Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Fear Not': the Christmas gospel for America

Drew Christiansen Ra'fat Aldajani
National Catholic Reporter
December 30, 2015

"Fear not!" is a message that runs through the Christmas story. When Gabriel announces the good news to Mary, the angel immediately calms her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." Similarly Matthew tells us, when Joseph was ready to give Mary a quiet divorce, "the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.'"

When the shepherds were frightened by the angel, the divine messenger instructs them "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." Finally, in his great hymn of praise called the Benedictus, Zachary describes God's promise to Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that God will free us from fear.

The irony this Christmas is that much of the United States, including "Christian America," is suffering a paroxysm of fear over the threat presented by the Islamic State group and by extension fear of Muslims, who also happen to be the Islamic State group's most numerous victims. Much of this paranoia is whipped up by the Republican primary campaign, where the candidates vie with one another to show their enmity for the Islamic State group and stoke the fear of Muslims.

The candidates' fear-mongering damages the United States, nationally and internationally. Their resort to Islamophobia as a partisan political tactic also degrades our electoral process and harms our civic peace -- of which religious freedom is an integral part.

Following the shootings in San Bernardino, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, "We must not respond in fear. We are called to be heralds of hope and prophetic voices against senseless violence, a violence which can never be justified by invoking the name of God."

Against the background of demands that Muslim refugees be excluded from the U.S., he added, "We should employ immigration laws that are humane and keep us safe, but should never target specific classes of persons based on religion."

Do those who are spreading this fear, as they seek public office, believe what they are saying? Don't they realize the harmful ramifications of their words? Or, God forbid, do they not really believe what they are saying and are stoking fear for cynical political reasons in order to advance their prospective political careers?

This fear-mongering has now begun to filter down into the general population, not only among those who are intolerant by nature but also to religious and educational institutions that are a vital part of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious fabric of America.

Two recent examples of Islamophobia have grabbed the headlines, one at a prominent Evangelical college, known for its Christian scholarship, the other from a self-consciously fundamentalist university.

At the evangelical Wheaton College, located in the suburbs of Chicago, a Christian professor, Larycia Hawkins was suspended by the university for posting on her Facebook page a quote by Pope Francis that Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The suspension was justified by the university as resulting "from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions." In other words, Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

It is disappointing that Wheaton, an institution respected for its efforts to bring gospel Christianity to America with intellectual integrity, took such a xenophobic attitude toward Islam -- and incidentally to Pope Francis whom Hawkins was quoting.

Wheaton is entitled to its doctrinal convictions, but the school could have taken action short of suspension such as issuing a public statement explaining why Hawkins' Facebook post about Pope Francis conflicts with Wheaton's statement of faith.

Hawkins didn't claim that Islam and Christianity are the same religion nor did she say Muslims believe in the divinity of Christ (Muslims don't, but do believe Christ is the only Messiah, returns to slay the Anti-Christ, is a prophet of God and the product of a virgin birth). She simply said that they worship the same God.

Many Christian theologians across denominations hold that the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship the same God. Orthodox Christianity, though it confesses God is Trinity, still holds God is one. (Trinity and its synonym triune mean three-in-one.)

As pointed out by NPR's Tom Gjelten, "Most mainstream Muslims would generally agree they worship the same God that Christians -- or Jews -- worship." Gjelten cites Zeki Saritoprak, professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, who reminds us how the Quran includes the Biblical story of Jacob who asked his sons whom they would worship after he died. His sons replied, "We shall serve thy God and the God of thy fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, one God only, and to Him do we submit."

The Quran holds Jesus in esteem and devotes an entire chapter to Mary, but they do not hold that he is divine. Many evangelicals cite Muslim and Jewish denial of the Trinity to claim that they do not worship the same God.

But this view is not held uniformly among Christians. Notably, in 1965, in its Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council publicly stated that Muslims "together with us adore the one, merciful God."

The second example of Islamophobia comes courtesy of the president of another evangelical university, Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr. In his speech, Falwell encouraged Liberty's students to carry guns with them in order to discourage terrorists from attempting an attack such as occurred Dec. 2 in San Bernardino. Falwell said if some of the San Bernardino victims had "what I've got in my back pocket right now" they wouldn't have died.

For good measure, Falwell added, "If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in."

Somewhat to his credit, Falwell later clarified that he was referring to the San Bernardino shooters when he spoke about "those Muslims," adding "there are many good Muslims, many good, moderate Muslims."

This is certainly not the Christianity of compassion, love for one's neighbor and even love for one's enemy that Christ preached. Just because each of the two faiths has its own understanding of God does not mean that commonality between them cannot be found in many areas. Even though there will always be Muslims and Christians who feel that their faith has a monopoly on God, we are all better served when our interreligious encounter are marked by humility, respect and generosity.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, articulated it well in a Washington Post column. Moore admitted that as an evangelical he disagrees strongly with Islam, yet he admonished Christians to not only protect their own religious freedoms but that of others too. "It is not in spite of our gospel conviction," Moore said, "but precisely because of it, that we should stand for religious liberty for everyone."

Kurtz, in his Dec. 14 statement, commented, "Watching innocent lives taken and wondering whether the violence will reach our own families rightly stirs our deepest protective emotions. We must resist the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination. Instead, we must channel our emotions of concern and protection, born in love, into a vibrant witness to the dignity of every person."

Christmas ought to be a time when "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). God's message to Christian America -- Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical -- is Christmas is the same as it was to the characters in the Nativity story: "Do not fear." The new year ought to be the time when we commit ourselves to opposing xenophobia, welcoming refugees from abroad and defending religious liberty for our fellow Muslim Americans at home.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]​

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Appeals court vacates Philadelphia monsignor's conviction, orders new trial

Ralph Cipriano
National Catholic Reporter
December 22, 2015

A Pennsylvania appeals court has vacated the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn, and ordered a new trial for the Philadelphia archdiocese’s former secretary for clergy.

Lynn, convicted in 2012 on a single count of endangering the welfare of a child, had been serving a three-to-six year prison sentence. He was the first Catholic administrator in the country to be sent to jail for failing to adequately supervise a sexually abusive priest.

In a 43-page decision, a panel of three state Superior Court judges ruled that the trial court -- Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina -- "abused its discretion" by allowing 21 supplemental cases of sex abuse to be admitted as evidence against Lynn.

The 21 cases dated back to 1948, three years before Lynn was born, and took up at least 25 days of the 32-day trial. In his appeal, Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, argued that the prosecution "introduced these files to put on trial the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia, hoping to convict [Lynn] by proxy for the sins of the entire church."

The Superior Court judges agreed, ruling that the "probative value" of the supplemental cases "did not outweigh its potential for unfair prejudice, and that this potential prejudice was not overcome by the trial court's cautionary instructions."

In their decision, the Superior Court judges blasted Sarmina.

"None of the evidence concerned the actual victim in this case, and none of it directly concerned [Lynn's] prior dealings with either [former priest Edward V.] Avery or [Father James J.] Brennan," the two co-defendants on trial with Lynn, the Superior Court judges wrote. "In this regard, the trial court has apparently mistaken quantity for quality in construing the probative value of this evidence en masse." The Superior Court judges found that the "probative value of significant quantities of this evidence was trivial or minimal."

On June 22, 2012, a jury in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court found Lynn guilty of a single charge of endangering the welfare of a child. Lynn had served 18 months of his sentence on Dec. 26, 2013 when a panel of three state Superior Court judges -- John Bender, Christine Donohue and John Musmanno -- reversed the monsignor's conviction and ordered him "released forthwith."

But Sarmina didn't agree, and instead imposed conditions on the defendant that amounted to house arrest.

Lynn had spent 16 months under house arrest until April 27, when the state Supreme Court reversed the reversal by the Superior Court. Three days later, Sarmina granted a motion by the district attorney's office to revoke bail and send Lynn back to jail to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

The legal battle over the monsignor's case dwelled on the wording of the state's original child endangerment law. The law, which took effect in 1972, says, "A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support."

The Superior Court decided that under the statute, Lynn wasn't a supervisor. The state Supreme Court disagreed, saying that under the law, Lynn was a supervisor.

Since his return to jail, Lynn has served another eight months of his sentence, meaning he has been in prison a total of 24 months, as well as 16 months under house arrest.

In today's decision, the same panel of Superior Court judges -- Bender, Donohoe and Musmanno -- again reversed Lynn's conviction, this time because of the supplemental evidence.

The district attorney of Philadelphia is widely expected to appeal the Superior Court's decision to the state Supreme Court. If that happens, the Supreme Court would have another chance to review the Lynn case.

“I think it’s the right decision, I’m pleased with it,” Bergstrom said. The monsignor’s lawyer said that supplemental evidence is allowed into a case to show “other acts of the defendant.”

But the supplemental cases allowed in the Lynn case concerned “other acts of others,” Bergstrom said. The effect on the jury was “completely awful and devastating.”

“We’ll see what happens next,” Bergstrom said. As of today, Bergstrom had been unable to reach his client. The lawyer said he had no idea when Lynn, currently the prison librarian at the State Correctional Institute in Waymart, Pa., would be released.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Oakland docese to open safe house for trafficked girls

Monica Clark
National Catholic Reporter
December 15, 2015

Bishop Michael Barber, S.J., announced Dec. 8 that the Oakland Diocese's observance of the Year of Mercy will include outreach to girls who are victims of sex trafficking. The first initiative, he said, is to open a safe house where sexually exploited girls, ages 11-17, can heal and "rediscover their humanity."

Catholic Charities of the East Bay is partnering with the Alameda County District Attorney to establish and operate the house, which will be funded through grants and private donations. It will be located outside of Oakland, possibly in a vacant convent. The annual operating cost will be about $750,000, according to Catholic Charities' officials.

The district attorney's office reported that in the past five years 542 youth in the county have been identified as at risk or already involved in commercial sexual exploitation. Ninety-eight percent of them are girls. Of these, 61 percent are African-American.

During a press conference announcing the initiative, County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said that previously girls in the sex trade were arrested and placed in juvenile detention. But, she emphasized, they are victims, not criminals. They need "a home where they can heal from trauma and thrive."

Many are runaways whose families were extremely abusive. Returning them to these situations is not a positive option. "They feel safer being trafficked than being in their homes," she said. On any given night, up to 100 young women are being exploited on local streets, she added.

At the safe house, the girls will receive mental health counseling, medical and dental care, help with returning to school, and instruction in basic life and social skills, said Chuck Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "We will hold hope for these girls until they can hold it for themselves."

O'Malley said it is essential to envelope these girls with genuine love and caring. Many of them have never been told, I love you, by their families, she said. "These children don't just need a bed, then need a home."

Barber praised O'Malley for her efforts, which include training airport and transit workers on how to spot potential trafficking. Her office is placing posters in strategic areas in Oakland to let victims of sex trafficking know where help is available. "Without her resolve, this might remain in the shadows," said Barber.

Catholic Charities of the East Bay has a history of reaching out to persons traumatized by violence. They will bring that expertise to the safe house, with additional training from Georgia-based Wellspring Living which operates several homes for victims of trafficking. Fernandez hopes his agency will eventually be able to open transitional housing for girls ready to move from the safe house to more independent living. The first safe house is expected to accommodate up to 20 girls.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vatican council of cardinals to focus next on decentralization

Joshua J McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
December 12, 2015

The Catholic cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the church’s central bureaucracy have decided to focus their next meeting in February 2016 on the possible decentralization of the global church’s structures, the Vatican has announced.

The Council of Cardinals will focus their reflections on an October speech by Francis that called for a “healthy decentralization” of the church, the Vatican said Saturday.

The Cardinals’ council is a group of nine prelates advising the pope on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia. They had been meeting in Rome for the twelfth time Thursday-Saturday.

Their advice to the pope is known to have led to the institution of a new papal commission to protect minors, the new Secretariat for the Economy that centralizes the Vatican’s financial structures, and the planned new Vatican office for “Laity, Family and Life” that is to combine several current offices.

Saturday’s release refers to a speech the pontiff made Oct. 17 during the Synod of Bishops, the three-week global meeting of Catholic prelates in Rome that discussed issues of family life. In that speech, Francis called for a more “synodal” church that listens to people at every level.

Quoting from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the pope said then he could not substitute the ability of bishops around the world to discern the problems facing Catholics in their regions and was aware “of the need to proceed with a healthy ‘decentralization.’”

“In its reflections, the Council has noted the importance of the Holy Father’s Oct. 17 discourse, in occasion of the Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops,” Saturday’s statement said.

“In that discourse, the Pope had extensively developed the theme of ‘synodality’ but also recalled ‘the need to proceed with a healthy ‘decentralization,’” it continued.

“The Council has recalled the need to deepen the significance of that discourse and its importance also for the work of the reform of the Curia, so much so as to decide to dedicate a specific session to it during their upcoming meeting in February 2016,” it said.

The Vatican did not give much more information about the Council’s meeting this week, saying only that the prelates had continued to speak about the new “Laity, Family and Life” office and also about a proposal to create another new Vatican office for “Justice, Peace and Migration.”

That latter office has been the subject of speculation for months and would likely combine the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace with other offices to create one larger, centralized Vatican dicastery.

The Vatican said the Council had also heard from Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Council, about a new working group at the Vatican reflecting on the future of the economic structures of the Holy See and the Vatican city-state.

The Vatican said Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the Council and the head of the new commission to protect minors, spoke of his commission’s ongoing work, especially in creating programs of education and formation to assist global episcopal conferences.

The Council’s meetings for 2016 were also announced as: Feb. 8-9, April 11-13, June 6-8, Sept. 12-14, and Dec. 12-14.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

'Irregularities" in doctrine office dealt with, Vatican says

Associated Press
December 10, 2015

The Vatican confirmed that some “irregularities” were discovered in its doctrine office after a German newspaper reported that investigators found a wad of about $22,000 in euro bills in a desk drawer.

Bild newspaper said the money was discovered during a search of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office that followed a February request for information about its assets. The Vatican’s new economy secretariat has been trying to gather information about the holdings of various departments.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Wednesday that “some irregularities” were discovered, corrective measures were taken and the congregation is now “vigorously” following the Vatican’s new administrative rules.

Up until recently, cash payments were common in the Vatican for services such as translation work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

North Carolina parishioners clash with pastor, petition for his removal

Peter Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
December 8, 2015

In the small Catholic world of the bucolic North Carolina mountains, this Advent is dawning with discord.

A total of 143 parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesville, in a parish of roughly 300 families, have petitioned Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte diocese to remove their pastor, Fr. Christopher Riehl, who came to the church just a little over a year ago.

Parishioners who value what they say was the post-Vatican II style of their parish have locked horns with Riehl, who came to Waynesville from the Knoxville, Tenn., diocese in July 2014 intent with what his critics describe as "restorationist" approaches to liturgy and church governance.

In their petition, dated March 9, signees say that Riehl has moved ahead on rectory repairs and other expensive projects over the objection of the parish finance committee; has taken over the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation for Catholic converts with a pastor-centric approach which is at odds with the recommendations of the U.S. bishops; and has "openly defamed the Second Vatican Council" while substituting popular hymns with Gregorian chant. Most of the choir resigned en masse after the former director was relieved of her duties.

In interviews with NCR, parishioners say their pastor has been aloof and removed from the concerns of grieving families at funerals. Attendees at one local civic leader's funeral, which included a large number of non-Catholics, were told in the pastor's homily about church teaching on purgatory and little or nothing about the life of the deceased. They also said their pastor is slow to respond to requests for the sacrament of the sick for the dying. Their complaints fill hundreds of pages of documents they have submitted to NCR and to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The parish is divided between a group which continues to attend St. John the Evangelist and supports Riehl, and others who have either left the parish for the town's Episcopal and Methodist congregations or no longer attend Christian worship. Some parishioners now attend Sunday Mass at the office of a local dentist, after being asked by Jugis to cease Sunday worship at the nearby Living Waters Retreat House.

For potential Catholic parish shoppers, there are few alternatives around Waynesville, a tourist town whose population swells in the summer and is located some 30 miles from Asheville in the sparsely-populated and largely Protestant Bible Belt region.

Carol Viau, a local Catholic, considers herself to be part of "St. John's in exile." The retreat center Sunday Mass had attracted as many as 100 former St. John's parishioners. Petitioners have so far received no formal response from the bishop, other than his suggestion that the group meet with Riehl. A first meeting, held Dec. 1, was described by Viau as providing some progress in addressing concerns about the pastor's response to requests for the sacraments.

She is, however, not pleased with the response from the diocese on the larger issues.

"The group feels that the bishop is pro-restoration movement and that's why he's turned a deaf ear," said Viau, a member of St. John's for eight years. The restoration movement, popular among some newly-ordained priests, grew during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Broadly defined, the movement has called for a leaner, muscular church, more attached to ancient liturgical traditions with a strict interpretation of Catholic doctrines and practices.

The diocese denies it is nurturing a "restorationist" movement and, according to diocesan spokesman David Hains, it is a term used by Riehl's critics to discredit him.

Viau said that St. John's was "a happy and vibrant parish" but is now deeply divided.

Parishioner Mark Zaffrann acknowledged that church attendance is down, but attributed that to what he said was discord sowed by the dissident group. The leadership of that group had "unbridled control of the various ministries" in the parish and resented Riehl's new approach. He said the old finance council in the parish presented Riehl with an overly-optimistic view of the church's finances, which was disputed by a diocesan-sponsored audit requested by the new pastor. As for the rectory repairs, Zaffrann, a local realtor, said the structure was uninhabitable and desperately needed renovations.

Liturgically, the parish has improved, Zaffrann told NCR. "My impression is that the Mass is better," he said. "It's very humble, reverent and solemn. It brings respect to the Eucharist."

However, critics of Riehl, ordained in 2009 for the Knoxville diocese, say he is out of step with the pastoral emphasis of Pope Francis.

The pope, in his Nov. 18 general audience, suggested that newly-ordained priests avoid rigidity. "I'm scared of rigid priests. They bite," joked the pontiff.

In an address to Italian Catholics, also in November, Francis suggested, "it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct or forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally."

A retired priest of the Charlotte diocese, who has celebrated Mass for the petition signers, said that what they have experienced is common in the diocese. The priest, who requested anonymity for fear of publicly confronting Jugis, said that "restorationist" pastors have been placed in parishes throughout Western Carolina as well as the growing city of Charlotte and its nearby suburbs.

"Wherever they go, people leave," said the priest, noting that while in other regions shopping for a new parish is easy, the isolation of Catholic parishes in western North Carolina makes it more difficult for those seeking alternatives.

"They took a stand," he said about the group which considers itself in exile from the parish.

Riehl did not return a phone call from NCR. Jugis, via spokesman Hains, offered a statement which said that liturgical diversity is part of the church's practice, and quoted Francis that "the Church has a face that is not rigid."

Regarding the situation in Waynesville, Jugis said: "Parish priests have valued options for the sacrament and as long as there are options there will be differences."

The bishop declined to comment on the other complaints from the St. John's parish group.

Francis opens Jubilee year with call for church that puts mercy before judgement

Joshua J. McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
December 8, 2015

Pope Francis has launched his yearlong push for a global Catholic church of mercy and forgiveness, starting the Jubilee year focused on the subject by opening the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica and calling for a church that always puts mercy before judgment.

In a solemn Mass attended by tens of thousands in a chilly St. Peter’s Square and marked by an unusually high security presence, the pontiff also praised the work of the Second Vatican Council and said the newly-opened Jubilee "compels us not to neglect the spirit which emerged" from that event.

"This Extraordinary Holy Year is itself a gift of grace," Francis said during the homily at the Mass. "To enter through the Holy Door means to rediscover the deepness of the mercy of the Father who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally."

"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we affirm that sins are punished by his judgment before putting first that they are forgiven by his mercy!" the pope exhorted.

"It is truly so," he said. "We have to put mercy before judgment, and in every case God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."

"Let us abandon all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved," said Francis. "Instead, let us live the joy of encounter with the grace that transforms all."

The pontiff was speaking in the Mass opening the Jubilee year of mercy, which will continue from Tuesday through Nov. 20, the day celebrated next year as the feast of Christ the King.

A Jubilee year is a special year called by the Catholic church to receive blessing and pardon from God and remission of sins.

While most Jubilees have been focused on calling pilgrims to Rome to receive such pardon, Francis has widely expanded his Jubilee, asking that dioceses throughout the world open their own holy door at a cathedral or other church to expand the practice globally.

A holy door is a door normally designated in special churches -- like the four papal basilicas in Rome -- to be opened only during Jubilee years as a sign of the possibility of re-entering into God’s grace.

Francis opened the holy door in St. Peter's Basilica towards the end of the Mass Tuesday. Standing in front of the door, located at the northeast corner of the Vatican basilica, the pontiff asked God to grant "a year of grace, a favorable time to love you and our brothers and sisters in the joy of the Gospel."

Calling Jesus "the shining face of your infinite mercy, safe refuge for us sinners, needing of forgiveness and peace" and saying that Christ is the door "through which we come to [God]," the pope pushed through the door open slowly with both hands while walking through.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI, looking a bit frail while grasping a cane to walk, was the second person to follow Francis through the door, and the two pontiffs embraced and spoke briefly both before and after the opening of the threshold.

Both Francis’ homily at the Mass and the ceremony itself also paid tribute to the Second Vatican Council, which officially closed its work on Dec. 8, 1965.

The Council, known colloquially as Vatican II, has been a hot point for conversation in Catholic circles over the past 40 years, with some praising its work to reform certain aspects of the church's teachings and others saying those reforms may have gone too far or have been misinterpreted.

The Eucharistic celebration Tuesday was opened with readings of excerpts from the Council’s four constitutions and its documents on ecumenism and religious liberty. In his homily, Francis said the Council documents "verify the great advance in faith" made at the event.

"In the first place, however, the Council was an encounter," said the pontiff. "A true encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time."

"An encounter marked by the force of the Spirit, who pushed the Church to emerge from the shoals which for many years had kept her closed in herself, to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey," he continued.

"It was the resumption of a journey of going to meet every person where they live: in their cities, in their homes, in their workplaces," he said.

"Wherever there is a person, the Church is called to reach out to them to bring the joy of the Gospel," said Francis. "After these decades, we again take up this missionary push with the same power and enthusiasm."

"The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and compels us not to neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, that of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI reminded at the conclusion of the Council," he said. "May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan."

Francis' opening of the holy door in St. Peter's Tuesday is just one of a number of signs and symbols the pope and the Vatican will undertake in coming days to stress the opening of the Jubilee year and the focus on the boundless nature of God's mercy.

The pontiff already made one special sign during his November visit to the Central African Republic, opening a holy door at the cathedral in the capital of Bangui a full eight days before the official opening of the Jubilee.

That was the first time in the centuries of celebration of Jubilee years that a pontiff opened a holy door in any city other than Rome.

The pope will open the holy door at his cathedral church -- the Basilica of St. John Lateran -- on Sunday, when U.S. Cardinal James Harvey will also open the holy door at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls. The pontiff, in a first for a Jubilee year, has called for similar holy doors to be opened in dioceses across the world that same day.

Francis will open the door of Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, the fourth papal basilica, on Jan. 1.

In preparation for visitors coming to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee, the Vatican has opened a new office on the main road into St. Peter's Square to welcome pilgrims and to centralize services such as obtaining tickets to walk through the holy door at St. Peter's.

They have also placed dozens of new metal detectors under the iconic colonnades in the Square to streamline security access to the basilica. Hundreds of volunteers will be available each day of the year to assist pilgrims.

Security measures for Tuesday’s Mass were among the most stringent seen at the Vatican since at least 2014’s canonization of Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII, with a bag check at the far east end of the Roman road entering St. Peter’s Square forcing tens of thousands to face long queues to enter the event.

Uniformed military were also patrolling crowds as they lined to enter the Square, uniformed and plainclothes police officers were patrolling streets around the Vatican, and police boats were even sighted on the normally abandoned Tiber River.

Francis has also said he will be making a special sign of mercy one Friday of the month each month during the Jubilee. The first will come Dec. 18, when he is to open a door at a Caritas center in Rome that provides shelter and food for those in need.

The holy year will get a special push Feb. 10, Ash Wednesday next year, when the pontiff will commission some 800 priests from around the world to serve as "Missionaries of Mercy," giving them a special mandate to go among dioceses and forgive even canonical penalties normally reserved to the Holy See.

In a special Angelus prayer following the Mass Tuesday with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Francis said the celebration of Mary’s birth becomes a celebration for all through a daily "yes" to let go of selfishness and to make the lives of our brothers and sisters in the world happier.

"Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception has a specific message to communicate to us: It reminds us that in our life all is gift, all is mercy," said the pontiff. "The Holy Virgin … helps us to rediscover always more divine mercy as the distinctive characteristic of the Christian."

"It is the synthesis-word of the Gospel, mercy," he said. "It is the fundamental trait of the face of Christ: that face that we recognize in the diverse aspects of his existence: when he goes out to meet all, when he heals the sick, when he sits at table with sinners, and most of all when, nailed to the cross, he pardons; there we see the face of divine mercy."

The closing of the Mass Tuesday emphasized that while the Jubilee year is oriented towards evincing God's immeasurable mercy towards us, it also is meant as a forceful push to show Catholics around the world to be merciful to one another -- and to everyone else.

"Be merciful as your Father is merciful," a deacon intoned, ending the liturgy.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pope Francis invokes notorious Borgias amid Vatican scandal over sex and spying

Nick Squires
The Telegraph
December 1, 2015

Pope Francis invoked the memory of the notorious Borgia family as he returned from his African trip to a Vatican that is mired in scandalous allegations of espionage, sex and corruption.

A Spanish priest who is one of five people on trial in a Vatican court, charged with leaking confidential Holy See documents, has claimed that he had a sexual relationship with one of the other defendants – a married public relations executive named Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui.

Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda said in a statement that he broke his vows of celibacy and had sexual relations with Mrs Chaouqui on at least one occasion.

They both sat on a commission, set up by Pope Francis, to reform the Holy See’s murky finances.

The trial, which is proving embarrassing for the Vatican, began last week and will resume on Monday.

The Pope was asked about the leaks scandal by Vatican correspondents as he returned from his six-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic aboard the papal plane.

“I just thank God that there’s no Lucrezia Borgia,” he joked, referring to the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, a femme fatale of the 15th century who has long been associated with allegations of incest, poisoning and murder.

The Jesuit pontiff admitted that it had been an “error” for him to appoint Mrs Chaouqui and Msgr Vallejo Balda to the finance commission that he set up shortly after his election in 2013.

He suggested that Mrs Chaouqui had been driven to allegedly leak the documents because of her anger at not being retained by the Vatican once the commission’s work was done.

“Some say she was upset about this, but the judges will tell us the truth about the intentions (of the whistleblowers), how they did it,” he said.

The Pope vowed to continue with the reforms he has embarked onto streamline the Holy See’s bank and to clean out corruption and nepotism within the Vatican’s governing body, the Curia.

He said he had not “lost any sleep” over the scandals because they showed that corruption was being rooted out and his reforms were working.

Msgr Vallejo Balda, 54, made the claims about sleeping with the public relations consultant in statement to his lawyers, which was obtained by La Repubblica, an Italy daily paper.

He claimed they had sex in Florence in December last year.

“I’m ashamed of what I did with Francesca,” he wrote in the statement.

He said he believed Ms Chaouqui, 33, was working for the Italian secret services. “She told me that she was working for the intelligence services and that her marriage was just a cover. She sent me photos of Corrado (her husband) with another woman, who she said was his real wife.”

Later their relationship turned acrimonious. “She wrote me a Whatsapp message telling me that I was an a**ehole. She was a bad person, she wrote to me calling me a worm.”

Mrs Chaouqui denied having sex with the priest.

She said she was prepared to sue him and his lawyer for defamation.

“At the trial he better retract everything, otherwise I’ll leave him standing in his underpants.

“I know emirs and billionaires – if I had wanted to betray my husband I certainly wouldn’t have done it with an old priest who doesn’t even like women,” she told La Repubblica.

The pair are accused of passing confidential Vatican documents and computer passwords to Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, two Italian journalists who last month published revealing books based on the papers, one called Avarice and the other Merchants in the Temple.

If found guilty, the defendants face up to eight years in prison.

Msgr Vallejo Balda has been held in a cell in the barracks of the Vatican gendarmerie since being arrested in early November.

The trial threatens to overshadow a special Year of Mercy, convened by Pope Francis, which begins next Tuesday.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US church leadership is in transition

National Catholic Reporter Editorial Board
December 2, 2015

In Florence, Italy, last month, Pope Francis addressed the Italian church and gave a bracing, 50-minute exhortation on how integral change is to a healthy life of the church.

"Before the problems of the church, it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally," he told the gathered clerics and laypeople.

At another point, he said, "Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives -- but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened. It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: It is called Jesus Christ."

It was one more item in a persistent litany of invitations that Francis has offered the entire church -- but most specifically his bishops -- to a freedom that presumes a willingness to wrestle both with the demands of the law and human realities that expose the law as inadequate to many circumstances at hand.

Less than a week later, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore, and it seems the invitation was overlooked by many, perhaps ignored, and even, among some, feared and rejected. During three days of deliberations, the leaders of the American church considered priorities and plans for the future and a political document intended to guide Catholic voters.

What the American church received for the effort was a stale offering of old documents, largely ineffective in their previous iterations and sounding today, in parts, embarrassingly tone-deaf to current realities.

The conference is quite evidently stuck in a long transition between differing papal priorities and styles. Those who are enthusiastic about the transformation Francis is leading realize that institutional change takes time. On many of the most compelling issues, they simply do not yet have the votes to move beyond the rigid formulations of past decades.

It is understandable. The conference is still top-heavy with bishops formed by or conforming to the expectations of Pope John Paul II, whose ecclesiological preferences were largely unchanged during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI.

John Paul favored loyalty of the sort that raises no questions or challenges. The church under John Paul became a highly juridical exercise with strictly drawn lines, a tick list of orthodoxies and "non-negotiables." Under that regime, it was easy to detect who was inside or outside the institution, and that distinction was held as highly important. John Paul had no tolerance for questions that he alone deemed out of bounds.

The rigidity of that neat and tidy church, a high-employment zone for canon lawyers, was its undoing. It cracked under the force of tremors emanating from the corruption of the clergy culture and the devastating sex abuse and money scandals. It cracked because it could not withstand the pressures that derived from everyday existence, where the life of faith is not lived in constant consultation with the law.

The rigidly drawn borders, merciless in their judgment of the unworthy, kept people out. They couldn't, however, hold in those who became disgusted with the corruption or those who became disenchanted with faith by fiat. The model was unable to hold so many young who viewed the church as irrelevant to their lives. Little in the way of invitation was offered to the alienated.

Francis understands that the future of the church rests not in its application of the law, nor in a resort to old forms and practices, as if they hold some magical path to salvation.

He understands that the future of the church is relational, human-to-human, ultimately together forming that "body that moves and grows," that "has soft flesh," and that "is Jesus Christ."

Francis is not a rupture with the past and does not represent "a hermeneutic of discontinuity," a Benedict construction that is repeatedly misused to continue applying old, unyielding disciplines.

Francis represents an overdue correction of deep maladies within the church. He understands the need to dismantle the most destructive elements of the clergy culture that has so scandalized and compromised the church in recent decades. He knows to be suspicious of the overly pious, as he recently put it, and of those who would turn Catholicism into another expression of religious fundamentalism.

Changing the church on a national level will be a slow process, built on both persuasion and attrition of the current leadership. The upside of the moment is that bishops convinced of the direction Francis is leading the church need not wait within their own dioceses.

It is most important that such bishops deal quickly and compassionately with young priests who didn't sign up for the Francis vision and may be resistant. Bishops should also attend closely to seminarians who may be struggling to keep their balance amid the fresh winds blowing in the church.

Finally, they should go out of their way to articulate to their people the idea of semper reformanda, that the church is constantly reforming and that the changes they see under Francis are essential to the long-term health of the Catholic community. Debate and struggle over the important issues are not what scandalizes the Catholic faithful.

Francis' approach should have the ring of familiarity to anyone who wanders through the stories of our sacred texts and is taken with Jesus' risky encounters with the masters of the law of his own time. His answers always tended toward a religious freedom more dependent on relationships than the law.

The bulk of U.S. bishops today were trained to be good border police, and for more than 30 years, they performed that task with great diligence. Francis seems to be saying that perhaps that work of making sure the lines were clear and straight and the corners squared went a bit too far.

It is time now for an equally industrious campaign that demonstrates God's mercy, that emphasizes encounter with others. It is time, perhaps, for gathering in, a task during which the borders may become a bit blurred.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Seeking peace and mercy, Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of Bangui

Catholic News Agency
November 29, 2015

“Bangui is today the spiritual capital of the world,” Pope Francis said as he opened the Holy Door of Bangui’s cathedral on Sunday--the first time a Pope has opened a Holy Door outside Rome.

Pope Francis proclaimed: “We all pray for peace, mercy, reconciliation, pardon, love. Throughout the Central African Republic and in all the nations of the world which suffer war, let us pray for peace. And together we all pray for love and peace. We pray together.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Pope Francis urges the church to leave doors open

Catholic Say
November 19, 2015

Addressing the thousands of pilgrims gathered during his weekly general audience at St. Peter’s square, Pope Francis centered his speech on the upcoming Year of Mercy, urging the Church not only to keep its doors open, but to go out to those who may not have the strength to enter.

“If the door of God’s mercy is always open”, we must leave the doors of our institutions open so that “we can go out carrying God’s mercy”.He said.

This great door is that of God’s mercy, which welcomes our repentance and offers us the grace of forgiveness; a door which is opened generously but whose threshold must be crossed with courage.He continued.

The Pope dedicated his catechesis to the symbol of the Holy Door, which he described as the “great door of God’s mercy” – will be opened on December 8 at St Peter’s Basilica to mark the official start of the Jubilee of Mercy.

The recent family synod was an occasion to encourage the Church and all Catholics to meet God at this open door and to open their own doors to others – “to go out with the Lord” to encounter his children who are journeying, who are perhaps uncertain, perhaps lost, “in these difficult times”, he said.

“We must not surrender to the idea that we must apply this way of thinking to every aspect of our lives”, the Pope added. How many people no longer trust…to knock on the door of our Christian heart, at the doors of our Churches….

Despite security fears after the Paris attacks, Pope Francis says the doors of Catholic churches around the world must remain open.

“Please, no armored doors in the Church, everything open,” he said

“There are places in the world where doors should not be locked with a key. There are still some but there are also many where armored doors have become the norm.”

While the Pope’s comments do not explicitly refer to the Paris attacks, AFP has reported that security measures have been stepped up in Italy where 700 extra troops have been deployed in Rome. AFP also confirmed that the city’s airspace will be closed during the upcoming Catholic Jubilee Year, so as to check any attack on Rome.

“We are all sinners. May we take advantage of this moment and cross the threshold of this mercy of God, who never tires of forgiving.” The Pope added.

Meyers' letter regulating communion perceived as 'non-issue'

Peter Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
November 23, 2015

If the ideal Catholic parish is, as Pope Francis describes it, a field hospital for the wounded, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., thinks it should include some triage.

In a Sept. 22 letter to pastors, the archbishop reviewed who is welcome to Communion in the four counties in northeast New Jersey that comprise the archdiocese.

"The Church will continue to cherish and welcome her members and invite them to participate in her life to the degree that their personal situation permits them honestly to do so," Myers said in the document, titled "Principles to Aid in Preserving and Protecting the Catholic Faith in the Midst of an Increasingly Secular Culture."

The statement said that Catholics "must be in a marriage regarded as valid by the Church to receive the sacraments." It added, "any Catholic who publicly rejects Church teaching or discipline, either by public statement or by joining or supporting organizations which do so, are not to receive the sacraments. They are asked to be honest to themselves and to the Church community."

Myers' statement engendered some scathing comment in The Star-Ledger, the largest local daily, including a letter writer who wondered whether the archbishop himself should be welcomed to Communion as long as he plans on retiring to a house with recently added $500,000 renovations when he hands over the reins to co-adjutor Bishop Bernard Hebda, an event expected next summer. Newark priests contacted by NCR indicated, however, the letter has had little pastoral impact.

"Most people aren't aware he sent it out," said Fr. Warren Hall, associate pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Hoboken and St. Lawrence Church in Weehawken. Hall was removed this year by the diocese from his campus ministry position at Seton Hall University after he posted a statement on social media favorable to gay rights.

"I don't think the average person in the pew has been affected by it," said Hall, who thought the timing of Myers' letter, coming soon before the papal visit to the United States and the Synod of Bishops on the family, worked against the goal of reaching out to alienated Catholics who might be giving the church a second look.

"We are all sinners," said Hall, summarizing what he said was Francis' emphasis. "We are all on the road to living as Jesus wanted us to. But all of us fall short."

Msgr. William Reilly, pastor of Most Holy Name Parish in Garfield, said the letter had little impact on his mostly Spanish-speaking community.

"To me it was a non-issue,he said, noting that Myers was repeating what had previously been stated in documents from the U.S. bishops.

When it comes to who can receive Communion, and who can't, his parishioners generally are respectful of church regulations, said Reilly. "I don't delve into people's consciences," the pastor said. He says much of his work involves preparing couples to regularize long-term relationships in the church, either by those who were married civilly or are cohabiting.

James Goodness, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the document was misinterpreted by a hostile local media. Myers, he said, is on board with the pope's emphasis on evangelization. The archbishop has been publicly supportive of the pope's effort to streamline the annulment process and reach out to women who have had abortions, for example.

The timing was coincidental with the papal visit. Any suggestion to the contrary, said Goodness, "is bull."

"The statement was a set of principles that priests should be looking at and keeping in mind as they walk with people in varying circumstances," said Goodness. He added the statement came in response to pastors asking the archbishop for guidance "to find out how we can walk with people within the confines of church teaching."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Five indicted in leak of confidential Vatican documents

Elisabetta Polovedo
New York Times
November 21, 2015

Vatican prosecutors on Saturday formally indicted five people in connection with the theft of confidential documents used to write two tell-all books describing purported mismanagement in the Roman Catholic Church’s bureaucracy.

The five defendants were charged with “illegally procuring and successively revealing information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the state,” the Vatican said in a statement issued Saturday.

Msgr. Lucio Ángel Vallejo Balda, and Francesca Chaouqui, a laywoman, were part of a commission set up by Pope Francis to examine the Vatican’s financial holdings and affairs. They were also charged with criminal conspiracy, as was Monsignor Vallejo Balda’s assistant, Nicola Maio.

The authors of the two books — Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi — are accused of “demanding and exercising pressures, above all on Vallejo Balda, to obtain confidential documents and information, that in part they used to draft two books,” according to the statement. The books, Mr. Nuzzi’s “Merchants in the Temple” and Mr. Fittipaldi’s “Avarice,” were published this month.

Disclosing confidential documents has been considered a crime in the Vatican since July 2013, after a similar episode involving the personal butler of Pope Benedict XVI, Paolo Gabriele, who transferred a cache of Vatican letters to Mr. Nuzzi. Mr. Gabriele was imprisoned, tried and in October 2012 sentenced to 18 months in prison, only to be pardoned by Benedict two months later. Mr. Nuzzi used the papers to write the 2012 best-seller “Sua Santità,” or “His Holiness,” which detailed infighting and power struggles at the Vatican.

Those revelations are considered to have had an impact on Benedict’s decision to resign.

If that scandal, which the media called “VatiLeaks,” caught the Vatican unprepared, in the case of the fresh disclosures, officials acted quickly. Monsignor Vallejo Balda and Ms. Chaouqui were arrested a few days before the books were published. He remains detained, and she was released after cooperating with investigators.

The trial is to begin on Tuesday, and the defendants could face up to eight years in prison if convicted.

Both Mr. Fittipaldi and Mr. Nuzzi say that they have not committed any crimes, but have only done what any investigative journalist would do: uncover and expose corruption and mismanagement in places of power.

They also point out that the documents they divulged were hardly closely held state secrets, the “fundamental interests of the Holy See,” as the Vatican contends in the indictment.

Reached by telephone on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Fittipaldi said he was “incredulous” that the Vatican was putting him on trial. “I didn’t reveal anything that put the life of the pope at risk,” he said. “Instead, the documents recount the financial scandals of the curia, crazy investments, greed. It seems strange that they would investigate the teller of those misdeeds rather than those who carried them out.”

Putting journalists on trial is a chilling message from the Vatican, the writers said. “They want to show that they are a state with laws that have to be respected even if we don’t like them,” even if they are undemocratic, Mr. Fittipaldi said. “They want to make an example of this. It’s going to be more difficult for scandals of this type to emerge in the future,” because those who might want to expose corruption and mismanagement will be more wary.

Mr. Nuzzi remained defiant. “I am proud to have published information that was not supposed to get out, as any journalist would have done,” he said. “I didn’t reveal state secrets” involving internal military or security or intelligence issues, “but instances of dishonesty and abuse, and I will continue to do so.”

Questions of conflicting laws are likely to arise if the court convicts the two journalists and then asks for their extradition from Italy to begin serving their sentences, Mr. Fittipaldi said. Italy has laws protecting freedom of the press, even if the Vatican does not. Both men said they were not certain that they would attend the hearings.

Mr. Nuzzi also complained that with the trial date three days away, he would not have enough time to prepare his defense. “I haven’t had access to the charges or investigative acts, I haven’t spoken to my Vatican court-appointed lawyer, and I am still not sure what I’m being accused of,” he said. In light of the pope’s increasing appeals to the faithful to be more merciful in the holy year that begins on Dec. 8, “this trial would appear like a contradiction,” he said.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Pope Francis: ‘If you’re unstable, see a doctor – don’t become a priest’

Dan MacGuill
The Journal (Ireland)
November 20, 2015

POPE FRANCIS TODAY described some Catholic priests as so scary and neurotic he keeps well away from them.

In comments at a conference on training for the priesthood, the 78-year-old pontiff revealed he is instinctively suspicious of overly pious candidates.

"I will tell you sincerely, I’m scared of rigid priests. I keep away from them. They bite!"

His remarks drew laughs from the audience, but Francis was making the serious point that some people drawn to a clerical career are fundamentally unstable, and that this inevitably creates problems for the church if they are not weeded out.

"If you are sick, if you are neurotic, go and see a doctor, spiritual or physical. The doctor will give you pills. But, please, don’t let the faithful pay for neurotic priests."

As well as assessing the spiritual state of candidates, seminaries should also seek to judge their physical and psychological condition, the Pope argued.

"There are often young men who are psychologically unstable without knowing it, and who look for strong structures to support them."

"For some it is the police or the army but for others it is the clergy. "

"When a youngster is too rigid, too fundamentalist, I don’t feel confident [about him]. Behind it there is something he himself does not understand. Keep your eyes open!”

Improved selection and training of priests is a priority for the Church in the wake of the huge clerical sex abuse scandals which highlighted how easy it was for totally unsuitable candidates to be ordained.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lutherans, Catholics should seek pardon for past persecutions, Pope says

Philip Puller
November 15, 2015

Pope Francis, in a visit to Rome's Lutheran church on Sunday, said both sides, Catholics and Lutherans, should seek forgiveness for past persecutions.

"There were terrible times between us. Just think of the persecutions, among we who have the same baptism. Think of all the people who were burned alive," he said in improvised comments at the end of a joint prayer service.

"We have to ask each other forgiveness for this, for the scandal of division," he said.

The Lutheran Church was born of the rebellion by Martin Luther, who nailed his 95 theses criticising the Vatican to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.

Rome condemned Luther as a heretic because the Vatican feared his teaching undermined the doctrine of the Catholic Church and the authority of the pope.

The Reformation that followed split the western Church and sparked wars between Protestants and Catholics, leaving divisions that live on five centuries later.

Theological dialogue between Roman Catholic and Lutherans began in the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council. But Catholics and Lutherans are still officially not allowed to take communion at each other's services.

The pope took questions from the congregation, including one from a Lutheran woman married to an Italian man who told him of her pain in not being able to take communion together in each other's churches.

Saying "life is bigger than explanations and interpretations," he suggested that individuals should not be obsessed with complex theological debate and decide according to their conscience.

"It is a question that each person must answer for themselves," he said, suggesting that his own authority was below that of God's in such personal matters.

"There is one baptism, one faith, one Lord, so talk to the Lord and move forward. I dare not, I cannot, say more," he said.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Catholicism can and must change, Francis forcefully tells Italian church gathering

Joshua. J. McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
November 10, 2015

Pope Francis has strongly outlined anew a comprehensive vision for the future of the Catholic church, forcefully telling an emblematic meeting of the entire Italian church community here that our times require a deeply merciful Catholicism that is unafraid of change.

In a 49-minute speech to a decennial national conference of the Italian church -- which is bringing together some 2,200 people from 220 dioceses to this historic renaissance city for five days -- Francis said Catholics must realize: "We are not living an era of change but a change of era."

"Before the problems of the church it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally," the pontiff said at one point during his remarks.

"Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives -- but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened," said the pope. "It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ."

"The reform of the church then, and the church is semper reformanda ... does not end in the umpteenth plan to change structures," he continued. "It means instead grafting yourself to and rooting yourself in Christ, leaving yourself to be guided by the Spirit -- so that all will be possible with genius and creativity."

Francis was speaking Tuesday on the second day of the Italian church meeting, being held in Florence through Friday. He flew from Rome in a helicopter for a daylong trip that also saw him visit the nearby town of Prato.

The gathering is the fifth such meeting of the Italian church, which bring together bishops and laypeople from across the country to help set the goals and agenda for the work of the national church for the next decade.

The pope's comments were remarkable in their breadth, emphasis, and forceful nature of delivery. As the pontiff spoke in Florence's artistically renowned cathedral, he was interrupted about a dozen times for applause.

Francis was speaking Tuesday to the theme of the Italian gathering, "A new humanism in Jesus Christ." He started his remarks Tuesday with a meditation on the face of Jesus, which is represented in the iconic dome of the Florence Cathedral in a renaissance image of the final judgment.

"Looking at his face, what do we see?" the pontiff asked those in the church of Jesus' face. "Before all, the face of a God who is emptied, a God who has assumed the condition of servant, humble and obedient until death."

"The face of Jesus is similar to that of so many of our humiliated brothers, made slaves, emptied," he said. "God had assumed their face. And that face looks to us."

"If we do not lower ourselves we will not see his face," said Francis. "We will not see anything of his fullness if we do not accept that God has emptied God's self."

"Therefore we will not understand anything of Christian humanism and our words will be beautiful ... but will not be words of faith," he continued. "They will be words that resonate with emptiness."

Outlining three aspects of Christian humanism, Francis asked the Italians to adopt an outlook of humility, disinterest in personal praise or power, and of living a life of the beatitudes.

The pope also said there were two specific temptations he wanted to warn the national church against, tying modern day struggles to two ancient heresies of the church: Pelagianism and Gnosticism.

Speaking to Pelagianism, which holds that humans can achieve salvation on their own without divine help, the pontiff said that in the modern day it "brings us to have trust in structures, in organizations, in perfect plans, however abstract."

"Often it brings us to assume a style of control, of hardness, of normalcy," said Francis. "The norm gives to the Pelagian the security of feeling superior, of having a precise orientation. In this is found its force, not in the lightness of the breath of the Spirit."

"The Italian church should let itself be carried by [the Spirit's] powerful breath and for this, sometimes, be settled," the pope said, after his words that the church is always in reform.

"Assume always the Spirit of the great explorers, that on the sea were passionate for navigation in open waters and were not frightened by borders and of storms," the pontiff told the Italians. "May it be a free church and open to the challenges of the present, never in defense for fear of losing something."

Speaking to Gnosticism, which widely held that people should shun the material world in favor of the spiritual realm, Francis identified such thinking today with that which "brings us to trust in logical and clear reasoning ... which however loses the tenderness of the flesh of the brother."

"The difference between Christian transcendence and any form of gnostic spiritualism remains in the mystery of the incarnation," said the pontiff. "Not putting it in practice, not guiding the Word to reality, means building on sand, remaining in pure idea ... which does not give fruit, which make sterile [God's] dynamism."

Francis then asked the Italians, "people and pastors together," to turn to the image of Jesus in Florence's Cathedral and imagine what he might say to them as a sign of how they should go forward in their national work.

Quoting twice from Matthew's Gospel, the pontiff said they could imagine Jesus saying either: "I was thirsty and you gave me drink," or "I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink."

"May the beatitudes and the words that we have just read on the universal judgment help us to live the Christian life to the level of sainthood," the pope exhorted. "They are few words, simple, but practical. May the Lord give us the grace to understand this, his message!"

Explaining the beatitudes earlier in the speech, Francis said that in those eight blessings recounted by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount "the Lord shows us the way."

"Following it, we human beings can come to more authentic and divine happiness," said the pope. "Jesus speaks of the happiness that we feel only when we are poor in spirit."

"On the part of the most humble of our people there is much of this beatitude," said the pontiff. "It is that of who knows the richness of solidarity, of sharing even the little that you have; the richness of the daily sacrifice of work, sometimes hard and poorly paid, but carried out for love towards dear persons."

"If the church does not assume the sentiments of Jesus, it is disoriented, it loses its sense," said Francis. "The beatitudes, in the end, are the mirror in which we see ourselves, that which permits us to know if we are walking on the right path: it is a mirror that does not lie."

Speaking later directly to the prelates in the Cathedral, Francis said bluntly: "To the bishops, I ask you to be pastors. May this be your glory. It will be the people, your flock, that sustain you."

The pontiff said he asked "that nothing and no-one takes away the joy of being sustained by your people."

"As pastors may you not be preachers of complex doctrine, but pronouncers of Christ, dead and resurrected for us," he said. "Aim for the essential, the kerygma."

Francis also spoke about church teaching on the preferential option for the poor -- which holds that Catholics must consider the impact all choices will have on the poorest -- forcefully declaring: "The Lord poured out his blood not for some, not for the few or the many, but for all!"

The pope also spoke at length about the role of dialogue in society, saying it is not simply a negotiation but searching for the good of all people.

Ending the speech, Francis said: "You can say today we are not living an era of change but a change of era."

"The situations that we live today therefore bring new challenges that for us sometimes are difficult to understand," said the pontiff. "This, our time, requires living problems as challenges and not obstacles: the Lord is active in the work of the world.

"You, therefore, go forth to the streets and go to the crossroads: all who you find, call out to them, no one is excluded," he exhorted. "Wherever you are, never build walls or borders, but meeting squares and field hospitals."

"I would like an Italian church that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect," said Francis. "I desire a happy church with face of a mother, who understands, accompanies, caresses."

"Dream of this church, believe in it, innovate it with freedom," exhorted the pope.

The national gathering of the Italian church began Monday afternoon with an outdoor walking procession from four of Florence's basilica churches to its central Cathedral, famously known for its colorful marble facade and ancient baptistery.

The thousands of participants will be breaking into 20 separate working groups throughout the week, with sections of four groups each focused on one of five themes: A church that goes forth; that announces; that dwells with; that educates; and that transfigures.

Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia, president of the preparatory commission for the conference, opened the event Monday evening by saying: "We are not here to prepare pastoral plans, nor to exchange information, or to attend scholarly conferences or a refresher course." "The purpose of our Florentine appointment is to take stock of our journey of fidelity to the renewal promoted by the Council and open new avenues to the proclamation of the Gospel," said Nosiglia. Dozens of cultural events are taking place in Florence around the conference, including a special exhibition at the city's Accademia Gallery on the life of St. Francis of Assisi that was organized especially for the pope with the saint's name. The exhibition, which is being housed at the same museum that exhibits Michelangelo's famous marble statue of David, gathers a number of striking early depictions of the saint as well as some of his personal effects. Among them are the horn said to be given to the saint by Egyptian Sultan al-Kamil when Francis is recounted to have made an extraordinary pilgrimage of peace to the Middle East during the fifth Crusade.

Secret 'Catacombs Pact' emerges after 50 years and Francis gives it new life

David Gibson
Religion News Service
November 13, 2015

On the evening of Nov. 16, 1965, quietly alerted to the event by word-of-mouth, some 40 Roman Catholic bishops made their way to celebrate Mass in an ancient, underground basilica in the Catacombs of Domitilla on the outskirts of the Eternal City. Both the place, and the timing, of the liturgy had a profound resonance: The church marked the spot where tradition said two Roman soldiers were executed for converting to Christianity. And beneath the feet of the bishops, and extending through more than 10 miles of tunnels, were the tombs of more than 100,000 Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.

In addition, the Mass was celebrated shortly before the end of the Second Vatican Council, the historic gathering of all the world’s bishops that over three years set the church on the path of reform and an unprecedented engagement with the modern world — launching dialogue with other Christians and other religions, endorsing religious freedom and moving the Mass from Latin to the vernacular, among other things.

But another concern among many of the 2,200 churchmen at Vatican II was to truly make Catholicism a “church of the poor,” as Pope John XXIII put it shortly before convening the council. The bishops who gathered for Mass at the catacombs that November evening were devoted to seeing that commitment become a reality.

So as the liturgy concluded in the dim light of the vaulted fourth-century chamber, each of the prelates came up to the altar and affixed his name to a brief but passionate manifesto that pledged them all to “try to live according to the ordinary manner of our people in all that concerns housing, food, means of transport, and related matters.”

The signatories vowed to renounce personal possessions, fancy vestments and “names and titles that express prominence and power,” and they said they would make advocating for the poor and powerless the focus of their ministry.

In all this, they said, “we will seek collaborators in ministry so that we can be animators according to the Spirit rather than dominators according to the world; we will try to make ourselves as humanly present and welcoming as possible; and we will show ourselves to be open to all, no matter what their beliefs.”

The document would become known as the Pact of the Catacombs, and the signers hoped it would mark a turning point in church history.

Instead, the Pact of the Catacombs disappeared, for all intents and purposes.

It is barely mentioned the extensive histories of Vatican II, and while copies of the text are in circulation, no one knows what happened to the original document. In addition, the exact number and names of the original signers is in dispute, though it is believed that only one still survives: Luigi Bettazzi, nearly 92 years old now, bishop emeritus of the Italian diocese of Ivrea.

With its Dan Brown setting and murky evidence, the pact seemed fated to become another Vatican mystery — an urban legend to those who had heard rumors about it, or at best a curious footnote to church history rather than a new chapter.

Yet in the last few years, as the 50th anniversary of both the Catacombs Pact and Vatican II approached, this remarkable episode has finally begun to emerge from the shadows.

That’s thanks in part to a circle of theologians and historians, especially in Germany, who began talking and writing more publicly about the pact — an effort that will take a major step forward later this month when the Pontifical Urban University, overlooking the Vatican, hosts a daylong seminar on the document’s legacy.

But perhaps nothing has revived and legitimated the Pact of the Catacombs as much as the surprise election, in March 2013, of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Pope Francis.

While never citing the Catacombs Pact specifically, Francis has evoked its language and principles, telling journalists within days of his election that he wished for a “poor church, for the poor,” and from the start shunning the finery and perks of his office, preferring to live in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the apostolic palace. He stressed that all bishops should also live simply and humbly, and the pontiff has continually exhorted pastors to “have the smell of the sheep,” staying close to those most in need and being welcoming and inclusive at every turn.

“His program is to a high degree what the Catacomb Pact was,” Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German theologian who is close to the pope, said in an interview earlier this year at his apartment next to the Vatican.

The Pact of the Catacombs “was forgotten,” said Kasper, who mentioned the document in his recent book on the thought and theology of Francis. “But now he (Francis) brings it back.”

For a while there was even talk in Rome that Francis would travel to the Domitilla Catacombs to mark the anniversary. While that’s apparently not in the cards, “the Catacomb Pact is everywhere now in discussion,” as Kasper put it.

“With Pope Francis, you cannot ignore the Catacomb Pact,” agreed Massimo Faggioli, a professor of church history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “It’s a key to understanding him, so it’s no mystery that it has come back to us today.”

But why did the Pact of the Catacombs disappear in the first place?

In reality it didn’t, at least for the church in Latin America.

The chief presider at the catacombs Mass 50 years ago was a Belgian bishop, Charles-Marie Himmer, and a number of other progressive Europeans took part as well. But the bulk of the celebrants were Latin American prelates, such as the famous Brazilian archbishop and champion of the poor, Dom Helder Camara, who kept the spirit of the Catacombs Pact alive — as best they could.

The problem was that the social upheavals of 1968, plus the drama of the Cold War against communism and the rise of liberation theology — which stressed the gospel’s priority on the poor, but was seen as too close too Marxism by its conservative foes — made a document such as the Catacombs Pact radioactive.

“It had the odor of communism,” said Brother Uwe Heisterhoff, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, the missionary community that is in charge of the Domitilla Catacombs.

Even in Latin America the pact wasn’t publicized too widely, lest it poison other efforts to promote justice for the poor. Heisterhoff noted that he worked with the indigenous peoples of Bolivia for 15 years but only learned about the Catacombs Pact when he came to Rome to oversee the Domitilla Catacombs four years ago.

“This stuff was a bit dangerous until Francis came along,” said Faggioli.

Indeed, some reports say that up to 500 bishops, mainly Latin Americans, eventually added their names to the pact, and one of them, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, was gunned down by military-backed assassins for speaking out against human rights abuses and on behalf of the poor — in the view of many, for preaching the message of the Catacombs Pact.

Francis, too, seems to have imbibed the spirit of the Catacombs Pact, though there’s no evidence he ever signed it.

As a Jesuit priest and then bishop in Argentina during the turbulent decades of the 1970s and ’80s, Francis became increasingly devoted to the cause of the poor, as did much of the Latin American church. It was no great surprise, then, that this year he pushed ahead with the beatification of Romero, which had been stalled for decades; just last week Francis used remarkably sharp language to denounce those who had “slandered” Romero’s reputation.

Francis was also familiar with the case of his fellow Argentine churchman Bishop Enrique Angelelli, an outspoken advocate for the poor who was killed in 1976 in what appeared to be a traffic accident but which was later shown to be an assassination by the military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time.

Angelelli was also a signer of the Catacombs Pact, and Francis last April approved a process that could lead to sainthood for the slain bishop.

For many in the U.S., on the other hand, the catacombs have chiefly been deployed as a symbol of persecution, and often by conservative apologists who argue that secularizing trends are heralding a return to the days when Christians huddled in the tunnels for fear of the Romans.

Heisterhoff smiles at that notion. “Here in the catacombs, it was not a place to hide,” he explained. “It was a place to pray, not so much a refuge.”

That’s a point Francis himself has made — the Roman authorities knew where the catacombs, and the Christians, were. It was no secret hideaway. The catacombs even grew as a place to bury the dead after the empire legalized Christianity in 313, as believers came to honor and pray for them in the hope of the resurrection.

What the catacombs really represented, Heisterhoff said, was “a church without power,” a church that featured what Francis has praised as a “convincing witness” — a radical vision of simplicity and service that the pope says is needed for today’s church.

So has the Pact of the Catacombs — and the true message of the catacombs themselves — re-emerged for good?

Much may depend on how long Francis, who turns 79 in December, remains pope and can promote his vision of a “church for the poor.”

Moreover, the economic message at the heart of the Catacombs Pact is just as controversial today as it was when it was signed 50 years ago. Capitalism may have won the Cold War over communism, but income inequality and economic injustice remain, or are worse than before.

“We cannot absolutize our Western system,” Kasper said in explaining the theme of the Catacombs Pact. “It’s a system that creates so much poverty, that’s not just. The resources of the world belong to everyone. To all mankind. That is what it is saying.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Why the new Vatican leaks scandal is different

Alexander Stille
The New Yorker
November 6, 2015

It has been an unusually turbulent week in Rome. The Vatican’s gendarmes arrested two members of Pope Francis’s economic-reform committee—Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda, a powerful monsignor, and Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, whose background is in public relations—for allegedly leaking documents to two Italian journalists. The news suggested a new round in the scandal known as Vatileaks, which began when Paolo Gabriele, the butler to Pope Benedict XVI, leaked portions of the Pope’s correspondence in 2012. Indeed, Gianluigi Nuzzi, who wrote a book, “Sua Santità,” based principally on the leaks of the former butler, is, along with Emiliano Fittipaldi, of the weekly L’Espresso, one of two journalists involved in this case, too. Both have new books out this week: Nuzzi’s is called “Via Crucis” (published in English with the title “Merchants in the Temple”) and Fittipaldi’s is “Avarizia” (“Greed”). But the two Vatileaks scandals may be more different than similar.

The original Vatileaks affair created the impression of a Pope who had lost control of his own government—whose own correspondence could be stolen from under his nose and published as the Vatican stood by helplessly. It contributed, one suspects, to Pope Benedict XVI’s almost unprecedented decision, in 2013, to resign. By contrast, the highly unusual decision this week to arrest the pair of alleged leakers, just days before the journalists they had supplied were about to publish their books, was the expression of a much more proactive Vatican. The Holy See is determined to show that it was not taking this matter lying down. And the content of the cases is different, too. The first Vatileaks case portrayed an elderly Benedict XVI seemingly unaware of the power struggles and institutionalized corruption around him, while the two new books show Pope Francis vigorously pushing the Vatican bureaucracy to clean house.

Monsignor Vallejo Balda, who was taken into custody this week, is a Spanish member of the conservative religious order Opus Dei, and was the No. 2 man at the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs. Vallejo Balda had been a key figure in the eight-person commission that Francis created, soon after becoming Pope, to straighten out the Vatican’s finances, known as the Commissione di Studio sulle Attività Economiche e Amministrative, or COSEA. Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, who was arrested with him, had also worked on COSEA, although she had always seemed like an odd fit with Francis’s powerful transition committee. The daughter of an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, Chiaoqui had little experience in finance or management, and displayed a very un-Vatican penchant for posting pictures and videos of herself in rather daring poses online. While she was serving on the COSEA commission, she organized a V.I.P. reception on the terrace of a Vatican building so that well-connected Italians and high-level prelates could drink champagne and eat hors d’oeuvres while watching a canonization mass for John Paul II and John XXIII, while hundreds of thousands of the faithful waited patiently in St. Peter’s Square. This was not an image of the church of the poor that Pope Francis has advocated. She was sacked and became persona non grata at the Vatican. The reputation of Monsignor Vallejo Balda, who had apparently recommended Chaouqui, suffered as a result. And when Francis set up a new team to run the economic affairs of the Vatican, Vallejo Balda was reportedly disappointed and angry not to be a part of it. “It’s not a secret that he hoped to be made auditor general of the Vatican,” Chaouqui said in an interview after she was released from custody, published yesterday in La Repubblica. “When he was not nominated, he began to make war, and probably this pushed him to hand over papers to the journalists. But I had nothing to do with the leaking of the documents.” Vatican authorities said she was coöperating with the investigation. Monsignor Vallejo Balda remains in a jail cell in the Vatican. Under Vatican City law, the crime of releasing confidential documents is potentially punishable by four to eight years.

Fittipaldi’s book, “Greed,” offers a somewhat different picture of the principal leaker. At the beginning of the book, he depicts a Vatican monsignor, a member of the COSEA commission, expressing indignation at corruption within the Vatican and the need to let the Pope know. While enjoying a fine meal at a restaurant in Rome, the unnamed monsignor tells Fittipaldi: “You must write a book. You must write also for Pope Francis. He must know. He must know that the Bambin Gesù hospital, created to collect money for sick children, paid for some of the work on the apartment of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone”—the Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI. “He must know that the Vatican owns houses in Rome that are worth four billion euros. In those houses are not refugees, as the Pope might want, but V.I.P.s and people with connections paying ridiculously low rents.” At the end of a long monologue, the monsignor tells the journalist that he hopes he has brought a car, because he has a trunk full of documents.

The Vatican press office responded to the books with severe, disapproving language: “Publications of this nature do not help in any way to establish clarity and truth but, rather, generate confusion and partial and tendentious conclusions. One must absolutely avoid the misunderstanding of thinking that’s a way to help the Pope’s mission.” (Bertone also said, in an interview with the Corriere della Sera, that he had “never authorized or suggested” that the Foundation of the Bambin Gesù hospital “make any payment” for work done on his apartment.) The heart of the response has been to attack the messengers as a couple of scoop-seeking journalists and out-of-favor Vatican appointees. But it’s not as simple as that.

Nuzzi’s first book, “Vaticano, Spa.” (“Vatican, Inc.”), was also the product of a major document dump, and it revealed extremely important information about massive malfeasance at the Istituto per le Opere di Religione—the Vatican Bank. The documents, passed on by a monsignor who worked at a high level in Vatican finances and wanted them made public after his death, revealed that the bank was routinely used by powerful Italian politicians and businessmen to hide bribe money or simply evade taxes. These revelations played a role in forcing the Vatican to clean up the bank, close many of its suspect accounts, and begin to meet international standards of bank transparency. The noble purpose of Nuzzi’s book based on the butler’s leaks is less evident—although it does provide juicy tidbits of behind-the-scenes Vatican intrigue. One can argue, however, that it forced a day of reckoning for a papacy that had become paralyzed by infighting and gone seriously adrift. It made “transparency” a part of a new Vatican catechism.

Although the Vatican has made it known that Pope Francis is “deeply saddened” by the alleged leaks, it is far from clear that this latest scandal hurts the Pope. As the Vatican points out, there is nothing in the two books that the Pope didn’t already know; in fact, the books are based largely on the internal audits and reports that the Pope himself commissioned.

Both books reveal, for example, that most of the charitable contributions (known as “Peter’s Pence”) made to the Pope are used to pay the cost of maintaining the Roman curia; millions are wasted each year on the princely lifestyle of the cardinals and the below-market or rent-free arrangements of the thousands of apartments owned by the Holy See in and around Rome. Nuzzi tells the story of a powerful monsignor who, dissatisfied with his already generously sized apartment, takes advantage of the prolonged illness of an elderly priest who lives next door by ordering workmen to knock down a wall between the two apartments, adding an extra room to his own at his neighbor’s expense. One audit commissioned by COSEA revealed hundreds of people misappropriating the Vatican’s tax-free status to resell cheap gasoline and cigarettes at great profit. An audit of the Vatican museums and pharmacy showed serious discrepancies—amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars—between what appeared on the books and what was actually in storehouses, suggesting either systematic theft or fraud.

But in this story, Francis is resolutely determined to get to the bottom of things. Along with the documents, Nuzzi was given tape recordings (made illegally) of some of the COSEA meetings. At one, Francis thunders against “the lack of transparency” and repeats seven times that the Church “will not pay” when presented with inflated bills that have not followed new payment protocols:

Clarity! That’s what done in the most humble companies, and we have to do it, too.… Before any purchase or construction job, we have to request at least three different estimates…. Let me give you an example, the library. The estimate said a hundred, and then two hundred was paid. What happened?… [Some say] we have to pay for it. No, we don’t…. We don’t pay! This is important me. Discipline, please!

There are also troubling stories, in the Nuzzi book, of clear attempts to sabotage Francis’s reform efforts. In what was allegedly a carefully staged burglary, carried out at night, papers were removed from the locked files in COSEA’s offices. Some were sent back to members of Francis’s team, in what could appear to be an effort at intimidation.

In the last chapter, Nuzzi sounds a rather pessimistic note. “Of all the reforms contemplated during the first year of his pontificate, very few managed to get off the ground,” he writes. “This unfortunately meant one thing: [Francis’s] plan to drive out the merchants from the temple was still unfulfilled some three years after his election.”

This might be overstating things a bit. Francis did remove some of the most egregious figures in the Roman curia and has put into place some procedures and controls that already seem to have made a positive difference. Some of the power struggles that Nuzzi writes about—between Francis’s new Secretary for the Economy and his Secretary of State over the control of certain Vatican assets—are the kind of normal jurisdictional battles that afflict any organization undergoing change, and not necessary symptoms of corruption or sabotage.

Still, I suspect that the net result of the new leaks case will be to somewhat strengthen Francis’s position, and to give new impetus to his efforts at reform, which appeared weakened after the bruising theological battles at the recent Synod on the Family. The coalition that elected him has become divided over social issues, but cleaning house was perhaps the principal mandate of Francis’ papacy, and the current scandal may remind everyone of that—including the Pope.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pope Francis 'prepared to battle' on Vatican reform senior cardinal says

David Gibson
Religion News Service
November 5, 2015

Despite intense opposition from some conservatives and new revelations of financial scandals in the Vatican, Pope Francis is at peace with the reformist course he has set for the Catholic church, according to a cardinal who is a leading adviser to the pontiff.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga also said that the latest reports of excessive spending and political maneuvering by officials of the Roman Curia only confirm the need to press ahead with an overhaul of the papal bureaucracy.

"You know, everybody that is trying to make good will have opposition," Rodriguez said Nov. 3 after a conference at Fordham University on Francis' environmental agenda. "The books of the Bible said, especially the Book of Wisdom, 'If you want to follow the Lord, prepare to the battle.' And the pope is prepared."

"It's a revolution going on [in the Vatican]. But a revolution of love, and hope," said Rodriguez, who heads the council of nine cardinals that Francis set up after his 2013 election to advise him. "And that’s the way it is going."

As Francis' point man on overhauling the papal bureaucracy, Rodriguez has a major role in ensuring that the pontiff’s larger reform projects succeed, and he and the rest of the Council of Cardinals are set to meet with Francis on curial reform early next month.

They'll have a lot to talk about.

The Vatican was rocked this week by news that Vatican authorities had arrested two people -- a Spanish monsignor who works in the Curia and an Italian lay woman who used to advise the pope on financial reform -- and charged them with leaking confidential documents to journalists about financial misdeeds at the Holy See.

Two books based on those leaks and other reporting are coming out this month and have created a media sensation -- and evoked the sense of crisis that was characteristic of the final stretch of the papacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose retirement paved the way for the election of Francis.

On Wednesday, a Vatican spokesman said that the revelations in the books are in fact based on information that Francis himself requested in the early months of his pontificate as he sought to tackle corruption.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi rejected the notion of "a permanent reign of confusion" in the Vatican and said that under Francis the reforms are ongoing. Francis "knows the situation, he knows what needs to be done, and how to proceed," Lombardi said.

"That bad news might not be a source of joy is so obvious that it doesn’t deserve an official statement," he added. "But that does not mean the pope is discouraged; he moves ahead serenely."

Rodriguez -- who said he had not yet read the two books -- also said in an interview in New York that Francis will not be swayed or discouraged and will continue to clean house in Rome.

"Oh. yes. Because he is a man of prayer, he is a man of God. So he is never disappointed by these things," the cardinal said. "He's not even afraid. He knows what he is doing. He's not just acting without reflection, without praying over steps he is taking."

Rodriguez pointed as well to the opposition and maneuverings that went on during the three-week summit, or synod, of international bishops at the Vatican last month. Conservatives sought to thwart discussions of new approaches to modern families, including gays and divorced and remarried Catholics.

At one point, Rodriguez recalled, he thought the pope "was going to be very sad" when it was revealed that 13 conservative cardinals at the synod had secretly sent him a letter -- which Rodriguez said they had apparently been working on among themselves since August -- complaining about the synod process and warning Francis against making changes in church policies.

But Rodriguez said that Francis instead answered the cardinals openly, telling them not to indulge in "conspiracy theories" and assuring them that all would be open and honest. After intense debates, Rodriguez said, the synod ended well and the letter-writers, he said, "felt embarrassed for what they did because it was useless, not necessary."

"The church cannot go backwards because the Holy Spirit does not have a reverse, like cars," the cardinal said. "He leads us always ahead. After this, many things have to change in the mentality and in the practice of pastors" when it comes to the divorced and remarried, for example, and others who feel outside the church's embrace.

Rodriguez said that one speech by Francis to the 270 churchmen at the synod was key, a talk in which the pope made it clear that the hierarchy needs to be more open to debate and collegial in governing:

"It means, 'Well, fellows, this is the way the church has to go, and let's go.' And it was very well-received, that speech. And it was necessary," Rodriguez said.

As for growing calls by some Catholic conservatives, especially in the U.S., for a "battle" or a "civil war" to halt any reforms to Catholic practices and approaches on sex and marriage, Rodriguez said they had no reason to be concerned. The synod was focused on pastoral policies, not doctrinal changes, he said. And the critics should have faith:

"I say it's necessary to be open to the Holy Spirit because the church is guided by the Holy Spirit, not by the attitudes of men, or women, or pastors of the church," he said. "If they" -- the pope’s critics – "feel that they are the defenders, remember that the pope was elected by the majority (of cardinals in the 2013 conclave) and if we believe, the Holy Spirit is guiding him.

"And so, it's a matter of faith," he added. "It means maybe you are fighting against the Spirit."

Rodriguez was in New York as part of a U.S. tour on the pope's recent encyclical, Laudato Si'. The tour began Monday at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and continued with an appearance at Notre Dame University in Indiana.

Another senior Vatican official the pope relies on to promote his environmental message, Cardinal Peter Turkson, was also in the U.S. this week making several appearances to rally support for battling global warming, ahead of the upcoming international climate change conference in Paris that Francis believes is crucial to beginning to change the dynamic on environmental stewardship.

Some of the most intense resistance to the pope's encyclical has come from the U.S., and from Catholic conservatives here.