Mexico trip and curial reforms top pope’s new year

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, January 24, 2016

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will travel to the margins once again when he visits Mexico from Feb. 12 to 17. On the last day of his trip, he is scheduled to visit the city of Juarez, which sits next to the U.S. border, where will say Mass, visit prisoners and highlight the plight of migrants fleeing poverty and violence for a better life.

This pope of the peripheries will echo what has long been a concern for the church in the United States: the need for a more compassionate approach to immigrants. In 2014 this was powerfully symbolized with a Mass celebrated by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and fellow bishops by the 30-foot border fence with Communion received by hands pushing through rusted iron slats.

It is not clear whether Pope Francis will walk right up to the border fence, but bear in mind that when he visited the Holy Land he ordered his popemobile to stop so he could get out and pray at the imposing security wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.

Francis makes his visit to Mexico next month at a crucial point during the U.S. presidential primaries, and his message on immigration is radically different from that of several candidates who hope to build a wall along the entirety of the border.

When it comes to immigration, Francis wants to open doors rather than build barriers. And he is willing to put his words into action. His own parish of St. Peter’s Basilica is housing an Eritrean family (a mother with three children and two more joining her later) in a spacious Vatican-owned apartment. This follows his appeal during the Sept. 6 Angelus address, when he called on every parish and religious community in Europe to welcome a migrant family as a response to the growing refugee crisis.

The old continent has been overwhelmed with more than 1 million new arrivals on its shores last year, according to United Nations figures. Yet while countries pledged to relocate 160,000 migrants, European Commission statistics show that so far just 272 have been moved.

Devising a strategic, long-term response to the migrant crisis made up a key part of Francis’ traditional address to diplomats accredited to the Holy See (the Vatican has diplomatic relations with 180 countries).

While he wants coordinated action, the Latin American pope, whose grandparents migrated from Italy, did show a keen understanding of the pressures host countries are under. Francis stressed that new migrants had a responsibility to respect the “values, traditions and laws” of their new home, while recognizing the fears brought about by migration regarding “security, further exacerbated by the growing threat of international terrorism.” Those comments show that when it comes to devising public policy in this area, the situation is anything but black and white.

What is crystal clear in the pope’s mind, however, is the need to tell the world about God’s mercy. His new book, “The Name of God Is Mercy,” and written with respected Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli, reiterates this central theme of Francis’ pontificate. At one point he calls for the church to do more to welcome gay and divorced people. He candidly shares how his niece had to wait a long time for her husband, who was divorced, to receive an annulment.

Such questions will come to the fore once again when the pope issues his response to the Synod on the Family, which concluded last October. That final summary text of that meeting did not close the door on Communion for some divorced and remarried Catholics.

The pope’s document on the synod is likely to be issued in the early part of the year. It is expected that he too will not close off options when it comes to the divorced and remarried, and it is predicted that he will seek to give greater autonomy to local churches in this area.

The next 12 months will see Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia start to take shape with two new departments: one for “Laity, Family, Life” (already announced by the pope), and the other focused on “Justice, Peace and Migration.”

Vatican communications are also being overhauled following a review by Lord Chris Patten, former chairman of the BBC Trust. He proposed a more unified, coordinated structure that allows the church to be heard in the digital world. This would bring together what is a very fragmented group of media services.

These services are spread across nine offices: the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; the Vatican press office; the Vatican Internet office; Vatican Radio; the Vatican television production studio, CTV; the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano; the Vatican printing press; the Vatican photograph service and the Vatican publishing house, Library Editrice Vaticana.

So far a new communications secretariat has been set up, and just before Christmas Greg Burke, an American and former Fox News Rome correspondent who had been working at the Secretariat of State, was named deputy director of the Holy See Press Office. His appointment will be a bonus for English-speaking journalists covering the church.

Lord Patten has, however, been frustrated with the slow progress of change. He said in Rome last month that the reforms of the media had been described to him as peeling an onion, and therefore will take time. “If you take too long peeling an onion,” he added, “you cry.”

Francis has, of course, had no trouble managing his own media profile and is likely to continue giving interviews when and wherever he sees fit. And, despite professing not to be an expert computer user, he is open to the digital world. He has described the Internet as a “gift from God,” and this month was due to meet in the Vatican with Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google.

While the Holy See’s media strategy might seem fairly complex, a much simpler task for the pope is the creation of new cardinals, the men who will elect his successor. A consistory is expected this year with June and November seen as the most likely times.

So far, Francis has appointed 31 cardinals who are under 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave. Currently there are 117 voting cardinals, which is three shy of the limit of 120 established by Pope Paul VI.

More vacancies will open up as cardinals turn 80, and the ceiling of 120 can be exceeded, as it has been in the past (by John Paul II, for example). But so far there has yet to be a prelate from the United States made cardinal under this pope. Whether Francis has surprises in store for any American bishops is anyone’s guess.

Lamb is the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet of London. He will appear monthly in the Catholic New World.


  • pope francis
  • family life
  • amoris laetitia
  • curial reform
  • mexico

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