Vatican officials are uneasy and perplexed after the publication this week of a conversation between Pope Francis and an atheist journalist who, for the third time in his conversations with the pontiff, didn’t record the exchange.
The officials’ discomfort also extends to the Pope’s spontaneous telephone calls to strangers, a couple of which implied he deviated from Church teaching but, being private and unrecorded conversations, are difficult to verify.
On Sunday, Eugenio Scalfari, co-founder of the Italian daily La Repubblica, published in the newspaper a long account of a conversation he had with the Pope last week.
Francis didn’t say anything particularly unusual, but some of the subject matter was highly sensitive including clerical sex abuse, priestly celibacy and the mafia.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, clearly not notified in advance of the conversation nor present during the exchange to record it, was unable to offer satisfactory clarification but — as has become usual — had to pick up the pieces.
In a statement, he was quick to point out that the published quotations of the Pope were drawn from Scalfari’s memory (it’s fairly common for Italian journalists not to record an interview but rather report on the spirit of it) and could therefore not be attributed to the Pope.
Scalfari is also 90 years old.
Given the controversy over Scalfari’s first exchange with the Pope last September, Vatican officials cannot fathom why Francis would give him another interview. Last year’s conversation, in which the Pope is alleged to have said proselytism is “solemn nonsense” and that “there is no Catholic God” — also wasn’t recorded. Remarkable, given the importance of the interviewee and the deep significance of the subject matter. The Vatican newspaper, which published that exchange in full, eventually removed it from its website.
“1.2 billion Catholics have the right to know precisely what the Pope said, especially on subjects so delicate and interesting,” veteran Vatican correspondent Marco Tosatti wrote on his blog this week. “If the interlocutor, for whatever reason, refuses to use a recorder, perhaps the Holy See should buy him one.”
The Pope is naturally free to speak to whoever he wishes, but perhaps he would be better served if Vatican aides were present when a veteran journalist such as Scalfari comes to the Vatican with the intention of publishing the conversation.
The overlooking of the obvious has led some to speculate that a possible strategy might be at play. This could entail using Scalfari’s foggy memory, radical views and tendency towards sensationalism to exaggerate certain issues in order to provoke a debate while avoiding the possibility of pinning anything on the Pope. This is unlikely but not impossible, and many Catholics would consider it scandalous if true, causing an unnecessary amount of confusion.
Already it is compounding what some perceive as lack of clarity over dogma during this pontificate. One unhelpful factor, critics say, has been the Pope’s out-of-the blue telephone calls to members of the public.
Although very popular for showing the Pope’s down to earth, caring and pastoral nature, they haven’t always been helpful. In April, the Pope called an Argentine woman to allegedly tell her that her divorced and remarried Catholic husband could receive communion, even though the church has always forbidden it.
The Vatican said the woman’s account was unreliable but, because it was private, it couldn’t completely rule out that such a conversation had taken place. The call caused widespread concern, not least among officials.
Lombardi, who declines to answer any questions over the latest Scalfari conversation, is placed in an almost impossible position if such incidents recur. Some even think he should threaten to resign in protest at having his job undermined in such a way.
At the very least, a number of Vatican officials and many lay faithful want to see such future conversations handled professionally, with less equivocal accounts and without any possible hidden agendas.
A new Vatican committee on media reform headed by Lord Patten, a former chairman of the BBC, will no doubt wish to address this. In the meantime, officials will be encouraged about one thing: since April, out-of-the-blue phone calls about sensitive matters appear to have ceased.
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VATICAN CITY — Easter is a time for each Christian to recall the origins of his or her journey with Jesus, to renew his or her service to others and to remember the marginalized and outcast, Pope Francis said during his addresses over the Easter Triduum.
In his message and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world), the Holy Father stressed that the good news of Christ’s resurrection “is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love.”
It is about “leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast,” he said. “‘Come and see!’ Love is more powerful; love gives life; love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.”
Noting this “joyful certainty in our hearts,” the Pope called on the Lord to help mankind to seek him, to overcome hunger and put an end to all conflicts, great or small. He implored the Lord to protect the vulnerable, especially children, women and the elderly, “who are at times exploited and abandoned.”
Peace Talks in Syria ‘Long Overdue’
Turning to particular suffering and tragedies, he prayed for humanitarian assistance in Syria and “long overdue” peace talks there. He asked that hope be sustained for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians and for an end to conflicts and terrorism in the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Sudan.
The Pope, speaking under sunny spring skies from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, also appealed for “reconciliation and fraternal concord” in Venezuela.
Noting that this year the Latin Church celebrates Easter at the same time as those who follow the Julian calendar, he called for peace in Ukraine, “so that all those involved, with the support of the international community, will make every effort to prevent violence and, in a spirit of unity and dialogue, chart a path for the country’s future.”
Referring to the ebola epidemic in three African countries, he called for care for the victims and for those “suffering from so many other diseases which are also spread through neglect and dire poverty.”
The Pope also remembered those who cannot celebrate Easter, the persecuted and those who leave their own lands for a better future, often because they cannot freely profess their faith.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper
The Triduum began on Holy Thursday, with the chrism Mass in St. Peter’s and a homily in which the Pope spoke extensively about priestly joy: “a priceless treasure,” he said, “not only for the priest himself, but for the entire faithful people of God.”
He spoke of the smallness of the priest in contrast to the grandeur of his ministry, stressing that “no one is more ‘little’ than a priest” without Jesus and “left to his own devices.”
“I am a priest because he has regarded my littleness,” the Pope said, quoting the Gospel of Luke. “And in that littleness, we find our joy, joy in our littleness.”
The Pope singled out three significant aspects of priestly joy: that which anoints (fills the priest with grace), is imperishable (a joy the Lord has promised he will never take away) and is missionary (deriving from administering the sacraments).
He also said priestly joy has “three sisters” that surround it: the “poverty” of self-denial, the “fidelity” of being ever renewed to the Church as a Bride and “obedience” to the hierarchy, which enables “union with God the Father, the source of all fatherhood.”
The Pope closed by asking the Lord to preserve the joy of the recently ordained, to confirm the joy of those who have ministered for some years and to “make better known” the joy of elderly priests.
After the Mass, the Pope had lunch with 10 Roman priests, listened to the challenges they face and encouraged them in their ministry.
In the evening of Holy Thursday, the Pope visited Rome’s Don Gnocchi facility, a rehabilitation center for the elderly and disabled. During the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Father again departed from traditional practice by washing the feet of 12 people, including one Muslim and an Ethiopian woman. In his off-the-cuff homily, the Pope underlined the importance of being “servants in love” of each other, as Jesus symbolically showed in the washing of the feet.
Pope Francis presided at the celebration of the Passion of Our Lord on Good Friday, but as is tradition, the homily was given by the papal preacher. Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the papal household, spoke this year about the dangers of idolizing money, Judas’ betrayal and the wonder of the sacrament of penance
The meditations for the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) at the Colosseum were this year given by Italian Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano, a former factory worker and longtime prison chaplain, who has championed the cause of the unemployed and strongly criticized Italian organized crime. His reflections recalled many on the margins of society, condemned sexual abuse and its cover-up and deplored domestic violence.
During his reflection at the end of the Via Crucis, Pope Francis said that, in the cross, “we see the monstrosity of man, when we allow ourselves to be guided by evil; but we also see the immensity of the mercy of God, who does not treat us according to our sins, but according to his mercy.” He also called on the faithful to remember the sick and all those abandoned under the weight of the cross, that they might find hope in the Resurrection.
Return to Galilee
At the Easter vigil in St. Peter’s on Holy Saturday, Francis pointed out that Galilee is where the apostles were first called and that each person has a “Galilee,” where his or her journey with Jesus began.
“To return to Galilee means, above all, to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey,” he said. “From that flame, I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters. That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”
He asked every Catholic to recall his or her Galilee. “The Gospel of Easter is very clear: We need to go back there, to see Jesus risen and to become witnesses of his resurrection,” he said.
“This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia. It is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Reflecting the festive mood in Rome ahead of the imminent canonizations of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the official website on the event, 2popesaints, has released this upbeat video with the soundtrack of the recent hit single ‘Happy’ by singer and producer Pharrell Williams.
The video is made by young Romans and was mostly filmed in the parish of San Giovanni Battista de Rossi in the Appio-Latino suburb of southeast Rome. It’s directed by Maila Paone, edited by Raffaele Pannozzo and is the idea of Chiara Romanzo, Alberto Acuri, Francesca Vertisano, Giorgia Giacomini.
It also features Don Stefano Cascio, a young priest of the parish who has done much to help bring young people back to church.
Rome authorities have been hard at work preparing for what could be the largest crowds the city has ever seen. The interior ministry expects the April 27 double canonization, presided by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square, to draw 800,000 pilgrims from all over the world, but others predict far higher numbers, possibly as many as 7 million.
An enormous contingent of pilgrims from John Paul II’s native Poland is expected, as well as significant numbers from the Lombardy region of northern Italy, the birthplace of John XXIII.
The Vatican says 19 heads of State will be attending as well as 24 prime ministers from 61 official delegations, representing 54 countries. Tickets are not required but seats will be difficult or near impossible to find and many are expected to camp out overnight to obtain the best places.
City authorities are visibly in full swing, already cordoning off major streets such as the Fori Imperiali that leads up to the Colosseum, repainting road markings and erecting 14 large screens in key areas all across the city. Security will also be tight: Italy’s interior minister has said 2,430 police units have been drafted in to carry out checks and patrol sensitive targets.
Meanwhile, Rome’s many hotels are preparing for one of their best business weekends in years. Most rooms are sold out, and at least one hotel near the Vatican is charging as much as $900 for one night during the canonization weekend.
But despite the logistical challenges, Rome is well practiced in hosting such enormous events and tends to manage them well. Thousands of volunteers will join the protezione civile – Italy’s main body dealing with the management of exceptional events.
Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, said last week the city is “ready, very ready” for the impending arrival of thousands of pilgrims.
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will celebrate all the traditional ceremonies of Holy Week this year, but he will again depart from tradition on Holy Thursday by washing the feet of elderly and disabled residents in a Roman care home.
Before the Easter Triduum, the Holy Father, who began Holy Week by celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, will first wish a happy birthday to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who turns 87 on Holy Wednesday.
It’s not clear how Francis will send his birthday wishes, but he may visit the pope emeritus at his Mater Ecclesiae residence in the Vatican Gardens before or soon after he holds his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The same day, the Pope will distribute 1,200 pocket-sized copies of the Gospel to detainees in the Roman prison of “Regina Coeli”. The booklets will be given out by Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner.
On the morning of Holy Thursday, the Pope will celebrate his second chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Mass manifests the unity of the priests with their bishop, and, as is tradition, the Holy Father will bless three oils (holy chrism, catechumens and the infirm) to be used in the administration of the sacraments throughout the diocese for the year.
Last year, Pope Francis gave one of his most memorable homilies to date when he exhorted priests to “go out” to the outskirts of society in order to “experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy.” He said priests who are managers, who don’t put their own skin and heart on the line, grow dissatisfied, instead of being shepherds “living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’”
Then at 5pm on Holy Thursday, the Pope will leave his St. Martha residence and be driven to the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Don Carlo Gnocchi care home. Once there, he will celebrate the In Coena Domini Mass (Mass of the Lord’s Supper) with residents, staff and their families, and he will wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities.
A ‘Powerful’ — and Controversial — Gesture
The foot-washing ritual is rooted in the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles on the eve of his death. Traditionally, priests have washed the feet of sub-deacons, clergy or laymen, as an example of service.
Last year, the Pope caused controversy when he washed the feet of 12 young people at a Roman Juvenile Detention Center, especially because two were young women, and two were Muslims. The Code of Canon Law states that only men (viri selecti) can have their feet washed.
It’s not yet clear whether the Pope will again wash the feet of women this year, but speaking on behalf of the Vatican, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica stressed to reporters on April 15 that the washing of the feet is a gesture of “ultimate humble service, not of power or privilege.”
“One can easily understand that, in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot-washing, because Jesus himself washed the feet of the Twelve Apostles, who were male,” he said.
But recalling that the Pope washed the feet of young men and women when he was cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Father Rosica said, “To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in a Roman prison-detention juvenile detention center last year would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society.”
“That Pope Francis washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as pope should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gestures of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy that have been the hallmarks of the current Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions and debates among those who do not yet understand Pope Francis’ love for and outreach to those on the peripheries of society,” continued Father Rosica.
Pope Francis has “taught the world profound messages over the past year,” he added, and he said he “has brought many to Jesus Christ through the simplicity of his messages and gestures.”
“Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand the powerful ritual and gesture that the Vicar of Christ is offering us,” Father Rosica said.
The Vatican has said that, like last year and in previous years in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis’ choice of venue for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper will have a “special nature, from a pastoral point of view.” For this reason, it added, celebration in a basilica (in the past, the washing of the feet took place in the Basilica of St. John Lateran) or the participation by a large number of faithful won’t be possible. The prefecture of the papal household also won’t be distributing tickets, nor will it be televised live.
On Good Friday, at 5pm, the Holy Father will attend the celebration of the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica, with the homily given by the papal preacher, Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa. At 9:15pm, the Pope will then lead his second Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum.
This year, the meditations of the 14 Stations of the Cross have been written by Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano, president of the Italian bishops’ Commission for Social Problems, Labor, Justice and Peace.
The introduction cites the Gospel of John: “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’”
Referring to another passage of Scripture — ‘‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Zechariah, 12:10) — Archbishop Bregantini writes: “Loveable Jesus, you climbed Golgotha without a moment’s hesitation, the fulfillment of love, and you allowed yourself to be crucified without complaint.”
On Holy Saturday, at 8:30pm, in the Papal Chapel of the Vatican basilica, the Pope will celebrate the Easter vigil. And on Easter Sunday, at 10:15am in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope will celebrate Mass, followed by giving his message and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world) from the loggia of the basilica.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
VATICAN CITY — “They clicked in a very warm, personal and non-protocol fashion,” said British Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker, when describing Thursday’s meeting between Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II.
The encounter, the first between Francis and the British monarch, was very relaxed and informal compared to the 87-year-old monarch’s previous four visits to the Vatican.
Accompanied by her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen’s motorcade entered the Vatican at 3.20pm, 20 minutes later than scheduled after a prolonged lunch with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” the queen said on greeting the Holy Father. “We were having a very pleasant lunch with the president.”
The three spent just under 20 minutes in private conversation in a studio annex of the Paul VI audience hall. The original plan had been to welcome the queen in the St. Martha residence, but the number of officials, diplomats and media personnel present meant the venue had to be switched.
The subjects discussed remain secret but Ambassador Baker stressed it “wasn’t a political visit and wasn’t about politics.”
“These are two people of great experience of the broader world,” he told the Register. “They are both great upholders of values, from the family and the faith to social values, and I can imagine — though I really don’t know — that the conversations would have touched on some of these issues, but certainly not political issues.”
Political Issues Not Discussed
A Vatican official also said political issues were avoided, and stressed that the sensitive subject of the British-ruled Falkland Islands, whose sovereignty has long been disputed by Argentina, was not a topic discussed. Prior to the meeting, the Holy See stressed it was neutral on the issue.
“I don’t know but I imagine Anglican-Catholic relations would have been discussed, matters relating to Britain, how much they appreciate the work of the Pope,” he said.
Baker stressed it was a “personal, welcoming, warm and friendly” meeting and that was witnessed “in the exchange of gifts.”
The queen presented the Pope with a basket filled with traditional English goods, including produce from the Royal Estates and items specifically chosen by her. She said she also brought “two extra bits which would not fit in the basket” — a bottle of whiskey and apple cider. The Holy Father seemed a little surprised but pleased to receive the whiskey, according to reporters present.
Drawing attention to a jar of honey sitting in the basket, the duke explained it was from Buckingham Palace, to which the queen added that “it is from my garden” and that “I hope it will be unusual for you.” The queen is said to be very proud of her beehives. She also offered the Holy Father two signed copies of a photo of herself and her husband, telling him “I’m afraid you have to have a photograph. It’s inevitable.” The royal couple always give signed photographs to heads of state they visit.
Gift of Lapis Lazuli
Pope Francis presented Queen Elizabeth, who will mark the 61st year of her reign June 2, with an orb made of lapis lazuli with a silver St. Edward’s cross, very similar to the one atop the queen’s coronation crown. The orb of the blue semi-precious stone was for the Queen’s great-grandson, Prince George, and also contained an engraving on its silver base with the words: “Pope Francis to His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge.”
“This is for the little boy,” the Pope told the queen in Spanish, to which she responded: “That is very nice. He will be thrilled by that when he’s a little older.”
The Holy Father also gave Elizabeth a copy of the original 1679 decree adding St. Edward of England’s feast day to the Church calendar, which is celebrated every year on Oct. 9, as well as a set of three large medals marked with the face of Pope Francis, one of gold, one of silver and one of bronze.
Upon receiving the gifts, the Duke of Edinburgh, famous for his wisecracks, joked that St. Edward “was canonized, wasn’t he?” and said of the medals: “Oh, it’s the only gold medal I’ve ever won.”
Many noted the visible break with protocol. Queen Elizabeth has met every Pope going back to Pius XII with the exception of Paul VI and John Paul I, and on each visit to the apostolic palace she has worn black, as is customary, and the Duke of Edinburgh has been in uniform. On this occasion, they were in their “day dress”: the queen wearing a lilac dress and hat, and the duke in a standard suit.
The relaxed protocol “was very much a mutual preference,” said Baker. “We know Pope Francis doesn’t like protocol and formalities and this was very much something that the queen was keen on as well for this particular visit.”
“Everything about the visit was in keeping with that mutual preference for an informal, light protocol occasion,” he added. “The Holy See lived up to that absolutely which was great.”
Meeting Pope Pius XII
Queen Elizabeth’s audience with Pope Francis marks her fifth encounter with a pope, the first being with Pope Pius XII while she was still a princess in 1951, the year before her ascension to the throne. She met John XXIII in 1961 before the Second Vatican Council.
In 1982, she was the first monarch since the Reformation to welcome a pope to Britain when she received John Paul II during his pastoral visit to the country. In 2010, she also received Benedict XVI in Scotland during his visit to the United Kingdom.
The Vatican official stressed that the visit would “certainly” be of great help to British-Holy See relations, and was a sign of how close they are, especially as the queen’s visit to the Vatican is just one of two overseas visits she has planned for this year.
Some speculated the queen might ask the Pope to come to Britain, but Ambassador Baker said “no formal invitations were extended on this particular occasion.”
On leaving, Pope Francis said to the queen: “Please pray for me, don’t forget,” to which she replied: “I won’t forget.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
Pope Francis is very intuitive, prays, and meditates a great deal, but lives in the present and doesn’t know where he will lead the church, a close friend of the pontiff for 20 years told Newsmax.
“He’s a very intuitive person and he develops a strategy with a lot of prayer and meditation,” said Jose Maria del Corral, who led diocesan educational projects when Pope Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. “Every day, from 4 a.m. to 6 a.m., he’ll meditate, no matter how tired he is.”
Del Corral, who now runs an educational project inspired by the Pope, said Francis is one of only a few world leaders “who really don’t check the time when they’re talking with you. He sees you, listens to you, and at that very moment, there’s only one person on earth, and it’s you.”
“His time is the present,” he added. “He doesn’t really miss the past, the glories of the past. He’s not distracted by the future and the world ahead.”
Asked about where he thought Pope Francis would lead the Church, del Corral said: “I believe he doesn’t really know. He lives in the present; he’s going to make the right decisions, but in the here and now.”
As Archbishop Bergoglio, Francis underlined the importance of education, and as Pope he has inspired del Corral to set up “Scholas Occurentes” — a charity that aims to improve education worldwide and make it more inclusive, especially for pupils of low-income families and schools with few resources.
“There’s total commitment,” del Corral said. “He himself launched the project in August. He took advantage of his experience as archbishop of Buenos Aires; he led similar projects when he was archbishop.”
Del Corral, who is updating the Pope monthly on the expansion of the program, said Francis believes that without education “it’s not possible to change the world.” The Pope strongly advocates education as the most effective means of achieving peace, he said, and believes it is the only way to “really finish with war as an institution.”
An economist who gave up a life in the corporate world to study theology and become a teacher in Catholic schools, del Corral said he and Archbishop Bergoglio became close friends for over two decades.
“I don’t want to consider myself as just a friend,” he said. “I consider him as a father.” Asked to expand on why he felt that way, he became emotional and at a loss for words, eventually saying it was because of Francis’ pastoral sensitivity and that he always takes a great interest in the person to whom he’s speaking.
Del Corral’s insights into the Pope’s character — especially his attitude to decision making — echo those of Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro who conducted the first interview Pope Francis gave last August to the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica.
Speaking with Spadaro last month at the launch of a new book on that now-famous interview, he said the Pope takes decisions in a very “Jesuitical” manner.
“He doesn’t make decisions balancing reasons [but] by discernment, so praying and trying to feel the spirit, trying to be inspired, balancing the emotions of the spirit, not reasons or logic,” he said.
“It’s a completely different way of proceeding, a different way of thinking.”
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Pope Francis’ meeting with President Barack Obama Thursday was significant for highlighting sensitive issues related to life and religious freedom.
But it may also point to a change in the Pope’s willingness to be more vocal and forward about such contentious subjects in the near future.
The Vatican’s statement on the meeting stressed that, as well as conflict resolution, human trafficking and immigration reform, life, religious freedom, and conscientious objection were explicitly mentioned as subjects of discussion.
Although the issues arose due to strong differences between the administration and the church over the HHS mandate, it was the first time the Pope had given such attention to these issues on such a high profile occasion, one guaranteed to attract widespread publicity.
President Obama appeared to downplay it, telling reporters later that day that very little time was spent on “social schisms” and that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t touched on “in detail.” He said he “briefly” discussed the issues conscience rights and religious freedom with the Pope, but in a separate meeting, with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Unhappily for the administration, the Vatican statement made no mention of concerns over income inequality or poverty, thereby departing from the script the Obama administration had been carefully orchestrating. Leading up to Thursday’s audience, through use of the media it had tried hard to align the president’s policies on combating income inequality with the concerns of Pope Francis for the poor, clearly hoping it would be a focus of the meeting and underlining a key area of convergence. Obama said it was discussed, but it wasn’t mentioned in the Vatican statement.
Naturally poverty is of “common concern, as it is to everyone,” a Vatican source told Newsmax on condition of anonymity, but he added that the Pope and Obama have “different approaches” on how to tackle it. For the Pope, what’s important “are people first and foremost, not poverty per se,” he said.
In fact, the Vatican statement contained few words on perceived commonalities between the U.S. and the Holy See — in contrast to the Holy See’s usual statements on papal meetings with world leaders which tend to be top-heavy on areas of agreement.
Massimo Franco, an expert on Vatican-U.S. relations and author of “Parallel Empires — The Vatican and the United States — Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict,” expected differences would be raised and mentioned publicly, but he thinks it is quite significant that poverty was omitted by the Vatican and yet trumpeted by Obama.
“Wealth inequality is undoubtedly common ground between the Democratic administration and the Pope and U.S. Catholic Bishops,” he said. “But clearly, past tensions still loom.”
Francis has alluded to fundamental issues related to life before, often repeating his condemnation of abortion as a symptom of a “throwaway culture.” But he’s made the comment on relatively low-profile occasions and is on record as saying they don’t need to be addressed “all the time.”
But now he may, as has long been predicted, be raising his voice on such issues as abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage.
Parish priests used to be advised to refrain from tackling problems until one year since arriving in a parish had passed. Some observers believe Pope Francis, whose pastoral skills have led him to be labelled a “papal parish priest” and who commemorated his first year as Pontiff on March 19th, is possibly following the same advice.
Franco takes a different view, and believes the reason for the Vatican statement’s focus on these contentious issues is that the Holy See “is already looking at a post-Obama U.S.” He believes that, as a Latin American, “Francis is not so anxious to please the White House knowing that many bishops are sceptical about its domestic agenda.”
It does appear, however, that, with his extraordinary popularity worldwide providing the Pope with great influence, those opposed to the church’s teaching on these issues are becoming increasingly worried.
One example could be seen on the day of the audience when dissident group ‘Catholics for Choice’ took out a full-page ad in the New York Times telling Obama to ignore the Pope on questions of sexual morality.
Francis “seems like a very nice man, and he is our spiritual leader, but not our political leader,” the ad read, adding that he has an “interpretation of church teachings” on sexual morality that “does not represent that of the majority of Catholics.”
The tide may therefore be turning at a time when Pope Francis is becoming more vocal in bringing these crucial, non-negotiable teachings of the Catholic Church to public attention.
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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis discussed the right to religious freedom, life, conscientious objection and conflict resolution with President Barack Obama today.
The 52-minute meeting in the library of the apostolic palace was “cordial,” the Vatican said in a statement, and views were exchanged “on some current international themes.”
“In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between church and state, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance of the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the statement said.
It also said it was “hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” but it did not specify any particular conflicts.
Finally, it concluded, “the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”
A ‘Great Admirer’
On meeting the Holy Father for the first time, Obama said: “How are you? Wonderful meeting you; thank you so much for receiving me.” The president said it was a “great honor” to meet Pope Francis, adding that he is a “great admirer.”
The president also extended the greetings of his family, observing, “The last time I came to meet your predecessor, I was able to bring my wife and children.” Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009.
Obama gave the Holy Father a variety of seeds planted in the White House Gardens, housed in a custom-made seed chest that was made from wood reclaimed from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.
The cornerstone of the Baltimore basilica, the White House pointed out, was laid by John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.
The seeds, which will produce fruits and vegetables, were chosen in celebration of the recent opening to the public of the Pontifical Gardens at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. The gift, the White House said, “honors the commitment of Your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations.”
In addition, the White House said a private donation of seeds “will be given to a charity in honor of Your Holiness,” and they will “yield several tons of fresh produce.”
Presenting the seeds to the Pope, Obama explained that each box contained a different seed. If the Pope “had the chance to come to the White House,” he could see the garden for himself, Obama added. Francis replied in Spanish: “Why not?”
For his part, Pope Francis presented the president with two bronze medals. One, called the “Medallion With an Angel — Solidarity and Peace,” depicts an angel, mystical in appearance, embracing and bringing together the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, while overcoming the opposition of a dragon.
“The figure of the angel illustrates contemporary challenges: bringing the world’s northern and southern regions together and harmonizing them, while combating all disruptive forces, such as exploitation, intransigent opposition, new forms of colonialism, indifference, mistrust and prejudice,” the Vatican explained in an accompanying note.
The second medal commemorates the 1657 laying of the first stone of the north colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the one nearest the apostolic palace. “The medal bears witness to the original project of Bernini, which provided for a third colonnade, never built, which would have enclosed the square,” the Vatican said.
Presidential Reading Material
The Pope also presented the president with a bound copy of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). “You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it’ll give me strength and calm me down.” The Pope simply replied: “I hope.”
In the public moments of the meeting, Pope Francis mostly had a serious demeanor and smiled little, in contrast to some of his previous and recent meetings with heads of state, although reporters present said the meeting was “good-humored.”
Among those in the presidential delegation were Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett.
As he left, Obama joked with the Holy Father’s interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, saying, “His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me.”
“Muchas gracias,” Obama said on leaving. “Please pray for me and my family. They are with me on this journey [of life], and my girls and wife have to put up with me.”
After bidding farewell, the president and his advisers met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations With States Archbishop Dominique Mamberti for talks that lasted 30 minutes.
“So nice to see you,” the president said to the senior Vatican officials. “It’s wonderful to be here.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis’ widespread popularity may have put him on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone, but his gifts are also bringing much greater and more significant benefits, in terms of international relations, according to diplomats.
“I think the right word to use must be ‘impact,’” said Nigel Baker, Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, when asked about Francis’ most significant achievement. “The Holy See has always been an international player; [and] Pope Francis has already, in his first year, shown this in action.”
Diplomats in Rome have been noticeably busier than in previous years, reporting back to their governments Pope Francis’ concerns on a wide range of international issues these past 12 months. And world leaders are paying attention, keenly aware of the Holy Father’s popularity among their electorates.
“You cannot have impact if no one is listening,” said Baker, “but the queues of international leaders wishing to meet the Pope show that world leaders are taking note.”
In terms of global politics, arguably the Pope’s most effective intervention was when Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria last September. Observers say the prayer vigil, held simultaneously in dioceses around the world, played a major role in leading to an almost immediate end to the threat of U.S.-led military action following a chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb.
Many feared a strike would have escalated a conflict that had already cost more than 100,000 lives. Francis’ letter to the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, was enough to make Russian President Vladimir Putin stop the proceedings and have it read aloud to the assembled world leaders. The Holy See also reinforced the Pope’s concerns by gathering Rome diplomats and presenting them with a draft peace plan.
The rapid easing of tensions that followed was seen, especially by leading Church figures in the Middle East, as nothing short of a miracle. “It had an impact on thinking in chancelleries around the world and was particularly well-received in the Muslim world,” said Baker.
The Syria intervention was “very, very important and moving,” a Vatican diplomat told the Register on condition of anonymity. The Pope’s role, he said by way of a reminder, “is not to be a diplomat or political leader, but what he says and does has significant influence, also on a political level.”
Highlighting Those In Need
Pope Francis’ attention to the plight of refugees, including his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a target for many illegal immigrants, has raised global consciousness about the scourge of human trafficking. Meanwhile, his firm warnings about the evils of a capitalism devoid of ethics and his support for improvements to global food security were addressed at this year’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
The Vatican diplomat said that world leaders, when they speak with him, see that he “follows the situation closely and that some points are important to him: persons in need, refugees, the poor, the economy.” Because of this, he asserted, “little by little, these criteria are entering the international political arena; these gestures and his closeness to the people are having an important impact on politics and diplomacy.”
It is a sentiment backed up by senior diplomats in Rome. “He’s showing world governments that things can be done about the oppressed and the persecuted and that there are ways towards peace and cooperation in the world,” said one. “He has reaffirmed the role of the diplomatic missions to the Holy See, seeing them as part of the world mission of the Church.”
As for Holy See diplomacy as a whole, Vatican diplomats deny any major changes and are quick to point out that Benedict XVI’s pontificate was highly successful. “He did many, many important things, which we’ll appreciate more as time goes on,” said an official in the Secretariat of State. “The pontificate of Benedict XVI was very fruitful.”
For some other observers, such as Massimo Franco, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was a Vatican, Vatican diplomacy had been languishing since the end of the Cold War and gradually losing its focus. But under Francis, he has noted “a change, a new dynamic approach,” that was most visible during the Syria crisis.
“The Pope was quick to sense a diplomatic and political void, contributing decisively to stop a military attack,” Franco told the Register.
He feels it will “take time to rebuild the Vatican presence on the world stage,” but, like others, he believes Pope Francis is helping to achieve it, with the assistance of Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a seasoned Holy See diplomat, who “seems the right person to do the job.”
Holy See relations with the United States are also said by some to be flourishing under Francis, despite major differences between the Church and the Obama administration. Vatican diplomats say there are elements in place for good collaboration, and they value the contribution of Ambassador Ken Hackett and his wide experience of the Church as a former head of Catholic Relief Services.
However, Franco, who has also written a book on Holy See-U.S. relations called Parallel Empires, takes a slightly less positive view. “My impression is that U.S.-Vatican relations are on a kind of ‘stand-by,’” he said, noting some unease among some in the U.S. hierarchy about Francis’ approach to non-negotiable values.
Looking ahead, diplomats in Rome see further progress, especially when Francis visits the Holy Land and South Korea later this year. To these areas of conflict and tension, many will be hoping the impact of the “Francis effect” will lead to long-desired diplomatic breakthroughs. The September “miracle” over Syria may be just the start.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.