Governing the Church is never easy. It is especially difficult when everyone is looking to Rome and to the Pope for guidance he isn’t necessarily in a position to give. What the Pontiff can offer is leadership, and on that count he appears to be opting to lead by example.
There will be plenty of time for critical examination of the decisions he has taken during this crisis, and to continue scrutiny of his official conduct more generally.
For now, it is difficult not to be impressed by the balancing act he is performing between his role as “the world’s parish priest” and that of the Church’s supreme governor. If the former was once a mantle he chose for himself, circumstances have made it difficult for him to put it down. The latter comes with the big chair.
When it comes to the nitty gritty of governance in this crisis, Pope Francis has acted through his Curia. One such act was taken by the Apostolic Penitentiary (not a prison, despite its name), which issued a decree establishing indulgences for the faithful affected by the coronavirus. Another was taken by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), which issued a decree establishing guidelines for bishops and priests on the Holy Week and Easter celebrations.
In an interview with Vatican News, the Major Penitentiary, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, explained that the plenary indulgence was offered to all people suffering from coronavirus – those in hospital and those quarantined at home, as well as to healthcare workers, family members and caregivers. An indulgence is also offered to all those who pray for an end to the pandemic, or pray for those who have succumbed to the illness. The plenary indulgence is also available to those close to death, provided they are properly disposed and have regularly recited some prayer during their lifetime.
“The decree [of indulgence],” said Cardinal Piacenza, “offers extraordinary measures due to the general emergency we are experiencing.”
When it comes to the CDW decree regarding Holy Week and Easter, the basics are that bishops can postpone the traditional Chrism Mass, but the Triduum can’t be moved. The washing of the feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – always optional – is this year to be omitted everywhere.
There was some complaint about the way CDW’s announcement was couched. “However one feels about this document today from Cardinal Sarah,” Massimo Faggioli tweeted, “this is a question that one CANNOT [his emphasis] announce by decree in this bureaucratic manner.”
The criticism was cushioned, if not veiled, by its being levelled at the CDW’s prefect. Nevertheless, it was the Pope’s act. One is sympathetic to Faggioli’s plaint, but acts of governance are going to be bureaucratic. It is the nature of the beast.
The announcement from the CDW was indeed curious, not so much for its contents or the manner in which it was written, as for how it was published: on social media, via Cardinal Sarah’s official Twitter account. One wonders why the cardinal prefect eschewed the usual channels, but these are not usual times. In any case, the message got out there, and here we are.
Along the way to where we are, different aspects of papal leadership – distinct but not separate from his acts of governance – have been on display. Pope Francis has been praying.
One recalls the discreet impudence of Robert Bolt’s St Thomas More, who sparred with Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons: “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To govern the country by prayers?”
More: “Yes, I should.”
Wolsey: “I’d like to be there when you try.”
Then, later in the same exchange, again Wolsey: “More! You should have been a cleric!”
St Thomas: “Like yourself, Your Grace?”
At daily Mass in the chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae, Pope Francis has been offering diverse prayers: for the sick and for the dead; for medical caregivers; for first responders, police and civil protection officers; for public authorities; for those whose livelihoods are threatened by the interruption of commerce and industry.
Last Sunday, the Pope called the world’s Christian leaders and all the faithful to join him in reciting the Lord’s Prayer on the feast of the Annunciation (this past Wednesday), and invited the faithful of the world to join him spiritually in an extraordinary benediction urbi et orbi – of the city and the world – today (March 27).
Theologians will continue to debate whether there is a munus, a single, threefold power, or three munera – teaching, sanctifying, governing – proper to the office. Where the rubber meets the road, it’s often difficult perfectly to distinguish one from the other. Happily, such fine distinctions usually aren’t necessary.
The week that ended on March 21 began with a grand gesture: Pope Francis’s pilgrimage through the streets of Rome the previous Sunday. It was not, properly speaking, an act of governance. It was an inspiring act, crackling with incident and pregnant with symbolic significance. It captured the pitch and moment of the trial in which the city was – and continues to be – embroiled.
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