Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"Pope" To "Pilgrim," Five Years On

For all the chaos of The Bolt – and a fallout that kept this scribe awake for 46 hours straight – it would take another 17 days before the full brunt of what was happening really hit.

Or began to, as much as it humanly could.

Even for the passage of time, few words can suitably describe the events that transpired five years ago this morning and tonight – "emotional" and "surreal" begin to grasp it... all told, though, "disorienting" still fits the bill better than anything else.

For the sake of history, then – and especially for the benefit of anyone who wasn't here in the moment – here's the Unmaking of a Pope as Benedict XVI made manifest his will on 28 February 2013. (All times Rome.)

*   *   *
10.30am – A final audience with the College of Cardinals which would choose his successor from their number, and from which the next Pope would be chosen....

Dear beloved brothers,

I welcome you all with great joy and cordially greet each one of you. I thank Cardinal Angelo Sodano [dean of the college], who as always, has been able to convey the sentiments of the College, Cor ad cor loquitur [heart speaking to heart]. Thank you, Your Eminence, from my heart.

And referring to the disciples of Emmaus, I would like to say to you all that it has also been a joy for me to walk with you over the years in light of the presence of the Risen Lord. As I said yesterday, in front of thousands of people who filled St. Peter's Square, your closeness, your advice, have been a great help to me in my ministry. In these 8 years we have experienced in faith beautiful moments of radiant light in the Churches’ journey along with times when clouds have darkened the sky. We have tried to serve Christ and his Church with deep and total love which is the soul of our ministry. We have gifted hope that comes from Christ alone, and which alone can illuminate our path. Together we can thank the Lord who has helped us grow in communion, to pray to together, to help you to continue to grow in this deep unity so that the College of Cardinals is like an orchestra, where diversity, an expression of the universal Church, always contributes to a superior harmony of concord. I would like to leave you with a simple thought that is close to my heart, a thought on the Church, Her mystery, which is for all of us, we can say, the reason and the passion of our lives. I am helped by an expression of Romano Guardini’s, written in the year in which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium, his last with a personal dedication to me, so the words of this book are particularly dear to me.

Guardini says: "The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ. "

This was our experience yesterday, I think, in the square. We could see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God, She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, as we saw yesterday. This is why another eloquent expression of Guardini’s is also true: "The Church is awakening in souls." The Church lives, grows and awakens in those souls which like the Virgin Mary accept and conceive the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. They offer to God their flesh and in their own poverty and humility become capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever. Christ continues to walk through all times in all places. Let us remain united, dear brothers, to this mystery, in prayer, especially in daily Eucharist, and thus serve the Church and all humanity. This is our joy that no one can take from us.

Prior to bidding farewell to each of you personally, I want to tell you that I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you may all be fully docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new Pope. May the Lord show you what is willed by Him. And among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future Pope, to whom, here to today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience. For all this, with affection and gratitude, I cordially impart upon you my Apostolic Blessing.
* * *
5pm – Without words (just weeping), the Pope's departure by helicopter from the Apostolic Palace....

*    *    *
6.30pm – from the window of his beloved Castel Gandolfo, a last public word and blessing from Joseph Ratzinger – "no longer Pope, just a pilgrim":

Thank you – thank you from my heart!

Dear friends, I'm happy to be with you, that I can see the Creator's beauty around us, and all the goodness you've given to me – thank you for your friendship and your affection!

You know that this day of mine hasn't been like those before. I'm no longer the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church – at least, at 8 o'clock I won't be – now I'm just a pilgrim beginning the last part of his journey on earth.

With all my heart, with all my love, with my prayer and all my strength – with everything in me – I'd like to work for the common good of the church and all humanity. I feel your kindness so much.

Let us always move together toward the Lord for the good of the church and of the world. Thank you for bringing yourselves [here] – with all my heart, I give you my blessing…. 
Thank you and goodnight!
*    *    *
And at the designated hour of 2000 – 8pm – the ritual devised at the portal of the papal "Camp David" to signify the canonical end of the pontificate and the vacancy of Peter's Chair:


For Vegas, The Pope's Payout – Amid Growth and Grief, Helena's Thomas Hits The Strip

Resolving the US' largest open seat a bit more quickly than expected, at Roman Noon this Wednesday the Pope named Bishop George Thomas (above) – the 67 year-old head of western Montana's Helena diocese since 2004 – as the third bishop of Las Vegas: carved into a stand-alone diocese just two decades ago, now boomed to some 850,000 Catholics amid Sin City's marked growth.

In the post overseeing the five counties of southern Nevada, the Seattle-bred prelate – once the top aide to Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen at the end of his tumultuous tenure – succeeds Bishop Joseph Pepe, who reached the retirement age of 75 last June.

A prodigal Philadelphian who landed in Vegas in 2001 after a decade on loan in New Mexico, the departing bishop already moved into his emeritus home last fall. Yet even so, there's arguably one person who's looked forward to this day even more: the bishop's 97 year-old mother, still living in the Roxborough house where he grew up, to which "Joe Pep" plans to return during the warmer months while serving as a hospital chaplain.

Needless to say, the road to today's move has unfolded in the shadow of immense tragedy: the October 1st massacre that killed 58 and wounded several hundred concert-goers at the Mandalay Bay casino – the deadliest mass shooting in the nation's history, and just a couple blocks from Guardian Angel Cathedral (below) at that.

Given the unique context, it's especially notable that – having been prominently mentioned for several other major postings over the last couple years – Thomas brings to Vegas a significant background in "community mental health." (Along these lines, the bishop's training in counseling was cited as a rationale for his appointment to Newark, because – as one op mused during the late-2016 process – "the whole place needs therapy." Of course, Francis would have his own eye-popping way of reflecting that concern in the outcome.)

Beyond the fallout of the shooting, the priority issues of Vegas Catholicism boil down to three words: growth, immigration, and vocations.

On the latter front, the diocese's 1995 spinoff from Reno left the new fold with all of 19 active incardinated priests in the trenches today, the rest of the gaping need filled by externs and religious clerics. At the same time, the Catholic expansion in the US' fastest-growing metro area saw the construction of a massive high school at a cost approaching $100 million, the project since become the focus of bitter litigation between the diocese and the contractor.

Here again, the new arrival's travails are quite well-suited – in Helena, Thomas oversaw the diocese's year-long bankruptcy due to 360 abuse cases he inherited, which resulted in a $21 million settlement alongside a mediation process that's been hailed as a model for resolving the suits in an approach that's more pastoral than legal.

In that light, it's especially conspicuous that, with today's nod, Thomas becomes the first US bishop ever to receive a more prominent post after taking a diocese through Chapter 11.

As it's early out West, the installation date and other usual bits remain to emerge.... More to come.

(SVILUPPO: Per a Whispers op, Thomas' Strip-stallation is set for Tuesday, 15 May – two weeks past the normal threshold of the canons, a delay likely due to the normal franticness of the Easter season and Thomas' larger-than-normal plate to wrap up in Big Sky Country.)


Monday, February 26, 2018

Whither The Reform? – Amid a Move to Korea, Aftershocks in Rome

As the news-cycle already begins to immerse itself in the coming fifth anniversary of Francis' pontificate in two weeks' time, this Monday brings another inflection-point for one of the Pope's key projects – and yet again, one that leaves more questions than answers in its wake.

Topping today's batch of appointments, Papa Bergoglio named Msgr Alfred Xuereb (above left) – the 59 year-old Maltese best known for his years as deputy secretary to Benedict XVI – as Nuncio to South Korea and Mongolia, elevating him to the rank of archbishop. Yet while the pick's history with the Pope-emeritus has garnered no shortage of sentimental headlines, the move's real ramifications lie elsewhere, reaching right to the heart of both the reigning Pope's foreign policy, not to mention Francis' attempts at reform within the Vatican itself.

First, given the current drama surrounding North Korea's nuclear ambitions, even if the Nunciature in Seoul is long accustomed to being a global hotspot, in the present moment it's arguably one of the most critical postings in papal diplomacy. As the Holy See has no bilateral relations with the Communist North, Xuereb now becomes Francis' de facto legate to the whole of a divided peninsula facing the threat of an epoch-defining war, but the irony is that the new Nuncio has never served in the diplomatic corps, his career spent instead as a nuts-and-bolts administrator.

All that said, Xuereb's closeness to Francis – who inherited the Maltese as his top personal aide upon his election – portends an effectiveness of a different sort, and the archbishop-elect's background in organization could well come in handy for humanitarian efforts. Still, as each prior Nuncio to Korea since the South's democratic rebirth in the mid-1980s had come to the posting with decades of experience around the globe, the break from convention is conspicuous, all the more amid the region's backdrop today.

Beyond the fluid situation with the North, the incoming legate will face two other notable aspects in the role. First, for just the second time, South Korea's head of state – and the lead figure on any talks with Pyongyang – President Moon Jae-In, is a Catholic, part of a fold whose extraordinary rate of conversions has seen it come to comprise some 15 percent of the South's population within a matter of decades. And with the Korean Church's profile as a dynamic, mission-based outpost – its emergence into the mainstream coming in tandem with a remarkable run on building institutions of education and social service – Xuereb's arrival comes months before the 75th birthday (and hence the succession) of Seoul's Cardinal Andrew Yeom. Ergo, it'll fall to the new Nuncio to lay the groundwork of Francis' first choice to a seat that hasn't merely become one of Asian Catholicism's top pulpits, but one of the global church's most sensitive ones, to boot; with the North almost hermetically sealed off from the outside world, the last several archbishops of Seoul have likewise been tasked with pastoral oversight of the church's small, heavily-monitored remaining presence above the DMZ.

Significant and full as the Korean plate is, on the internal front, the one Xuereb leaves behind is even more charged.

After Francis took note of the Maltese's adeptness at management, by the end of 2013 the pontiff dispatched his then-secretary to undertake the studies which quickly culminated in the creation of the Secretariat of the Economy – and, with it, a seismic upending of the many-headed financial apparatus which had long been the proverbial "800-lb gorilla" of Vatican scandals.

Having tapped the Australian Cardinal George Pell to lead the new organ as the Holy See's first-ever "CFO," armed with a sweeping mandate to wrest all its fiscal, budgetary and personnel operations under his control, Francis named Xuereb as his deputy. And now, after a four-year turf-war saw no shortage of wrenches thrown into the works, both are literally gone: while still holding the title of Prefect, Pell has been in Australia since last July after he was charged there on decades-old allegations of unspecified "sexual offenses," which are slated to come to trial in his home-state of Victoria next month.

Regardless of the outcome of the court process, the hostilities aroused by the famously hard-charging Pell's full-on battle for financial supremacy, combined with the stain of the abuse claims and the 76 year-old Aussie's prior complaints of difficult health, have virtually assured that the cardinal won't be returning to Rome. To avoid the appearance of a rush to judgment by the Vatican, however, any successor to him as Prefect for the Economy ostensibly wouldn't be named until after his trial concludes.

Meanwhile, no successor in Xuereb's Economy role was named today, either, leaving Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – the chair of the 15-person Council which supervises the office – as the last man standing of the three main figures to whom the reform was entrusted, the other lead posts (and only full-time ones) now lacking functioning occupants.

Again, today's move brings more questions than answers... but as Francis' 5th comes increasingly into focus and the assessments abound, one of his marquee attempts at a Roman shakeup was just dealt a sizable blow, and maybe even a fatal one.

Together with another diplomat elevated today – Msgr José Bettencourt, 54, a Portuguese-born immigrant to Canada named a Nuncio without posting (thus to remain in Rome) – Xuereb is expected to be ordained a bishop by Francis on March 19th: St Joseph's Day, and with it the fifth anniversary of the Pope's inauguration as the church's Universal Pastor.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

For These 40 Days, Francis Pushes "Pause"

Even as this Ash Wednesday invariably draws the hordes to churches across the globe from dawn to well past dusk, for the Popes, the launch to Lent is always relatively sparse.

For some eight centuries, the Bishops of Rome have marked this day away from their daily centers of power – first the Lateran, then the Vatican – instead heading up the Aventine Hill for a penitential procession that, in times past, saw the pontiffs stripped of their splendor, wrapping up with a simple Mass at the Dominican base of Santa Sabina, the first of the traditional station churches.

Further marking the sobriety of the day, protocol dictates that the Pope wears the traditional "simplex" miter reserved to him – unadorned white silk, with a thin border in gold – only employed in life on this day, Good Friday and at funerals: most notably of all, the headpiece in which he will eventually be buried. (On this front, Francis has slightly altered the custom, alternating between the customary model and one trimmed in silver, the latter used today.) In addition, while the cardinals resident in the city are present as ever for the rite, the starkness of the occasion sees none of them concelebrate.

While last week saw the release of this year's formal Lenten message calling for a turn away from indifference, today's homily took an even more practical look at how to live these 40 Days, delivered in Francis' oft-used style of "three words" – here, its English translation:
The season of Lent is a favourable time to remedy the dissonant chords of our Christian life and to receive the ever new, joyful and hope-filled proclamation of the Lord’s Passover. The Church in her maternal wisdom invites us to pay special attention to anything that could dampen or even corrode our believing heart.

We are subject to numerous temptations. Each of us knows the difficulties we have to face. And it is sad to note that, when faced with the ever-varying circumstances of our daily lives, there are voices raised that take advantage of pain and uncertainty; the only thing they aim to do is sow distrust. If the fruit of faith is charity – as Mother Teresa often used to say – then the fruit of distrust is apathy and resignation. Distrust, apathy and resignation: these are demons that deaden and paralyze the soul of a believing people.

Lent is the ideal time to unmask these and other temptations, to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus. The whole of the Lenten season is imbued with this conviction, which we could say is echoed by three words offered to us in order to rekindle the heart of the believer: pause, see and return.

Pause a little, leave behind the unrest and commotion that fill the soul with bitter feelings which never get us anywhere. Pause from this compulsion to a fast-paced life that scatters, divides and ultimately destroys time with family, with friends, with children, with grandparents, and time as a gift… time with God.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the need to show off and be seen by all, to continually appear on the “noticeboard” that makes us forget the value of intimacy and recollection.

Pause for a little while, refrain from haughty looks, from fleeting and pejorative comments that arise from forgetting tenderness, compassion and reverence for the encounter with others, particularly those who are vulnerable, hurt and even immersed in sin and error.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the urge to want to control everything, know everything, destroy everything; this comes from overlooking gratitude for the gift of life and all the good we receive.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the attitude which promotes sterile and unproductive thoughts that arise from isolation and self-pity, and that cause us to forget going out to encounter others to share their burdens and suffering.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the emptiness of everything that is instantaneous, momentary and fleeting, that deprives us of our roots, our ties, of the value of continuity and the awareness of our ongoing journey.

Pause in order to look and contemplate!

See the gestures that prevent the extinguishing of charity, that keep the flame of faith and hope alive. Look at faces alive with God’s tenderness and goodness working in our midst.

See the face of our families who continue striving, day by day, with great effort, in order to move forward in life, and who, despite many concerns and much hardship, are committed to making their homes a school of love.

See the faces of our children and young people filled with yearning for the future and hope, filled with “tomorrows” and opportunities that demand dedication and protection. Living shoots of love and life that always open up a path in the midst of our selfish and meagre calculations.

See our elderly whose faces are marked by the passage of time, faces that reveal the living memory of our people. Faces that reflect God’s wisdom at work.

See the faces of our sick people and the many who take care of them; faces which in their vulnerability and service remind us that the value of each person can never be reduced to a question of calculation or utility.

See the remorseful faces of so many who try to repair their errors and mistakes, and who from their misfortune and suffering fight to transform their situations and move forward.

See and contemplate the face of Crucified Love, who today from the cross continues to bring us hope, his hand held out to those who feel crucified, who experience in their lives the burden of failure, disappointment and heartbreak.

See and contemplate the real face of Christ crucified out of love for everyone, without exception. For everyone? Yes, for everyone. To see his face is an invitation filled with hope for this Lenten time, in order to defeat the demons of distrust, apathy and resignation. The face that invites us to cry out: “The Kingdom of God is possible!”

Pause, see and return. Return to the house of your Father. Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy (cf. Eph 2:4), who awaits you.

Return without fear, for this is the favourable time to come home, to the home of my Father and your Father (cf. Jn 20:17). It is the time for allowing one’s heart to be touched… Persisting on the path of evil only gives rise to disappointment and sadness. True life is something quite distinct and our heart indeed knows this. God does not tire, nor will he tire, of holding out his hand (cf. Misericordiae Vultus, 19).

Return without fear, to join in the celebration of those who are forgiven.

Return without fear, to experience the healing and reconciling tenderness of God. Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfil the prophecy made to our fathers: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36: 26).

Pause, see and return!

"Repent and Believe"

Sure, this has become the most packed church-day of the year... but, for once, to focus on that angle is to miss the point.

To one and all on this Ash Wednesday, may every blessing, joy and goodness of Lent be yours – whatever the path, may we all know the grace to make something of these 40 Days ahead.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

"The Bolt From the Sky," Five Years On

Five years ago today, in the minutes around Roman Noon, the single most stunning and chaotic moment the Vatican beat's ever known broke out.

Following the routine business of a consistory to announce canonization dates, Pope Benedict XVI began addressing the 50 or so gathered cardinals and other prelates in Latin. Not many among the group could figure out what he was saying on their own, but the bulging, racing eyes of one who did – the Papal Almoner Archbishop Guido Pozzo, a once and future top negotiator with the SSPX – betrayed the moment's consequence: seventeen days later, the Pope would vacate Peter's Chair in life, its first holder to resign the office for reasons of his age and health since 1296.

As Papa Ratzinger left the Sala del Concistoro, some cardinals wept, while others wandered around in a daze. As the Dean of the College, Cardinal Angelo Sodano – informed privately by B16 in an audience three days prior – responded for the group, it came as "a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky." That two separate bolts would strike the dome of St Peter's six hours later (above) merely served to reinforce the point.

The line's been used here before, but bears repeating: for all the attention and analysis that's been given to the iconoclastic style of Benedict's successor, in reality, the ultimate modern redefinition of the Petrine office was the last move made in it by Joseph Ratzinger. Much as it was in pure continuity with the path of the contemporary papacy – following the gradual divestiture of territorial rule, the tiara and (most of) the papal court, and alongside these the development of a daily global presence – the decision to detach the concept of the supreme munus from the duration of its occupant's lifetime inevitably marked the role's most fundamental shift of all. (At least, in recent times – the last time this was an issue, of course, Christianity hadn't yet arrived in the Americas.)

In the months following the resignation – while Francis took the global stage by storm as Benedict quietly settled into his "monastic" retirement in the Vatican Gardens – no less than the comedian Tracy Morgan still couldn't wrap his mind around it.

"It's getting dark out there," the Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock star mused in a late 2013 interview. "The Pope quit. How could that happen?

"You can't resign when you have that position," Morgan said. "God doesn't accept that."

Sure, the post's 264th occupant saw it differently, not to mention the canons. Nonetheless, what began early on that Monday in February broke open a flood of questions, controversies – and, indeed, complications – which haven't begun to be resolved. And as the now Pope-emeritus writes of being on a "pilgrimage toward home" amid this anniversary, but one thing is clear: the issues and effects wrought by Benedict's historic departure will outlive him... and, so it seems, likely his successor, too.

*   *   *
Here, the video and English text of Benedict's announcement as it happened:

Dear Brothers,

I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.

However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.

For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is.

Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of God in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

From The Champions' Desk

For a city that rarely gets what it deserves, this week has always been The Ultimate Wish... and to say the experience lived up to the hype and our hopes just doesn't begin to cut it.

It's a reflection of Philadelphia's collective neurosis that simply to employ the arrangement of words many of us never thought we'd ever get to use to describe reality – "The Eagles have won the Super Bowl" – might, even now, see someone show up and snatch it away remains a little bit in mind. That it's come to pass amid this wildly unpredictable season is oddly perfect, but nonetheless adds to the lingering sense of shock.

Yet even as this scribe's hometown is defined more than most by what unfolds as Sunday afternoons grow colder and darker into the winter, the team and the game are merely the outlet for bigger things still. And so it was that for most of us, the Birds' rare return to football's biggest stage – and now, the cathartic thrill (or, indeed, "mass-scale civic exorcism") of the result – could only ever be its most joyous to the degree we shared it with the families, friends and neighbors who don't just mark our game-days, but everything in between.

Having been able to do that with my own clan these last two weeks has made for a lifetime's blessing and what many of us will cherish as the greatest Philly moment we'll ever see. As Lord only knows when we'll get to do this again – but nothing will be like this one – thanks for your patience and understanding through it. Just as much, having been inundated by congrats and closeness from a good few of this crowd all over the place, please know how the virtual shower of champagne and Gatorade will always mean the world – as this crew has become a cherished part of the scribe's family over these years, it simply wouldn't have been complete without you.

And now, time to rev up again – as all the usual fights are still going, looks like there hasn't been too much to miss. In any case, with Lent just ahead, may all its blessings be yours... and in time, may days like we've just had here come true no less for the places and people you love.