Vatican watchers on alert as Pope embarks on busy four days

Pope Francis to begin intense series of meetings and ceremonies that has brought all cardinals to Rome

Anyone who has reason to do business with the Vatican soon learns that the HQ of world Catholicism by and large shuts down in the month of August. Not this year.

Starting on Saturday, Pope Francis begins an intense four days of meetings and papal ceremonies that has brought all his cardinals to Rome, in turn putting the small media army of Holy See tea-leaf readers on alert mode.

First up is one of the most emblematic of all Vatican moments, namely the “creation”, or nomination, of 21 new cardinals in the Basilica of St Peter’s. The last time a cardinal of the Catholic church was appointed in the month of August was in 1807.

Then, on Sunday, Francis travels to the Abruzzo town of L’Aquila, site of a ruinous earthquake in 2009 that killed more than 300 people and left 60,000 homeless. The pope will be in L’Aquila to open the “holy door” and to mark the final phase of the city’s 728th perdonanza celestiniana, a plenary indulgence or “forgiveness”, first decreed by Pope Celestine V in 1294.

Celestine V was the last pope to resign before Benedict XVI in 2013. Four years before his resignation, Benedict prayed at Celestine’s tomb in the Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, leaving his papal pallium – a sort of stole – on the tomb.

Pope Celestine’s tomb
Pope Celestine’s tomb. Photograph: Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

With debatable hindsight, some commentators later chose to see the “papal stole” gesture as an indication from Benedict that he would one day resign from his pontificate, an indication that escaped most Vatican watchers at the time given the four-year gap.

When this L’Aquila visit was first announced last June, many immediately jumped to conclusions. What if Francis was about to do a rerun of Benedict? With his health problems well documented, from his colon cancer operation last summer to a dodgy knee that these days keeps him in a wheelchair for much of the time, resignation would be understandable.

Francis said as recently as three weeks ago, on his return from an apostolic visit to Canada, that in this “slower phase” of his pontificate he would be ready to resign one day. Yet those who work with him on a daily basis say that while resignation remains a serious long-term option, it is not on the immediate horizon. For a start, with 94-year-old Benedict still alive, it seems unlikely he could resign. The notion of a Holy See with three popes could be considered to undermine its credibility.

The third key appointment of the weekend then comes on Monday when Pope Francis begins two days of meetings with the full college of cardinals. Ostensibly these sessions are to exchange views on his apostolic constitution, Praedicate Evangelium (Preach The Gospel), released in June this year, a blueprint for reform of the Roman curia, the governance of the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic church. This document is important as it is the realisation of arguably the most important electoral mandate given to Francis by the cardinals who elected him at the 2013 conclave.

Hanging over the whole weekend, however, is the Russia-Ukraine war. Francis has been under pressure for months from Ukraine to make a “solidarity” visit to Kyiv. Even if he has repeatedly expressed a wish to visit, that has always been qualified by “when the time is right”.

That probably means he will visit only if and when he can also hear the other side of the story in Moscow, where he wants to maintain a dialogue with the Russian Orthodox church.

That remains difficult, as evidenced by the Russian state media announcement on Wednesday that Patriarch Kirill, a staunch supporter of Vladimir Putin, will not attend the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan next month, where he had been expected to meet the pope on the sidelines.

The pope drew criticism from Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See on Wednesday when he referred to Darya Dugina, the ultra-nationalist commentator killed in Moscow last weekend, as “a poor girl blown up in a bomb attack”.

As Francis struggles to keep lines of dialogue open, relations with both Moscow and Kyiv are becoming more strained. In the meantime, stand by for yet another heartfelt call for peace, not just in Ukraine, this weekend.

Paddy Agnew in Rome

The GuardianTramp

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