The day that summed up a pontificate

Pope Francis kisses an inmate’s foot at Regina Coeli prison on Holy Thursday (CNS)

The Paschal Triduum is the holiest moment of the year. This time it was also abundantly newsworthy. Holy Thursday 2018 summarised the entire pontificate of Pope Francis in one day.

It began with the release of the “interview” of Pope Francis by Eugenio Scalfari. It would be major news if the Supreme Pontiff no longer believed settled Church teaching about the existence of hell. It was significant news that the Holy Father had granted another audience to Scalfari, who has created similar mischief in the past by claiming that the Pope said what he did not say.

No one seemed to think the Scalfari interview was a good idea. Indeed, not even the Holy Father’s most vocal supporters defended him this time. But there was also a certain weariness about it. Of course the holiest days of the year could not pass quietly in the Rome of Pope Francis; there is always news to be made.

The first public item of the day was the Chrism Mass. As is customary when Pope Francis addresses priests, he had a few admonishments in mind as they renewed the promises of their ordination. And he introduced a new term: the “truth-idol”.

“We must be careful not to fall into the temptation of making idols of certain abstract truths,” Francis said. “Because the ‘truth-idol’ imitates, it dresses itself up in the words of the Gospel, but does not let those words touch the heart. Much worse, it distances ordinary people from the healing closeness of the word and of the sacraments of Jesus.”

Anything – even a very good thing like the truth – can become an idol, if preferred to God Himself. Even the truth about God could be idolised. But from St John Paul II’s Splendor of Truth (1993 encyclical) and Benedict XVI’s “cooperators in the truth” (papal motto), it is quite a departure to think of truth as a danger. One of the key dynamics of this pontificate is that critics worry about the Holy Father being ambiguous about certain truths, and the Holy Father himself worries about people who worry about such things.

After the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis had lunch with about 10 pastors of Roman parishes. It’s not unusual for a bishop celebrate on Holy Thursday with some of his priests. It is unusual that the bishop borrows someone else’s apartment for the lunch, in this case that of Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the Sostituto, or chief deputy in the Secretariat of State. The Holy Father does not have his own apartment, and even five years into the pontificate, his setting aside of the trappings of the papal office still figures in many news stories and endears him to the general public.

While the Holy Father was at lunch, the Holy See Press Office moved into action, saying that nothing Scalfari wrote about the Pope could be reliably taken as what the Pope said. But the statement did not say that the Pope did not hold what Scalfari said he held, so there was the customary round of comment about the clarification of the original confusion.

The press office also put out another Holy Thursday statement, namely that there was no “imminent” agreement with the People’s Republic of China. For the last several months the Roman Curia had launched an assertive series of public arguments to prepare the Church for a deal with the Chinese regime, the nadir of which was Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo praising China as a model of Catholic social teaching.

The Chinese, no doubt wanting to test how much the Holy See would tolerate in search of a deal, arrested Vincent Guo Xijin, Bishop of Mindong (Fujian), so that he could not celebrate his Chrism Mass with his own underground flock. The regime wanted him to join the Chrism Mass of the state-recognised bishop instead. The arrest of a faithful bishop in Holy Week proved too much for Holy See diplomacy, and so it was conceded that the Chinese were not to be trusted – for now.

Also overseas, news arrived that a Salvadoran priest, Fr Walter Vasquez Jiménez, had been murdered by robbers. He had been to the Chrism Mass in the morning and was on his way to offer the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

The killing of Fr Vasquez shook El Salvador, which only days earlier had celebrated for the last time the feast of Blessed Oscar Romero. By next March 24, he will be a saint. And while it is true that the cause of Archbishop Romero was formally “unblocked” by Benedict XVI in December 2012, there is no doubt that Pope Francis gave the cause of that noble martyr new priority and prominence. The first Latin American pope has called new attention to the reality of violence against priests and faithful in his home continent who struggle for justice.

All this before what had been expected to be the most newsworthy element of the day, the papal visit to Regina Coeli prison for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. One of the most moving and evangelically attractive gestures of the Holy Father is his annual washing of the feet of prisoners, the elderly, the infirm. It was one of the first dramatic initiatives of the pontificate, coming just weeks after his election in 2013.

For the Church, Holy Thursday was a life in the day of a pontificate.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of

This article first appeared in the April 13th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here