Pope Francis attends the first day of his Lenten retreat at the Pauline Fathers' retreat center in Ariccia, 20 miles southeast of Rome, March 5. The pope and top members of the Roman Curia are on retreat from March 5-10. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
VATICAN CITY — The town of Ariccia is nestled amid the peaceful surroundings of the Alban Hills and is reached in an hour’s drive heading southeast from the Vatican. It was here that Pope Francis travelled last week for a period of “spiritual exercises” where he stepped into the metaphorical desert of Lent.
He has been staying at the Casa Divin Maestro, a secluded complex surrounded by a thick forest, where he and his closest collaborators from the Vatican listened to meditations from Franciscan Father Giulio Michelini.
This retreat is an annual Lenten event.This year participants’ reflections were charged with an added poignancy given that Francis’ papacy marks its fourth anniversary on Monday.
While Francis has won admiration for his compassionate style, inside the Vatican there has been uncertainty among the ranks ever since his election.
Some worried because the 2013 conclave chose a complete outsider. From the moment he stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s on that wet March evening, Francis has been shaking up the church with his call for a radical pastoral conversion and to take the Gospel to the margins, among the poor, refugees and the homeless. He wants Catholicism to have a credible message where it welcomes outsiders while acting as “field hospital” offering to bind up the world’s wounds. This is the framework within which all his reforms, whether it is Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics or reforming Vatican finances, sit.
To advance his vision Francis is willing to try new things and take risks. It has sometimes felt like a “startup” papacy, where there is a restlessness and a focus on making things happen from the “bottom up.” With his disruptive style, the pope is happy to let ideas fly and start new initiatives, whether it’s a commission on women deacons or bringing back refugees from the Greek island of Lesbos.
Like any startup venture, new initiatives sometimes run into trouble. Last week his commission designed to improve child-protection guidelines suffered a blow when one of its members, Marie Collins, resigned in frustration. A clerical sexual-abuse victim and highly respected advocate for survivors, Collins told me that her stepping down from the commission was not because of the pope but because of an attitude in the Curia that was resistant to taking advice from outsiders — including at least one recommendation supported by the pope.
The commission had wanted to introduce a process to ensure that bishops were made accountable if they failed to follow sexual-abuse guidelines, while also working to ensure the church globally had robust procedures. But she said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — the lead body handling abuse cases — resisted. In response, the congregation’s prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, denied that there was a lack of cooperation, although he appeared to admit that officials refused attempts to create a tribunal to judge bishops.
It is no secret that some in the Roman Curia and elsewhere in the church have their reservations about the direction of this papacy. Their complaints on one level have to do with substance — they disagree with allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion. But on another level they also worry about the new papal style. To them, Francis’ down-to-earth approach of speaking off the cuff, living in a priest guest house and being driven around in a Ford Focus are “un-papal.”
The pope is well aware of the opposition. Just before Christmas, Francis spoke of it in an address to the Roman Curia. He distinguished what he described as constructive “open resistance” and the “hidden” and “malicious” version. The latter, he said, “sprouts in distorted minds and shows itself when the devil inspires bad intentions, often wrapped in sheep’s clothing.”
Anyone coming in as an outsider to reform any sprawling organization would face resistance. The Roman Curia, a 2,000-year-old institution, is no different, and change will take time.
But the problem is when a papal commission is ignored or resisted, and it’s even more grave when that body is trying to prevent sexual abuse.
Collins stressed that many inside the Vatican were cooperative and open to change. Yet the principal task of those working in the Vatican is to serve the pope, and Francis’ papacy has encountered an open resistance that is highly unusual.
After the papal retreat, Michelini’s reflections will be compiled into a book titled “Being with Jesus, Being with Peter.” Is the title a coded message to the pope’s opponents?