ROME — The summer heat has arrived in Rome: temperatures regularly soar to 100 degrees, and the humidity can be stifling. As a result, the Vatican slows down at this time of year with Pope Francis cancelling his Wednesday general audiences in July along with his early morning homilies at his residence the Casa Santa Marta.
While he slows down, however, Francis does not take a vacation. So far he has declined to make use of the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo while some of his closest collaborators have unsuccessfully urged him to take break. For Francis, his ministry is not a job from which he takes a break — it is part of who he is and therefore he soldiers on, despite the heat.
He told priests in the United States last year that while rest is important, it should be done in close proximity to the poor and marginalized, and in a reflection last month he warned clergy against protecting “their own comfort zone.” Given the task ahead of him in reforming the church, he might reasonably conclude that he hasn’t got time for three weeks in the sun.
What is becoming increasingly clear about this pontificate, however, is that Francis is not simply trying to impose his will on the church in the here and now. Instead, he wants to chart a course for the church that makes it open, understanding and compassionate.
Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who is one of the pope’s closest collaborators, explains that Francis’ vision “does not impose itself on history, seeking to organize it according to its own coordinates, but it dialogues with reality, it sets itself into the history of men and women, it unfolds in time.”
All of this rests on one of the pope’s favorite expressions: “Time is greater than space” — in other words, winning today’s battles is not as important as setting out a vision.
This also helps Francis when it comes to those who are opposed to the direction of his pontificate. In an interview last Sunday with La Nación the pope said, “They do their job and I do mine.” He added, “They say no to everything. I continue straight on my way, without looking over my shoulder.”
Francis’ approach is essentially non-confrontational: He doesn’t believe in removing those who don’t agree with him.
“I do not cut off heads,” he told the La Nación journalist. “I never like to do that. I repeat: I reject conflict.”
Elsewhere in the interview the pope talks about the resignation of Benedict XVI, which he said “had nothing to do with personal matters” and was his “last act of governance.” Separately, Francis wrote in a preface to a new book by Benedict that the resignation of the retired pope was a “lesson” for the church.
There has been a flurry of news stories in Rome involving the pope emeritus who at the end of last month celebrated the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination. This was marked by a celebration inside the Vatican that was attended by Francis.
The truth is that for a lot of people here in Rome seeing two men wearing white, one pope, another pope emeritus, is taking some getting used to. There are those who argue that Benedict still exercises a part of the ministry of the papacy.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who is the private secretary to Benedict while also working for Francis, put forward the idea of an “expanded Petrine ministry.” He argued that Francis was exercising the “active” part of the ministry while Benedict is the “contemplative.” In other words, one is Martha and the other Mary. Archbishop Gänswein later clarified his remarks and stressed that “any talk of two popes, one legitimate, one illegitimate, is, therefore, incorrect.”
Right from the start of this pontificate, however, both Benedict and Francis have been on good terms: Francis has described having his predecessor nearby as like having a “wise grandfather at home.”
For his part, Benedict has repeatedly stressed that his resignation was legitimate and an act freely taken. He does so again in a new book-length interview where he says no one pressured him to resign. The book was written by German journalist Peter Seewald — who conducted two other book-length interviews with Benedict — and marks the first time in history that a pope has reflected on his own pontificate in a memoir. Excerpts of the book, due to be published Sept. 9, reveal Benedict admitting “a lack of resoluteness in governing.”
Pope Francis has consistently sought to clamp down on anyone using the church for personal gain. He has told Catholic benefactors who give money but exploit their workers to “burn their checks.”
He recently instructed his educational foundation, Scholas Occurrentes, to return a check for 1,666,660 pesos ($887,600) that had been sent by the Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Some read this as a criticism of the president’s economic policies, but this is something Francis has denied. Instead, he told the Scholas — which includes Hollywood stars George Clooney and Salma Hayek as ambassadors — that accepting the money could represent a “gentle slipping” on the road to corruption.
It is better, he wrote in a letter to the foundation, to be poorer rather than become too comfortable. “I prefer a joyful improvised soccer game played by young people with a shared ball, in a neighborhood yard, than a big championship played in a famous stadium but steeped in corruption.”
It is worth watching what Pope Francis says in Krakow, Poland, during World Youth Day at the end of the month. The church in Poland has, of course, traditionally been renowned for its prophetic, independent voice during the Nazi and Communist eras, with the Polish Pope John Paul II helping bring an end to the Cold War.
A key moment during Francis’ time in Poland will be his visit to Auschwitz, the concentration camp led by the Nazis. The pope has said during this time he will not speak — but simply pray.
Since December, the faces of the actors from Netflix’s movie “The Two Popes” have beamed out from poster on a Vatican-owned building just off St. Peter’s Square. Jonathan Pryce, who plays Pope Francis, and Anthony Hopkins, who plays Benedict XVI, have both been nominated for Oscars for their performances in a film that gets to the heart of theological tensions in the 21st-century church.
Pope Francis, adopting a suggestion made at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, has decided that every priest preparing for service in the Vatican diplomatic corps must spend a year in ministry as a missionary.
Like so many of Pope Francis' teachings and major documents, his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon is built on a call for conversion -- a new way of seeing, thinking and doing.