside the Roman Curia. Some even talked about isolation.
The push of conservative forces within the Catholic Church was also retraced in many articles, particularly around his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, ‘on love in the family’, which was given in Rome on 19 March 2016. Its content was questioned by four cardinals who sent a private letter of ‘dubia’ to Francis on 19 September 2016.
Finally, many commentators looked to the future, wondering if there is still room for development in the ambitious plans of reform outlined by Francis, and particularly in the fight against clerical sexual abuse. Most agreed on one thing: a resignation like Benedict XVI’s is not foreseeable in the near future. Francis is in his early eighties and in good health, and a resignation would lead to the awkward situation of three living popes, two emeritus and one in office, and that would certainly be too much.
Wim Wenders’ Documentary Film Pope Francis – A Man of His Word
A commercial film in which a pope answers questions looking at the camera without prior approval of the Vatican is certainly a historic development. This is the case with Pope Francis – A Man of His Word, a feature documentary of German director Wim Wenders, who had carte blanche from the Holy See for this project, and who garnered international media attention. It was one of those rare occasions in which entertainment news outlets covered a film about religion that did not have scandal controversies around it.
The film was selected for the 71st Festival of Cannes (8 May 2018-19 May 2018) and was presented as part of the Special Screenings, therefore out of competition. It premiered on 13 May. After that, the film gained substantial interest in theatres and media, particularly in Latin America and in most Western countries.
In Wim Wenders’ official website, the movie is defined in the following way:
“Pope Francis—A Man of His Word is a personal journey with Pope Francis rather than a traditional biographical film about him. A rare co-production with the Vatican, the pope’s ideas and his message are central to this documentary, which sets out to present his work of reform and his answers to today’s global questions from death, social justice, immigration, ecology, wealth inequality, materialism, and the role of the family. The film’s direct-to-camera visual and narrative concepts engage the audience face-to-face with the pope, creating a dialogue between him and, literally, the world. Taking questions from people of all walks of life, Pope Francis responds to farmers and workers, refugees, children and the elderly, prison inmates, and those who live in favelas and migrant camps. All of these voices and faces are a cross section of humanity that joins in a conversation with Pope Francis.”
The documentary was written and produced by Wim Wenders and David Rosier, and it was a French-German-Italian-Swiss commercial co-production. But what is maybe most remarkable is that the proposal came from the Vatican.
In 2013, the first year of Francis’ pontificate, Wim Wenders received a letter from Dario Edoardo Viganò, at that time director of the Vatican Television Centre (CTV), asking for his cooperation for a movie about Bergoglio. The filmmaker was assured substantial independence. Viganò, who later became head of the Vatican Secretariat of Communications and resigned in March 2018, is an avowed cinephile. (He is not to be confused with Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the prelate whose letter linking the pope to alleged coverage of sexual abuse created turmoil later on in the year 2018.)
In an article published on 1 October 2018 on the website of Italian S.I.R.-Servizio Informazione Religiosa, Viganò himself explained the origins of the proposal:
‘Many have asked me why I thought of Wenders as the director of this documentary “with” and “on” Pope Francis. I could have answered by referring to his long filmography or his many awards, but the answer is simply linked to his “angels”. I saw Wenders’ movies—his visual poetry—as a young man, in the seminary, and I was impressed by the angels in Wings of Desire (1987)’, Viganò wrote.
Wings of Desire (the German title of the movie is Der Himmel über Berlin) poetically tells the story of two invisible immortal angels in West Berlin in the late 1980s, who listen and comfort its human habitats. For this movie, Wenders won best director award in Cannes.
Once the German filmmaker accepted, he was given unprecedented access to Pope Francis, and also to Vatican footage of his pontificate. In total, he got four sessions of interviews with the pontiff, two hours each, face to face. The filming began in 2016, and the last interview was filmed in August 2017.
The result is a beautifully done documentary that combines shots of the pope looking into the camera and speaking mostly in his native Spanish, with penetrating images recorded by the Vatican of his trips to places such as a Brazilian poor neighbourhood, a Central African Republic children’s hospital, an American prison, a Greek migrants’ camp, the United Nations headquarters, or the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. We also watch scenes aboard papal flights, in the Holy See with the Roman Curia, and even a projection of an enormous heap of discarded cells phones onto the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is all about the core issues of his pontificate: poverty, migration, pollution and what he calls ‘cultura del descarte’ (throwaway culture).
Remarkably, most news stories about the film emphasized the fact that Wenders is a religious person. They recalled that he was raised in a family with strong Catholic values in his native Düsseldorf, and that in his teens he even considered the priesthood, before being caught up in rock’n’roll and movies, the youth movement of 1968 and socialism. And they would wrap up his spiritual evolution revealing that as an adult he went back to the Christian faith, but becoming a Protestant.
Another common mention in journalistic pieces was the filmmaker’s early fascination with St. Francis of Assisi, and his pleased surprise when Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to bear this name. This was translated in the movie into a black-and-white fragment about St. Francis, which looks like borrowed from an old silent film, but which was actually shot by Wenders himself in Assisi using a hand-cranked Debrie camera.
In the article mentioned above, Viganò summarized his vision of the film in this way:
‘Allowing for a certain digression, it could be said that the documentary is divided into two separate moments that form part of the narrative flow: the first focuses on the pope’s gestures, words and journeys; moreover, we see a connection of words and a direct gaze towards the viewer, encompassing 5 years of pontificate. Notably, a narrative gaze expressed with black-and-white footage from Assisi, fruit of Wenders’ creativity, conveys the director’s intention to highlight the figure of the Saint of Assisi, Francis, after whom Pope Bergoglio took his name as a programmatic act of his Pontificate: to be poor among the poor, a builder of dialogue and peace among the peoples’.
Film critics in various countries generally hailed the documentary as a powerful portrait of a pontiff who talks about issues that other world leaders do not frequently address. But some also pointed out that certain parts were almost hagiographic, and some others labeled the black-and-white episode about St. Francis as ‘kitsch’. And many of them regretted that Wim Wenders did not really dig during the interviews into controversial topics such as abortion and gays’ rights, or question further when the pope rejected ‘machismo and feminism’ putting both at the same level.
Pope Francis’ August Trip to the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland
Footage and pictures of a World Meeting of Families, the Catholic celebration of the role of the family, which is held every three years in different cities around the world, usually offer joyous images of parents and children on pilgrimage and prayer, playful shots of infants in the crowd, and rapturous moments of mass communication between a pope and the flock. As World Youth Day, the celebration of young Catholics, the World Meeting of Families is a great event for television.
Such was the World Meeting of Families of August 2018 in Dublin, which included as usual an apostolic visit of the pope. This time, however, the escalation of news about sexual abuse by priests hit the trip through Ireland’s own decades-long record of scandals, and it was expanded by other negative events in the history of the Catholic Church in the island, mainly its behavior to unmarried pregnant women and their children, and the manual labor imposed on those so-called ‘disgraced women’.
The trip was also tainted by a public letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who had been nuncio (Vatican ambassador) to the United States, in which he accused Jorge Mario Bergoglio of having been aware that Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, was a sexual abuser. Viganò’s move was widely seen by Vatican analysts in most European newspapers as an offensive against the pope launched by ultraconservative prelates, whereas in the American press the topic was regarded either with that same perspective or focusing on the accusation itself. This letter and its consequences will be addressed later in this paper.
Francis spent the weekend of 25 August-26 August in Ireland. During the visit, he apologized on various occasions for the Catholic Church’s behavior as institution and hierarchy towards the sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults by some priests during decades. On Sunday, at the closing mass in Phoenix Park in Dublin, the pope pronounced an emotional solicitation of forgiveness in front of hundreds of thousands of faithful. He made it in the form of a litany that summarized the accumulated wrongs and grievances in the country. Therefore, it is worth to reproduce it here as a record.
With profound distress and sorrow, Francis said:
‘We ask forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, of conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church’.
‘In a special way, we ask pardon for all the abuses committed in various types of institutions run by males or female religious and by other members of the church, and we ask for forgiveness for those cases of manual work that so many young women and men were subjected to. We ask for forgiveness’.
‘We ask forgiveness for the times that, as a church, we did not show the survivors of whatever kind of abuse, the compassion and the seeking of justice and truth through concrete actions’.
‘We ask for forgiveness for some of the church hierarchy who did not take charge of these situations and kept quiet’.
‘We ask for forgiveness for all those times in which many single mothers were told that to seek their children who had been separated from them -and the same being said to daughters and sons themselves—that this was a mortal sin. This is not a mortal sin. We ask for forgiveness’.
Every time he pronounced the word ‘forgiveness’, faithful applauded with appreciation.
In fact, there were huge crowds waving at the pope, even if despite the 500,000 tickets allocated for this mass only 300,000 people turned up, according to Vatican estimates. Among them, there were some 20,000 pilgrims from other countries who had convened in Dublin for the World Meeting of Families. On Sunday, Francis also made a speedy morning visit to the Marian Knock Shrine, where he recited the Angelus in front of 45,000 people. It rained heavily in both places.
Inevitably, media made comparisons between these lower numbers and the estimated 1.25 million people who went to the mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II in that same Phoenix Park in 1979. But back then, weekly mass attendance in Ireland was around 80%, and presently it is close to 35%. And since 1979 here have been radical transformations in public attitudes towards divorce, same-sex marriage, bioethics and sexual morality. In 2018, three months before the pope’s visit, 66.4% of voters disregarded Catholic Church doctrine and voted to remove a constitutional amendment that banned abortion.
On the first day of his visit, a Saturday, Pope Francis met privately with eight people who had suffered sexual abuse by clergy. After listening to their accounts, he described the cover-up of the crimes with a word in his mother tongue Spanish: ‘caca’, which means excrement, filth.
One of the eight people was Marie Collins, a well-known and respected figure of the fight against sexual abuse in the church, and particularly of the need of assuring accountability not only for abusers but also for the hierarchy who protected them. She is a survivor herself: in the 1960s, when she was a teen, she was molested by a chaplain in her native Ireland. Fifty years later, she was appointed as a member of the Pontifical Commission for Child Protection, established by the pontiff in March 2014 to advise him on better ways to prevent clerical abuse and to ensure pastoral care for the victims. But she resigned in March 2017, saying her decision was due to frustration with Vatican officials’ reluctance to cooperate with the task. In Dublin, Marie Collins told reporters that the pope had stated he was not envisioning new measures for bishops who cover up cases of sexual abuse.
There were several protests during Francis’ stay in Ireland. Thousands of people participated in a gathering at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance, a place dedicated to the memory of all who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom. And there was also a silent vigil of some 1000 people in the city of Tuam, at the site of an old mother-and-baby home run by nuns. Thanks to a local historian, a grave with the remains of almost 800 babies born out of wedlock who died in the institution were discovered there in 2017. This memory added to previous revelations about exploitation of unmarried pregnant women who, after giving birth, were sent to work in the Magdalene laundries.
The Taoiseach (prime minister), Leo Varadkar, who is openly gay, used his welcoming speech for Pope Francis on Saturday to list the shames of the past and demanded from him justice and healing for the victims. ‘Holy Father, I ask that you use your office and influence to ensure this is done here in Ireland and across the world’, he said. Varadkar made his plea in a fully respectful way, but it was a direct challenge worth noting.
The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis and the Viganò Affair
The summer of 2018 was particularly tough for church communication. The clergy sexual abuse crisis went global and it engulfed the pope in a most dramatic way. After a first strong wave of international news about the issue during his January trip to Chile and Peru (which has been addressed in the first section of this paper), a second peak came in August, when the pontiff visited Ireland for the World Meeting of Families (discussed in the fourth section).
In the meantime, new appalling revelations of cases of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, including prominent bishops and cardinals, or of its alleged cover-up, emerged in different countries.
In March, Cardinal George Pell, former Vatican ‘Finance minister’ and emeritus archbishop of Sydney, who had been charged in June 2017 with sexually abusing various people in his home state of Victoria decades ago, was summoned to hearings before an Australian court. As reported by Catholic News Agency on 12 December, Pell was then convicted by an Australian jury of two cases of abuse during his mandate as archbishop of Melbourne in the late 1990s, but at that moment the decision had not yet been confirmed by the Australian judiciary. If the decision is confirmed, Pell can appeal to the Supreme Court in Victoria, and from there to the Australian High Court.
Also in news from Australia, on 30 July the pope accepted the resignation of the archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, who was convicted of concealing child sexual abuse by priests. In December, though, the conviction was overturned by a Newcastle District Court Judge on the basis that the first trial had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Archbishop Wilson did not report abuse committed by one of his priests.
Also, as a result of the Latin American journey, all 34 Chilean bishops were called to Rome for talks in May, and they all resigned as a block. They acknowledged ‘grave errors and omissions’ in sexual abuse cases. By August, the pope had accepted the resignation of five of them.
Earlier in the summer, there were public allegations that U.S. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former archbishop of Washington, was guilty of sexual misconduct with young seminarians and of sexual abuse of at least one minor. On 28 July, the pope took away from the then 88-year-old prelate his cardinal’s title, and ordered his ‘suspension from the exercise of any public ministry, together with the obligation to remain in a house yet to be indicated to him, for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial’.
It was not the only scandal in the United States. On 14 August, a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed seven decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in six dioceses, and its concealment by bishops. A thousand people were estimated to be victims. In the wake of the Pennsylvania scandal, Pope Francis published on 20 August a three-page letter ‘to the People of God’ admitting that the church had delayed in implementing measures to protect children and to hold abusers to account.
‘With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been … realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives’, the pope wrote. ‘We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them’, he stated.
Pope Francis also wrote: ‘Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated’.
But the reaction of survivors, as reflected in the press, was tepid. Most of them demanded more action instead of words.
Subsequently, there was enormous tension ahead of the papal journey to Ireland, on the weekend of 25 August-26 August. And then, in the middle of that challenging trip, there was a move strategically scheduled to produce huge damage to the pope’s reputation.
Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the United States, released an eleven-page ‘testimony’ accusing Francis of having ignored his warnings about McCarrick’s misconduct and prompted him to resign. He also claimed that Francis had lifted sanctions imposed on him by Pope Benedict XVI. The letter was published simultaneously in English and Italian in different media outlets.
‘In this extremely dramatic moment for the universal Church’, Viganò wrote, ‘he must acknowledge his mistakes and, in keeping with the proclaimed principle of zero tolerance, Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses, and resign along with all of them’.
At the press conference aboard the flight back to Rome from Dublin, Jorge Mario Bergoglio did not comment on Viganò’s severe accusations. ‘I will not say a single word about this’, he said. ‘I believe the statement speaks for itself. And you have the sufficient journalistic ability to make your conclusions. It’s an act of trust’.
In the following days, journalists dug in the alleged facts provided by Viganò, who did not give evidence, and found several inconsistencies, mainly the ‘sanctions’ imposed by Benedict XVI, which turned out to have never existed. The general tone of the letter was of vindication against Pope Francis, who had fired Viganò as nuncio in 2016, and it looked like the archbishop bore the grudge bitterly. Media would also recall that he was not new to this type of activity. In 2011, when Viganò ran the Governatorato of Vatican City State, he accused some Vatican officials of corruption. His allegations came to light because of the Vatileaks, when Benedict’s butler leaked documents detailing infighting within the Roman Curia, but they collapsed.
News analysts linked the ‘testimony’ to some minor Catholic forces like the site LifeSiteNews and various blogs, as well as other political conservative forces in the United States. The whole move was seen as a real ‘coup’ against the pope. In fact, groups of bishops around the world stepped out in defense of Bergoglio issuing letters of support, although there were some other bishops who demanded that Viganò’s claims be researched. Observers noted that his statements about the length of the cover-up of McCarrick put a bad light on the two previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
In short, many considered that this was the worst crisis Francis had faced in his five-year papacy. Fully aware of it, on 12 September the pope convoked all presidents of the Bishops’ conferences of the world to tackle ‘the prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults’, as Paloma García Ovejero, at that time deputy director of the Holy See Press Office, said on that day. The summit was scheduled to take place at the Vatican on 21 February 2019-24 February 2019.
The Agreement Between the Holy See and China on Appointment of Bishops
Communist China has always been a pending subject for papal Rome, and in the year 2018 there was a crucial, though confusing development.
On 22 September, the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China signed in Beijing a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops. According to the communiqué of the Holy See, the agreement was ‘the fruit of a gradual and reciprocal rapprochement’, came ‘following a long process of careful negotiation’, and would be subject to periodic review. ‘It concerns the nomination of bishops, a question of great importance for the life of the church, and creates the conditions for greater collaboration’, the official note said.
The deal seemed to put an end to decades of struggle over the right to appoint bishops in China. After the Communist takeover of the populous country in 1949, its ties with the Holy See deteriorated quickly, and diplomatic relations broke down in 1951. Beijing started to nominate bishops and priests, while the Holy See kept its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, regarded by China as a rebel province. Since then, China’s Catholics have been split between the ‘underground’ Catholic Church obedient to Rome, and the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), each one with its own bishops and priests. Nowadays, there are ∼12 million Catholic faithful in the country.
Although at first sight the provisional agreement seemed to solve the issue, it was not crystal clear -and it remains so- who would have the final say in appointing the bishops. On the day of the crucial announcement, both the Holy See and China avoided being specific. On that 22 September, the Chinese Government issued a succinct statement on its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website saying: ‘China and the Vatican will continue to maintain communications and promote progress in the process of improving relations between the two sides’. Still, Chinese president Xi Jinping regularly insists on the need that all religious practice in the country must be ‘Chinese in orientation’, and that they must adapt themselves to ‘socialist society’.
To some news analysts, the agreement was the first formal recognition of the pope’s authority by Communist China, and it clearly implied that Francis would appoint bishops from now on. It was also seen as an improvement that could lead in the future to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. But on this last point, Greg Burke, at that time director of the Holy See Press Office, told reporters that the aim of the accord was ‘not political but pastoral’.
To begin with, the Holy See announced that it would lift the excommunication of the seven Chinese bishops that had been ordained without the pope’s approval (an eighth one had died). But it was unclear what would become of the more than 30 ‘underground’ bishops, who are leading a life of hardship together with their parishes and communities, and who have remained loyal to the papacy for years, often at great cost, because defying the authorities in China is not an easy business.
The international press reported about these inconsistencies, and also gave voice to critics. The most prominent was Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong, who two days before the agreement said to Reuters: ‘They are giving the flock into the mouths of the wolves. It is an incredible betrayal’. This interview was widely reproduced, including quotes in which the 86-year-old cardinal declared that ‘a church enslaved by the government is no real Catholic Church’. Western media portrayed the division about the agreement between ‘underground’ Catholics across China: some feared more control from Beijing, others saw a viable rapprochement.
The announcement overshadowed the apostolic trip of Francis to the Baltic States, which ran from 22 September to 25 September. The pope himself had to provide clarifications on the Chinese dossier at a press conference on the returning flight from Tallinn to Rome.:
‘It’s not [that the government] names them. It is a dialogue. But the pontiff will appoint them. Let that be clear’, he said of the deal. As understood and reported by journalists aboard the papal flight, the names of potential new bishops would be proposed by local Catholic communities together with Chinese authorities, and then sent to the Holy See for approval. ‘When you make an agreement, both sides lose something. This is the law for both sides’, Francis concluded. ‘Let us pray for those who do not understand and for those who have been worshiping underground for so many years’, resumed the pope.
But to calm down dissatisfaction, distress and criticism in many ‘underground’ communities, on 26 September Francis published a lengthy letter of explanation. In his Message to the Catholics of China and to the Universal Church, the pope disclosed that the reason for the provisional agreement was mainly to foster the proclamation of the Gospel and to push for the unity in the Catholic flock in China. He also explained that the deal was more than 10 years in the making, with work initiated by John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI. In the letter, Pope Francis admitted that for Chinese faithful it is a confusing situation:
Some feel doubt and perplexity, while others sense themselves somehow abandoned by the Holy See and anxiously question the value of their sufferings endured out of fidelity to the Successor of Peter. In many others, there prevail positive expectations and reflections inspired by the hope of a more serene future for a fruitful witness to the faith in China, he wrote. He basically argued that the appointment of bishops is a step towards improving relations, and therefore it required the support from faithful on the ground.
The Canonization of Archbishop Romero and Pope Paul VI in Rome
Group canonization ceremonies are not unusual in the Vatican. They serve several purposes. One of them is to concentrate in the same glorious day in Rome different role models of Catholic virtuous life and example, thus also filling the place with a colorful and happy variety of pilgrims from different corners of the world. Another more hidden purpose is to modulate the controversies that may surround one of the persons elevated to sainthood, or at least that the people honored complement each other in some way.
Óscar Arnulfo Romero (1917-1980), the martyred archbishop of El Salvador and advocate of the poor, and Paul VI (1897-1978), the pope who carried out some reforms of the Second Vatican Council, were made saints on Sunday 14 October 2018 in a solemn canonization ceremony in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. As required by Canon Law, the Canonization Mass was presided over by Pope Francis.
According to the Vatican, some 70,000 pilgrims from all over the world convened to the place, among them thousands from Latin America. Eight-thousand of them came from El Salvador. Meanwhile, in the small Central American country, thousands of faithful stayed up late in the night to watch the live television feed of the canonization, with particular emotion in Ciudad Barrios, Romero’s native town. The news received vast coverage in mainstream media worldwide.
Considering that Bergoglio is the first Latin American pope in history, or maybe because of that, he devoted surprisingly scarce words to Monseñor Romero in his homily. He said of him that he ‘left the security of the world, even his own safety, in order to give his life according to the Gospel, close to the poor and to his people, with a heart drawn to Jesus and his brothers and sisters’.
In a climate of violence in El Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero Galdámez had become the voice of the poor and oppressed, and had challenged the military regime. The archbishop was killed by a right-wing sniper squad while he was celebrating mass in the chapel of a hospital, on 24 March 1980. The previous day he had exhorted soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians, and he was aware that he was risking his life with his words.
The martyred archbishop quickly became ‘the saint of Latin America’ in the hearts of many in El Salvador and on the continent, but becoming so officially took decades. His path to sainthood was hindered by politics, with some prelates considering him a proponent of liberation theology, and therefore a communist, whose assassination would have been more due to political violence than to odium fidei (hatred of the faith).
Pope Francis unlocked the procedure in April of 2013, only a month after his election to papacy, a clear sign of his preference for the Christian tie between faith and justice. Romero was beatified as a martyr on 23 May 2015.
Significantly, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of Óscar Romero’s canonization cause, put it that way in comments to Catholic News Service on 13 October, on the eve of the canonization mass. His words were released in the CNS dispatch of 14 October devoted to the canonization. ‘What the cardinals and priests who opposed don’t understand is that [St. Romero’s] faith was not theoretical, it was a faith blended with current times, charity, justice and the forces of a changing world’, Paglia said. In another interview, this one with Vatican Insider on 15 March, Vincenzo Paglia had explained that it was actually Pope Benedict XVI who unlocked Romero’s canonization cause, in a private meeting in December 2012, two months before his resignation. Then Pope Francis overtly championed the cause.
The other great protagonist was Giovanni Battista Montini, who was born in Milan, where he later served as archbishop before being elected pope in a conclave in 1963. Francis talked more about him than about Romero. He said that ‘Paul VI spent his life for Christ’s Gospel, crossing new boundaries and becoming its witness in proclamation and in dialogue, a prophet of a church turned outward, looking to those far away and taking care of the poor’. He also evoked that, ‘even in the midst of tiredness and misunderstanding, Paul VI bore witness in a passionate way to the beauty and the joy of following Christ totally’. In the press, many vaticanists and also international observers saw in this sentence a double reference to the kind of internal opposition that Montini experienced during his pontificate.
On the one side, traditional sectors in the Catholic Church opposed his reform of the liturgy, which was inspired by the Second Vatican Council, and his decision to settle an age limit on bishops and cardinals in office. On the other side, progressive sectors within the church disliked his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), in which he declared birth control ‘intrinsically wrong’, reaffirming the church’s previously stated position on the matter. ‘We are obliged once more to declare that [methods for] the direct interruption of the generative process’, Paul VI wrote in the encyclical, ‘…are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children’. Also, political right-wing forces and ingrained economic powers around the world opposed his other well-remembered social encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967), devoted to the ‘development of peoples’.
Linking those both remarkable new saints, Pope Francis wore that day the bloodstained cincture of Archbishop Romero, and used a pallium, a crozier and a chalice belonging to Paul VI.
On that Sunday five other people were canonized, all of them born in Europe during the 18th or 19th centuries. In his homily, Pope Francis briefly mentioned them, who also answered ‘with undivided hearts’ to the radical call of Jesus.
Those were two Italian priests: Francesco Spinelli (1853-1913), the founder of a female religious order devoted to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Vincenzo Romano (1751-1831), a diocesan priest near Naples, who taught children and helped his community recover from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Another two were women religious: Maria Katharina Kasper (1820-1898), a German who founded an order caring for the needy and Nazaria Ignacia de Santa Teresa de Jesús (1889-1943), a Spaniard who spent most of her life in Bolivia, where she founded an order to help women and the poor. The seventh new saint was an Italian young blacksmith’s apprentice, Nunzio Sulprizio (1817-1836), who suffered from ill health during his brief life but was renowned for his piety.
Salvadoran Romero is El Salvador’s first saint, and Bolivians consider Nazaria Ignacia de Santa Teresa de Jesús their country’s first saint. Since Paul VI was as pope a powerful figure of the universal church, and since the canonized group included priests, nuns and a layman, most commentators concluded that it was an excellent match of personalities to be elevated to sainthood together. And they considered that Romero’s canonization in particular, marked a turning point for the Catholic Church.
The Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment
In October 2016, Pope Francis called a Synod of Bishops to debate ways to provide better pastoral attention to young Catholics and help them find their vocations in life. As planned, it took place two years later. The XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, officially titled Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment, unfolded in Rome from 3 October 2018 to 28 October 2018, and it was attended by 267 bishops and priests from all continents. There were also some nuns and lay people.
As other synods in the past, this one was not extensively covered in daily details by mainstream media. But it gained extra journalistic attention because of its timing, coming upon two news waves concerning the Catholic Church internationally: the revelations of sexual abuse scandals in different countries, and the so-called ultraconservative offensive in the form of ‘dirty war’ against the pope.
In the end, the final 60-page document, approved with the required majority of two-thirds of the 267 synod fathers, did not contain any really tangible proposal.
When faced with acute controversies, the synod proved to be driven by its own diversity, with Asian and African prelates protesting that too much attention was given to sexual abuse, which they labeled as a ‘Western problem’, to the detriment of other more important troubles in their regions. In fact, news coverage of the synod was dominated by the debate, which actually did take place as such, about issues both burning and pressing: clergy sexual abuse, the position of women in the church, and accompaniment in the faith of homosexual people.
Concerning sexual abuse by clergy, the document of the bishops called for ‘strong preventive measures to prevent any repeat’, and it renewed the church’s ‘commitment against all sexually-based discrimination and violence’. Part of the debate going on was about clericalism, which was signaled by many observers as a way of thinking that facilitates a cover-up of sexual abuse cases.
The issue of women became particularly evident. Only 7 nuns were invited to participate in an overwhelmingly all-male meeting. According to the rules, only synod fathers, therefore bishops and some other male representatives have the right to vote on the final document, and no woman could do so. The final document called for the greater presence of women in church structures at all levels, including positions of responsibility, but without further concretion of offices or representation. ‘It is a duty of justice, that finds its inspiration in the way Jesus related to the men and women of his time, as well as the importance of the role of some female figures in the Bible, in the history of salvation and in the life of the church’, the document reads. It also underlines ‘the urgency of an inescapable change’’.
The issue of pastoral care of non-heterosexual faithful came up at the very beginning of the sessions. A working paper for the synod used the acronym LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender,) making it the first time in history that this acronym has been used in a Vatican document. That initial draft said: ‘some LGBT youths wish to benefit from greater closeness and experience greater care by the church’. The majority of the bishops, and among them almost all the bishops from Africa and some American but also others, opposed the mention. Therefore, after the voting, the expression did not appear in the final document.
Probably many young Catholics in many parts of the world would have appreciated more conclusive results, but there was certainly a degree of satisfaction and happiness. Among the 72 auditors, which included nuns and lay people, there were 34 whose age was between 18 and 29 years old. Those 34 young people were allowed to speak and give input at the so-called circoli minori (small group discussions organized by language), something never seen before in any previous synod. They kept asking the church to better listen to them, to take their problems and wishes into consideration, and to adapt to their language. Not surprisingly, they demanded that the church establishes specialized departments for digital culture and evangelization.
In their final message to them, the synod fathers tried to be up to the youth’s expectations. ‘Our weaknesses should not deter you; our frailties and sins must not be an obstacle for your trust’, the bishops wrote. ‘The church is your mother; she does not abandon you; she is ready to accompany you on new roads, on higher paths where the winds of the spirit blow stronger—sweeping away the mists of indifference, superficiality and discouragement’, they wrote.
On Sunday 28 October, Pope Francis said a Mass for about 10,000 people in St. Peter’s Basilica to ceremoniously close the Synod of Bishops. ‘I would like to say to the young people, in the name of all of us adults: forgive us if often we have not listened to you, if, instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears’, Francis said in his homily.
The pope had attended the synod’s sessions every day, and, as usual in every synod, he will write at some point a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, in which he may take into account the document issued by the bishops.