Looking at the way the supreme governor of the Church has managed the coronavirus crisis in Rome, two things are apparent: Pope Francis remains a master of the grand gesture; he also uses the institutional power at his disposal in atypical ways.
Francis’s mastery of the grand gesture was amply on display Sunday afternoon, when he took to the mostly deserted streets of Rome in pilgrimage to two different objects of popular devotion, to each of which are attributed miraculous intercessions against plague and pestilence: the icon of Our Lady, Salus populi Romani in the basilica of St Mary Major; and, the crucifix housed in a chapel inside the basilica dedicated to Pope St Marcellus I on the Via del Corso.
The crucifix is of especial interest, as it was the object the faithful carried through the city in procession, in 1522, over and against the objections of the city’s (ecclesiastical) governors, to St Peter’s, in order to implore Divine mercy and an end to the plague that was then raging at Rome.
By all accounts, it worked.
Pope Francis’s Sunday pilgrimage was by every measure a powerfully moving display of his confidence in the power of popular piety and his anti-institutional inclinations when it comes to power and the direction of it: as if Pope Francis – for good and for ill – were making himself the embodiment of popular faith and devotion.
There were two other things that happened last week, which illustrate the unusual way in which power is exercised on Francis’s watch: the flip-flop on church closures in Rome; and, the appearance of a letter written by the pope’s particular secretary, Mgr Yoannis Lahzi Gaid, which leaked to the press.
The flip-flop: on Thursday of last week, Rome’s Cardinal Vicar, Angelo De Donatis, announced that all churches in the diocese would be closing their doors until April 3, in order to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The virus has already killed thousands of people in Italy and outstripped the ability of the country’s healthcare infrastructure to cope with the still rapidly growing number of victims.
To slow the spread of the virus, which has an incubation period of up to two weeks, during which carriers are usually asymptomatic and contagious, the government had ordered all public gatherings – religious gatherings included – to cease at least until April 3.
Church leaders in Italy cancelled all public Masses, but kept churches open for private prayer and devotion, while pastors up and down the peninsula and on the Italian islands scrambled to find ways of caring for the spiritual and corporal needs of their flocks.
Then Rome made its bombshell announcement: churches would be shuttered. All of them.
Less than one full day later, Pope Francis offered what pretty much everyone took as a thinly veiled rebuke of his Cardinal Vicar, and a warning to the Italian bishops’ conference, which in the meantime had announced it was contemplating a nationwide closure of all churches in the wake of Rome’s decision.
Pope Francis offered his rebuke at the start of daily Mass on Friday morning. “Sometimes,” Francis said, “drastic measures are not always good.” He also prayed for pastors: “that they adopt measures that do not leave God’s holy and faithful people without assistance”. Shortly thereafter, the Rome diocese announced it was partially reversing the closure: parish churches and stable missions would remain open to the faithful outside of Mass.
The Cardinal Vicar published a letter to the faithful later that same day, explaining he had decided to close churches after speaking with Pope Francis, and then decided to reopen the churches, also after speaking with Pope Francis. Actually, the Italian is pretty subtle: ulteriore confronto – literally, “further comparison” or “discussion” (usually of the animated kind) – strongly implying but not quite saying “further direct consultation”.
It is fair to say, in any case, that the churches did not close without Francis’s advice and consent, and fair to say they did not reopen without his advice and consent.
About the letter: it was a private missive, which Pope Francis’s personal secretary wrote and apparently circulated among a small group of priest-friends, calling among other things for priests to go out and minister to the faithful, without any more regard for their personal safety than warranted by the need to protect the general public.
Some of the turns of phrase are truly arresting and patently “Franciscan” in tone, content, and structure. The general, and quite reasonable assumption was that it came from Francis. Then, Mgr Lahzi told Crux – which reported the story first in English – that Pope Francis had neither seen the letter, nor authorised its circulation.
Whether the business is a case of the tail wagging the dog – it’s highly unusual, to say the least, for a particular secretary to be writing and circulating what amounts to policy advice, without so much as his principal’s knowledge, let alone his principal’s say-so – or one of Pope Francis wanting plausible deniability (but, why?) – or a little of each, or something in between, or a mere contretemps, is for now a mystery.
One thing, however, is clear: the grand gesture is a powerful tool, and necessary in times of great crisis.
At the same time, one cannot always govern by means of grand gestures, which often come at significant cost to institutional stability, likewise necessary in times of crisis.