News Analysis

Week in review

Pope Francis and Greg Burke (CNS)

The big story of the past seven days

✣ Vatican spokesman and his deputy resign

What happened?

Greg Burke, the director of the Vatican press office, and his deputy Paloma Garcia Ovejero announced their resignations, effective from January 1. Burke, a former correspondent for Time and Fox News, wrote on Twitter: “At this time of transition in Vatican communications, we think it’s best the Holy Father is completely free to assemble a new team.” Later the same day he added: “We had been praying about this decision for months, and we’re very much at peace with it.”

What the vaticanisti are saying

Jason Horowitz at the New York Times said the resignations reflected “contrasting visions between Mr Burke and the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy over how a press office will need to operate in 2019”, with Burke wanting the press office to have a role in shaping the Pope’s message. However, Burke “never cracked the pope’s inner circle, or really even his outer one” and he and his team were therefore “powerless … to impose message discipline on a Pope whose own blind spots have increasingly led him into danger”. Horowitz cited the Pope’s decision to give a “heroic send-off” to Cardinal Donald Wuerl in October as one example where the press office was not consulted, to damaging effect.

The Economist, meanwhile, paraphrased Lady Bracknell. “To lose one spokesperson may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness,” it wrote in an explainer piece. Similarly to Horowitz, it said there was a disagreement over whether the Vatican press office ought to have direct access to the Pope or should go through the new “super ministry” of the revamped Dicastery for Communications. (Paolo Ruffini is its new prefect and former vaticanista Andrea Tornielli its editorial director.) “If their departures mean the Vatican becomes less responsive, that could foreshadow more serious problems,” the Economist argued.

John Allen at Crux said the pair’s departure was not unexpected, given their limited role in managing the press office. “Burke and Garcia Ovejero are, at heart, journalists, and journalists just aren’t meant to be corporate mouthpieces,” he said.

The most overlooked story of the week

✣ Bishop of Hong Kong dies

What happened?

Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung of Hong Kong has died aged 73 from cirrhosis of the liver. The bishop was installed a little more than a year ago, taking over from Cardinal John Tong Hon.

Unusually, the Vatican has named Cardinal John Tong as apostolic administrator of the diocese until a permanent successor is appointed.

Why was it under-reported?

The Bishop of Hong Kong is a highly influential post, seen worldwide as a voice for the faithful in China, but Bishop Yeung was relatively little-known. His death comes at a fraught moment in Holy See-China relations, coming after a landmark deal on appointing bishops. Strictly speaking, Hong Kong is not covered by the deal, and the Vatican is free to appoint bishops without Beijing interference. Nevertheless, its choice of successor will be closely watched: will it opt for a candidate favourable to Beijing, or choose a more outspoken prelate?

What will happen next?

Bishop Yeung’s funeral will take place on Friday and his successor is likely to be appointed soon after. According to Charles Collins at Crux, there are two front runners: Hong Kong auxiliary, Bishop Joseph Ha, a vocal supporter of the city’s democracy activists and therefore not viewed warmly in Beijing, or Bishop Stephen Lee of Macau, a strong supporter of the recent agreement who has tended to avoid politics. The appointment of Cardinal Tong as administrator instead of Bishop Ha suggests a promotion for the city’s auxiliary is unlikely.

✣ The week ahead

✣ A prayer campaign called “9 Days for Life” begins on Monday. The campaign, sponsored by the US bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, invites Catholics to pray a novena leading up to the January 22 anniversary of Roe v Wade. Resources can be found at 9daysforlife.com. About 100,000 faithful have taken part in the novena since 2013.

✣ Pope Francis will baptise babies in the Sistine Chapel on Sunday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The tradition was started by St John Paul II in the first year of his pontificate. The parents of the infants are often Vatican employees.

✣ Nearly 200 bishops are gathering in south-eastern India this weekend for the plenary assembly of the country’s Latin Rite bishops’ conference. The assembly, which has the theme Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), will conclude on Monday. Among the items on the agenda is the election of a new conference president to succeed Cardinal Oswald Gracias.

The best of the web

✣ Highlights from the week online

The millennials drawn to Anglo-Catholicism
In the Times, Tim Wyatt pointed out an unexpected phenomenon: the interest of the millennial generation in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England.

“Almost everything about services at St Bartholomew the Great church is old fashioned,” he wrote. “Purple-robed choristers process through clouds of pungent incense. The priest … brandishes an ornate golden King James Bible above his head before reading from the 1611 text. The liturgy is a mixture of 16th-century prose and sung Latin.”

Wyatt was at the medieval priory church next to Bart’s hospital, London, to watch “men and women, mostly in their late 20s, be baptised into the Anglican faith”.

Anglicans longing for revival, he said, had long placed their hopes in the “energetic evangelical wing exemplified by mega-churches such as Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in west London”.

But the baptisms at St Bartholomew’s, Wyatt wrote, were “part of what some regard as a similar resurgence” among young Anglo-Catholics.

For some, the appeal was the Book of Common Prayer, which Christians had been using since 1549. He quoted the Rev Fergus Butler-Gallie, a 27-year-old Anglican priest in Liverpool, who said churches did not need to “pretend to be your nightclub” to appeal to the young. “It can be a church and have an air of mystery,” he said.

BBC reporter searches for martyred ancestor

On the BBC News site Eli Malki wrote of his search for a relative, martyred in Turkey in 1915, aged 33. “At that time, between a fifth and a quarter of the inhabitants of eastern Turkey – then part of the Ottoman Empire – belonged to an array of Eastern denominations of the Christian Church,” he wrote.

His great-grand-father’s cousin, Leonard, was born near Beirut. He became a Capuchin friar and was sent to run a school in Mardin, close to today’s Turkish-Syrian border. The Ottoman Empire launched a pogrom against the Armenians – and Leonard was killed. “They were killed in groups of four, with knives, daggers and scimitars, or clubbed to death, then their bodies were thrown in the wells,” according to one account.

Very few Christians remain in Turkey. “What was once one of the most ancient and dense Christian presences in the world now stands on the brink of extinction,” wrote Malki.

2019 – a forecast for a tough year ahead

“2018 was a bad year for Catholics. 2019 is almost certainly going to be worse,” George Weigel wrote at First Things. He made a number of predictions. For instance, he said: “At least one US bish­op, and possibly several, will resign after revelations of malfeasance and worse in handling reports of sexually abusive cler­gy under their authority.” The February abuse meeting in Rome, meanwhile, “will disappoint many US Catholics, who mistakenly imagined that it would produce a global plan for reform”.

As for China, he predicted that the regime’s persecution of Christians would intensify. The Vatican’s deal with Beijing will, therefore, “look even worse” and a
defence of it “will seem ever more implausible”.

✣ Meanwhile…

✣ Pope Francis displayed his ball-spinning skills at his general audience last week.

A Cuban circus performer got the ball turning then placed it on the Holy Father’s raised fingertip. The Pope smiled in delight as the ball rotated, before slipping off his finger and into the performer’s hands.

The resulting photographs were published on websites around the world and, inevitably, generated dozens of memes, including one of Francis spinning pizza dough instead of a ball.

Headline-writers couldn’t resist referring to the “Hand of God”, the notorious incident in which the Pope’s fellow Argentine, Diego Maradona, scored with his fist against England in the 1986 World Cup.

✣ A priest has described being praised for smelling “so good”.

Fr Dan Beeman, based in Norfolk, Virginia, said a woman on an plane told him: “Father, your cologne smells so good – it is just like a church.”

In a post on Twitter, he explained: “I was confused because I don’t wear cologne. And then I realised: incense. She can smell the incense. I’ve never been so proud.”

The week in quotations

Eternal life is all that matters
Curtis Martin, FOCUS founder
Address at the Seek 2019 conference

Further adaptations of Church teachings are required
Cardinal Marx
Homily at New Year’s Mass

It would be better not to go to church
Pope Francis on those who attend Mass but are filled with hate
General audience

I have never tried to hide facts
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, on trial for alleged abuse cover-up
Associated Press

Statistic of the week

31%
US Catholics who believe clergy have high standards of honesty. Among Protestants it was 48 per cent
Gallup poll