From our permanent special correspondent
Last December, an agitation reigns in the Vatican while preparing actively for a long-awaited trip: that of the Pope to Africa, scheduled for the beginning of February. The trip organizers are looking, as always, at the composition of the official delegation that will accompany it. There are the highest officials of the Roman Curia there, but also cardinals from the region or competent in the part of the world concerned.
But this time, François considers the list too long. We must reduce the costs of this trip, in a context of savings in the Vatican. The pope decides to summon Andrea Tornielli, one of the three persons in charge of the dicastery of the communication having to take part in the voyage, to explain to him that, this time, he will not board the plane. The prefect of the dicastery, Paolo Ruffini, then decides to also withdraw, out of solidarity with his collaborator. And when the letters of invitation to the papal suite arrived in January, the third person in charge, Andrea Monda, director of L’Osservatore Romano, received nothing either. All three will end up boarding François’ plane, summoned at the last moment, without having been informed.
This anecdote, which has gone around the Vatican, concentrates what many in the Curia reproach the pope for: “abrupt” decisions, and sometimes without notice, “harshness” with his collaborators. “He is very brutal to those close to him,” says a former Vatican official, himself dismissed a few years ago after thirty years of service. “Many are afraid of him and his reactions. It’s very insecure, ”he continues. “People are not afraid of him but of his unpredictability”, corrects a close friend of François.
The complaints also come from a resentment developed since the beginning of the pontificate, ten years ago, by constant tensions with the Roman Curia. To those closest to him, Francis does not hide it: he has only relative confidence in the curial apparatus, with the – notable – exception of its diplomacy. An old distrust, since Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, had already made it a rule to go to Rome as little as possible. The phenomenon was further reinforced upon his arrival, since the Argentine pope always considered that the renunciation of his predecessor had been caused by the “loss of control” of the Curia by Benedict XVI, and whose leaks of confidential documents, the VatiLeaks, constituted the revealing narcotic.
So Francis preferred to form a circle of relatives, made up of young priests, old Latin American friends, or a few Italian journalists (very few women are included), whom he meets regularly, and on whom he relies to report to him ongoing discussions even within the Vatican itself. A network that allows it to “double” the Curia and to have its own information. These “evening visitors”, who do not appear on any official agenda, visit him in the afternoon, in the Saint Martha residence, stirring up jealousy and rivalry, in Rome. Some prefer to remain discreet about this relationship, others do not hesitate to assert their closeness to the pope.
“Basically, by wanting to avoid one court, he recreated another”, sums up a Vatican employee, who rubs shoulders with the pope every day. But this good observer also highlights another phenomenon: “This close entourage rotates regularly. As if people who got too close fell out of favor. But that is to forget that in Rome, the popes come and go and the Vatican remains. Over time, the ephemeral members of this changing entourage ended up taking on a nickname: “the shooting stars”. Recently, it was Father Luigi Maria Epicoco, a young priest who was nevertheless among those closest to the pope, and who had been appointed editorial writer for L’Osservatore Romano in June 2021, who was suddenly dismissed.
But what has earned the pope very harsh criticism is that Francis is also the one who has forcefully promoted, since the beginning of his pontificate, synodality, this idea according to which the summit of the Church must henceforth put itself at the listening to the base of believers. By launching this process in October 2021, Francis wanted an approach that some, around him, do not hesitate to compare to a new council. A way of asking all believers to listen to each other, but also to shake up the ecclesiastical pyramid. The logo of the synod moreover represents a bishop, crosier in hand and miter on the head, in the middle of a crowd which walks, and not in front of it.
However, he often recalls, it is not a democratic process, in the sense that parties would face each other. “We must understand that the synod is more than a parliament,” he wrote in notes taken after the Synod on the Amazon, during which the possibility of ordaining married men as priests was discussed. Despite the expectations expressed during this synod, the pope did not accede to this request, considering that there had indeed been “a rich discussion… a well-founded discussion, but without any discernment”, in his eyes, had- he writes in this “And in this particular case, he commented again, (the Synod on the Amazon) was a rich, productive and even necessary parliament, but no more than that. For me, this was decisive in the final discernment, when I considered how to make the exhortation. »
This principle of synodality has become central to the pope, especially in the diocese of which he is bishop, Rome. He also imposed the formation of several colleges there to debate the most important questions, according to a new Constitution published at the beginning of January. But in the same text, he reinforced his own powers, imposing that the pope validate most decisions, regularly summoning the cardinal vicar of Rome. A typical double movement of Francis: allowing broad consultation before taking a firm decision and ensuring the means to enforce it.
“He is deeply Jesuit,” recalls a cardinal who knows Francis well. And among the Jesuits, it is always the superior who makes the decisions after having consulted. He takes them and assumes them to the end. This principle of the Society of Jesus, followed by a pope who was for thirty years superior in his congregation, in Argentina, is “doubled by the Petrine principle”, continues the same cardinal. Which sums up: “In the Catholic Church, it is always the pope who decides in the end. A member of the Curia adds: “I don’t know when this pontificate will end. But I am sure of one thing: it is that the role of the pope will come out strengthened. »
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