The new year will come a bit early in 2016 for Pope Francis and his worldwide Church. The Jubilee Year of Mercy began on Dec. 8, on the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, when Francis opens the Jubilee Door to St. Peter’s Basilica. After 2015, when the Pope was such a major player on the world stage, especially in regard to climate change and its threat to the global poor, Vatican watchers almost unanimously expect a turn to unfinished business within the Church. And when he does, the pontiff may find an environment almost as hostile as a U.S. Congress packed with climate-change deniers, or an African war zone.
The expectant mood is summed up in a joke confided by one Church observer, made all the more intriguing by his source, a former high-ranking Anglican prelate, a man who knows something about ecclesiastical in-fighting. Francis is mingling with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square on a hot summer day. One gives him a bottle of water, which the Pope downs, spooking his already anxious security detail. “Holy Father!” cries one, “What are you doing?” “Don’t worry,” replies Francis, “It was a pilgrim who gave it to me, not a cardinal.”
No one seriously thinks matters are that bad, although the Catholic world is experiencing both “huge excitement and huge anxiety” over what may come this year, says Michael Higgins, a Canadian academic at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. The Catholic Church has called jubilee years every 25 or 50 years since 1300, as well as extraordinary jubilees like this one when, as Francis wrote in a lengthy announcement last spring, the Jubilee Door will become “a Door of Mercy” for “those living on the outermost fringes of society, fringes modern society itself creates.” Mercy, the Pope went on, must trump justice and law.
Church traditionalists, many of them in the hierarchy, take his meaning—particularly regarding the hot-button issues of welcoming gay, divorced and other alienated Catholics back into the fold—in exactly the same way as liberal Catholics do. Massimo Faggioli, head of the Institute for Catholicism and Citizenship at St. Thomas University in Minnesota, is certain Francis will find a way, within the expanded boundaries offered by the Year of Mercy, to provide access to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, a sacrament currently denied to them. For some observers, Francis’s political skills are as palpable here as his spiritual vision is. He’s “enormously strategic,” said the Anglican prelate. “He will get what he wants.”
Conservatives have so far managed to block that from happening. In October, the final report of the Bishops’ Synod on marriage and family did call for reintegration of Catholics in “irregular” unions but insisted on “avoiding every occasion of scandal,” that is, no access to the Eucharist. Australian Cardinal George Pell—who, in tribute to Francis’s commitment to open dialogue and mutual respect, is both his trusted Vatican finance chief and a leader of the conservative opposition—pronounced himself pleased with a report bearing “no doctrinal surprises, no doctrinal back flips.”
Yet neither side thinks that question is settled, let alone the other in-house issue, the one that brought him to the papacy in 2013, according to Higgins. The resident cardinals who live and work in their dioceses, liberal and conservative alike, chose Francis—one of them, the cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires—to tackle reform of the curia. The Vatican’s sclerotic and often corrupt government, still heavily Italian, has proved resistant to change for centuries. Overall progress has been slow, although what was the flashpoint two years ago—the Vatican bank, then considered by many as the money launderer of choice for corrupt European politicians—has improved markedly, even if the books, as Pell reported six months ago, remain “muddled” and $1 billion in assets are unaccounted for.
But two new exposés, Gianluigi Nuzzi’s Merchants in the Temple and the Italian-language Avaricia (Greed) by Emiliano Fittipaldi, slam everything else from cardinals spending lavishly on their residences—Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, second in command to Pope Benedict XVI, allegedly spent $200,000 from a fund for sick children on his—to an office of sainthood, with no paper trail at all for the millions of euros it spent annually before its accounts were frozen.
The Vatican responded to the current leaks by arresting two leakers. One is an attractive young woman, a gift for the gleeful Italian media, whose Una bomba sexy che imbarazza il Vaticano (A sexy bombshell embarrasses the Vatican) headlines show no signs of fading. With a Jubilee Year deadline on one side and one of the world’s oldest and canniest bureaucracies on the other, Pope Francis may need some divine mercy himself.