Ambrose, Charles… and Francis' Choice – In Italy (and Beyond), All Eyes on Milan

Posted June 20, 2017 6:07 pm by Editor

Ambrose, Charles… and Francis' Choice – In Italy (and Beyond), All Eyes on Milan

While late last week was supposed to be given to the Midsummer Classic – eventful as it was for a June meeting – more pressing developments have pushed the bench to the side… at least, the Stateside one.

As ever, news has its ways of disrupting the best-laid plans. Still, as sidetracks go, this instance brings the specter of a blockbuster: the most important personnel choice Pope Francis will make, bar none, is said to be on deck.

According to mounting reports from Italy over recent days, Papa Bergoglio has settled upon his pick for the archbishopric of Milan: with 5 million Catholics, Europe’s largest diocese by far – above all, the Italian church’s most critical assignment outside Rome thanks to the city’s place as the country’s financial and media hub, not to mention its top population center.

Upon his unveiling, Francis’ choice will succeed Cardinal Angelo Scola, who reached the retirement age of 75 last November.

Long a favorite of Benedict XVI, Scola – Papa Ratzinger’s decades-long collaborator on numerous fronts, above all in seeking to set the goalposts for a dialogue with post-modern culture – was merely the latest instance of how every Pope of the modern era has sought to send an unmistakable message with his appointment to the seat of Saints Ambrose and Charles (Borromeo).

Among others, three other “recent” turnovers of the post stand out: Pius XII’s 1954 call of his Co-Secretary of State, Msgr Giovanni Battista Montini, to the Lombard church, from which he would be elected nine years later as Pope Paul VI; now-St John Paul II’s 1979 shock tap of the then-rector of the Gregorian, Fr Carlo Maria Martini, which served to launch the Jesuit Scripture scholar into cult figure status across broad swathes of progressives and others worldwide, then the 2002 choice of his successor, Dionigi Tettamanzi – already cardinal-archbishop of Genoa and, a decade prior, the primary ghostwriter of JPII’s pro-life manifesto, Evangelium Vitae.

As a pontiff’s ability to run the table only extends for the course of his own reign, beyond the confidence of his Maker in White – and with it, the Milanese prelate’s day-to-day influence over the life of a mega-fold spread across 1,000-plus parishes – that five of the city’s nine archbishops over the last century have either been beatified or elected to the papacy (or both) speaks to an enduring imprint long beyond their respective turns at its helm.

Indeed, in a unique act underscoring the post’s nonpareil standing in papal eyes, Benedict conferred Scola’s pallium privately at Castel Gandolfo (above) instead of doing so alongside the world’s other newly-named archbishops – an act which evoked the 2002 moment when, breaking the norm, John Paul II placed the wool band on the shoulders of the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, effectively singling him out for the road ahead.

That the soon-retiring cardinal’s considerable buzz as Papabile in 2013 was only short-circuited, at least in part, by sudden civil investigations into Scola’s allies in government – signaled by raids which just so happened to hit the front-pages of Italian papers on the very morning before the cardinals entered Conclave – just emphasizes further both the outsize shadow of Milan and B16’s unspoken “message” bolstering it. Accordingly, in one of the most priceless “comic relief” moments that are Italian ecclesiastics’ stock-in-trade, when the election was accomplished within 24 hours, the country’s bishops’ conference famously didn’t let the announcement of the choice’s identity prevent them from issuing a statement exulting over Scola as the new “Pope.” (And especially these days, how that hasn’t birthed a Fiat factory’s worth of conspiracy theories is anyone’s guess.)

In light of said lineage, then, whether the Milan pick comes this week, next month or (at the latest) early next year, it’s nonetheless the ultimate venue for Francis – as both the first non-European Pope in over a millennium, and ever the son of Northern Italian emigres – to set his stamp, both for the direction of Catholicism on the “Boot” and across the wider church… let alone, on a personal level, serving as an especially meaningful act given his marked devotion both to the now-Blessed Montini – whose post-Conciliar efforts Francis sees himself as “picking up” after a half-century of Curial obstruction – and the late Martini, whose posthumously-released final interview given just before his August 2012 death (read: six months before the last Conclave) could be read as a “tell” into the election that followed on its heels, and the current moment writ large.

Within Italy itself, a new occupant for the Lombard seat – the place which, 18 centuries ago, witnessed the conversion and baptism of a certain Augustine – would cap an epochal hat-trick by Papa Bergoglio over recent weeks, following last month’s appointment of now-Archbishop Angelo De Donatis, 63, a “career pastor” and spiritual director to priests, as Francis’ Vicar for Rome, then his assent to the Italian bishops’ choice of Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia as the new president of their national conference, known as the CEI.

In both cases, the respective choices merely capped off trajectories signaled by the Pope himself: the preacher of the Lenten retreat for pontiff and Curia in 2014, De Donatis was catapulted into Rome’s diocesan leadership a year later – when, in a rarity for one of his auxiliaries, Francis performed the ordination himself (right) in St John Lateran – while, in another shock to the system, Bassetti (a prior vice-president of the Italian bench) was plucked for the red hat in the Pope’s first intake, as the cardinalate’s traditional destinations in Venice and Turin were (and remain) bypassed.

On the other hand, meanwhile, both choices were the result of freshly-amplified attempts at consultation ordered from the Domus: for the Roman seat (technically the Pope’s vicar-general), earlier this year Francis issued an open call for input among the clergy and faithful to be sent to him by mid-April, while in a first for the CEI’s corner office – a key power-center of Italian life in the not-so-distant past – Bassetti’s selection only came after the Italian bishops voted on a terna (three-man shortlist) of preferred presidents at last month’s plenary, with the cardinal handily coming out on top.

That said, it is indeed conspicuous that – as the vicariate of Rome invariably brings its holder a red hat – despite having decided on De Donatis prior to his announcement of a Consistory next week, the Pope still opted against making a cardinal of the de facto head of his own diocese.

In a perfect world, that alone should end any complaints about any other place not seeing the scarlet again. Yet in an age that prefers decibel levels to actual context, it won’t.

As speculation goes for Milan, listing potential names is only healthy as clickbait; in factual terms it’s simply pointless in this case. Keeping with his established practice for other critical nods, it’s an easy call that Francis will reserve the file to himself, taking his own soundings by phone, private letter or face-to-face and short-circuiting any debate or vote from the Congregation for Bishops.

While no shortage of possibilities have been buzzed about among Roman ops for months on end, the most scintillating among them – Pierbattista Pizzaballa, 52, the longtime head of the Franciscans’ centuries-old mission in the Holy Land – is ostensibly off the table due to early days into his new assignment as archbishop-administrator of Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate, armed with a mandate to remedy what he’s termed “a critical situation, mainly financial” facing the jurisdiction which encompasses Israel, Palestine and Jordan. (And as one op summed up the scene facing the widely-regarded friar, “When an Italian’s been sent in to fix the money, you really know it’s bad.”)

*   *   *

Immense as the expectation’s running for Milan, however, Italy’s super-seat is just one of three of the world’s premier local churches awaiting the Pope’s choice of a new leader in short order.

Likewise Catholicism’s most sizable outposts on their respective continents, the archdioceses of Kinshasa and, as of early this month, Mexico City are now in play as their respective occupants have submitted their retirement letters. On the latter front, lest anyone forgot a certain “bombshell” address in the heart of global fold’s second-largest national turf some 16 months ago – widely seen as Francis’ pointed critique on Cardinal Norberto Rivera’s leadership of the Mexican hierarchy over two decades at its helm – well, do the math.

What’s more still, considering the ample audience el Arzobispo Primado de México now enjoys North of the Border – in light of Univision and Telemundo (the networks of choice for the Stateside Church’s emerging majority bloc) often besting ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC and in major-market TV ratings – as the future of the US fold goes, Rivera’s succession is a move of almost unparalleled domestic consequence, to boot.

Speaking of (fading European) numbers, it’s a sign of the times that Italy’s largest diocese is now the smallest among the A-list trio pending before Francis: the principal seat of the onetime Belgian Congo, Kinshasa’s growing fold comprises over over 6 million Catholics, and while Mexico City – the global church’s largest diocese of all – is said to number close to 8 million members, that figure is likely low-balled due to migration patterns and iffy record-keeping.

Though last Thursday brought the antique celebration of Corpus Christi – a holy day within Vatican City itself (read: all offices closed) – in a rarity, the Holy See apparently saw fit to troll the Italian press’ outbreak of “Milanese fever” by opening shop to roll out a number of appointments in Albania, Mexico and Colombia.

Meanwhile, in a first, the Vatican observance’s traditional outdoor Mass at St John Lateran and procession to St Mary Major was moved to Sunday, ending a longtime work-week ritual which tended to reflect some degree of liturgical schizophrenia and/or longing for the restoration of the Papal States.

Simply put, in choosing to match the Monstrance-march to Italy’s actual calendar, the Pope didn’t just opt to facilitate the convenience of the faithful, but – like so much else in the works – chose to abide by the decision of the episcopal conference… even if it took some four decades after the fact.

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