If you think your diary will be busy in the next few days, think of Pope Francis. The 85-year-old, who has been confined to a wheelchair for months this year, is gearing up for a big weekend. He will spend it in the company of the world’s cardinals, the red-clad figures who should be his closest advisers but are rarely seen en masse in Rome these days. Now Papa finally decided to bring them together – in the relentless August heat of the Eternal City.
Today the Pope will add to the number of cardinals. Tomorrow he races to L’Aquila, an Italian city that boasts the tomb of Pope Celestine V, who retired in 1294. He will return to the Vatican to meet with the cardinals about a new constitution for the Roman Curia. .
What is the meaning of this vigorous activity? Pope Francis is always hard to say because he loves to keep everyone guessing. Hence the explosion of speculation when the Vatican unveiled its program for the end of August. Will he announce his resignation in L’Aquila? Could he promulgate new rules governing the role of retired popes? Or maybe he will change the rules of the conclave that chose his successor? Can he even appoint a “coadjutor” pope who will eventually succeed him? It’s just a taste of theories.
Rome had fin du pontificate feel since Francis had colon surgery in July 2021. He responded to his health issues by going overboard. Just days after being released from the hospital, he began a global crackdown on the traditional Latin Mass. In March, he unexpectedly promulgated a new constitution for the Vatican. These two main acts of his pontificate were careless. He gave little warning to the bishops of the world about his attack on Catholic traditionalism, which requires them to ban masses, which are often attended by many young families. And although the new constitution took nine years to develop, it contained typos.
The accelerated changes over the past year have highlighted the polarizing nature of this papacy. To his fans, Pope Francis is a funny, fearless and free-spirited figure, led by the Holy Spirit to shake up a stupefying, insular Church. To his critics, he is a fickle authoritarian, ambivalent about clerical insults and ruthlessly dismissive of traditionalist Catholics. It’s as if there are two Francis: one has already been canonized, and the other is hotly demonized.
What does this say about the Catholic Church today? Catholicism, once described as a “great ramshackle empire,” is largely based on trust. Things go well when lay Catholics can trust each other and their parish priest, when the priest can trust his bishop, and the bishop can trust the pope. But in some parts of the Catholic world, that relationship has fallen apart. The Internet controversy has undermined the trust of the laity. The crisis of abuse has eroded trust between laity and priests, and between priests and bishops. Pope Francis’ frantic maneuvering has damaged the confidence of some bishops, although it is impossible to say how many of them, as they tend to express their concerns in private.
Where there is no trust, there is also fear. And where there is fear, there is speculation — in this case, that Pope Francis has some church-shaking plans up his sleeve this weekend. But it would be very in his style if the next few days passed without any dramatic announcements, and he broke the big news when we least expected it.