There’s a joke going around the internet, basically saying that the days of the week have been reduced to three and renamed: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.
It sure can feel that way these days, especially here at the Vatican, where the days already easily blended into one another under the relentless pressure of a 24-hour news cycle.
Not last week, though.
Last week, Pope Francis again inspired a world in the grip of terrible fear and faced with indefinite disruption to social activity and commerce. “Iconic” and “epochal” were adjectives used to describe Francis’s solitary turn in St Peter’s Square last Friday, when he stood alone in the rain and the gathering dark, and prayed for the whole human race, bringing God’s own blessing to the city and the world.
There is no doubting that the spiritual leadership Pope Francis has shown over the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis has been a great consolation and a buoy to people around the world. His pastoral solicitude has been an inspiration to many souls, who may have needed it even more than they realised; and last Friday may well prove to be a defining moment of his pontificate.
Behind the scenes, however, the Church’s central governing apparatus – a relatively small but highly complex and roughly feudal collection of departments with varying kinds and degrees of responsibility – has appeared unable to produce a unified response. At the very least, the cultural resistance to transparency has created the appearance of a largely dicastery-by-dicastery response lacking in promised coordination.
When it comes to the Vatican’s own safety protocols, the various offices of the Holy See have been left largely to their own devices. Things have certainly slowed down: remote working protocols have been implemented, business hours in some departments – including communications – have been reduced, and employees are being encouraged to use leave time.
The communications apparatus, meanwhile, has been slow to respond to journalists’ requests for details regarding the health of Vatican workers and residents – including the Holy Father – in the face of the infectious disease outbreak.
Questions began to arise mid-week last week regarding a possible case of coronavirus inside the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the guesthouse where Pope Francis lives, but it was Saturday before there was any official confirmation of the news.
When it did come, the press office statement was not as detailed as it might have been. The Saturday statement did not confirm the identities of the two officials of the Secretariat of State. In the meantime, their identities were established independently and reported. The email to which the statement was attached did “invite” journalists to consider their professional ethical obligations when it comes to identifying persons infected.
On Monday, press office director Matteo Bruni spoke with the Catholic Herald and provided some further details.
He explained, among other things, that the steps taken to sanitise the Domus came after Mgr Pezzoli tested positive, and that some the tests administered to residents of the Domus and the employees and officials of the Secretariat of State took several days to process because they were sent to the Bambino Gesù paediatric hospital, where there were several children’s tests that took precedence. That’s all well and good, but, why not just say what was happening, as soon as reports began to circulate, or even get in front of the story?
Part of the problem is likely located in streamlined Vatican communications operation that has brought the press office under the Communications umbrella, and is still working out the kinks of the new institutional communications structure.
There was another contretemps early this week, when Vatican News published a piece unfortunately titled “Coronavirus: Earth’s unlikely ally”, then quickly pulled piece and later apologised for it. Then there were the new votive Mass for times of pandemic and intercession for the solemn Good Friday celebration of the Passion. Those were reported by Vatican News, rather than the press office. The decrees promulgating the new texts came from the Congregation for Divine Worship, and were not exactly easy to find on the CDW website. That was the second time CDW has bypassed the press office recently.
Meanwhile, the pace of work certainly has slowed throughout the Vatican bureaucracy. There has been little indication, however, of the promised coordination from State, which is supposedly positioning itself to exercise more – and more direct – control over the various departments.
When the press office issued a statement Thursday regarding a seventh Vatican employee who has tested positive for coronavirus, Bruni reiterated the line first announced on March 12th and repeated later in the month. “[T]he various bodies and departments of the Holy See and the Vatican City State,” Bruni’s statement read, “continue only in essential, mandatory and unavoidable activities, clearly adopting, to the maximum extent possible, the appropriate measures already communicated, which include remote work and rostering criteria, in order to safeguard the health of staff.”
At press time, there was still no word on criteria for determining what counts as “essential” for the purposes of either services or staffing, let alone what the “maximum extent possible” is, nor has there been any word volunteered about how individual dicasteries’ policies are being reviewed.
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