A London raid, and a false alarm in Rome

The Easter Tuesday Pillar Post

Hey everybody,

Happy Easter.

Here at The Pillar, we took off most of the sacred Triduum and much of Easter Monday, so today you won’t find the usual round-up of things we’ve published over the past few days.

However, we do have a few updates: A Good Friday moment worth noting, a Holy Thursday tempest in a teapot, and what Adam Morrison is up to these days.

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“This gathering is unlawful.” But was it really?

Metropolitan Police on Friday interrupted a Good Friday liturgy at Christ the King Polish Catholic Church in London. Police said the gathering was unlawful, and dispersed the assembled worshippers before the liturgy could be concluded.

We published yesterday a quick roundup of what happened, and how the parish and other Church officials have responded.

The bottom line is that it’s not certain whether parishioners were observing required social distancing and masking norms during the liturgy. But video of police telling worshippers to disperse is jarring, especially when other means for addressing problems during the liturgy could have been deployed without interrupting one of the most sacred days in the Church’s calendar.

The next few months of the pandemic and its fall-out are sure to become messy, and frequently contentious. As more people are vaccinated and the weather gets warmer, there is a general tendency to move forward in a return to ordinary social life, even while public health officials in many places remain insistent about social distancing and other pandemic guidelines.

If that insistence perdures while case numbers flatline and death counts plummet, there will be frustration among a broadening swath of people eager to return to normalcy. At the same time, ambiguous social norms between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated have already led to tension about how to share public spaces.

Amid that tension, public health officials will need to be careful to avoid any suggestion that religious gatherings — like the Good Friday liturgy in London — are uniquely singled out for scrutiny. Friday is not an especially promising sign on that front.

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The Becciu-gate that isn’t

On Holy Thursday — the day the Church celebrates the institution of the Eucharist and the gift of the priesthood — Pope Francis went to offer Mass with a priest in a bad situation. 

The priest is actually a cardinal, though his wings have been clipped. 

Since September, Cardinal Angelo Becciu has been something of the Church’s half-prince: technically a member of the College of Cardinals, but stripped of the rights and duties proper to that body. 

Becciu is also something of a caged bird: He has an apartment in an important Vatican building, religious sisters take care of his home and his meals, but he’s now something of a persona non grata.

The cardinal spends his time watching Vatican prosecutors circle closer to a trial, or series of trials, expected to lay out his alleged crimes and misdeeds: a private spy paid for with Vatican cash, illicitly funneling cash to his brothers, oversight of a dicey network of businessmen moving Vatican funds into dubious investments, borrowing money from seedy banks, and eventually, if the allegations are to believed, threatening one another’s families and sending out for prostitutes.

Becciu has consistently maintained his innocence. In fact, he’s gone so far as to file suit against journalists who, he claims, have compromised his ability to someday be elected pope. With all that in his file, it’s fair to say that Cardinal Becciu is no longer the Vatican luminary he once was.

In fact, Becciu is probably best described these days as a man on the periphery. 

Which is why it should have come as no surprise that the pope went to have Mass with him on Holy Thursday. In the eight years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has by now made clear that he’s got a soft spot for folks on the edges.

Church watchers point out that Pope Francis’ sympathetic eye has some blind spots. The pontiff is frequently noted to be hard on diocesan priests, including those who work in his curia, he is said to be impatient with those whom he perceives to be “conservative,” and he has been frequently criticized for failures to hear the voices of clerical sexual abuse victims. 

Critics also say that a disordered sense of sympathy has led to some scandalously bad administrative decisions at the Vatican. The continued employment of Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, an Argentine accused of serial sexual abuse, is usually mentioned as evidence of that tendency.

Indeed, questions about Zanchetta have not been answered by the Vatican.

But the Becciu situation is different. 

  • The pope actually fired Becciu six months ago. 

  • The pope has been fairly insistent that Vatican prosecutors continue making progress on their labyrinth investigation into affairs touching Becciu. 

  • The pope has approved changes to Vatican criminal procedural law in order to help bring Becciu associates to trial.

Also, Pope Francis faces extraordinary fiscal and political pressure to bring the financial scandal to justice, with serious long-term legal ramifications for the Church if he can’t. And he knows that.

Still, in Italy the pope’s visit to Becciu’s apartment got a fair amount of press this weekend, much of it suggesting that Francis wants to rehabilitate Becciu, or that the Mass was his first step in a plan to bring the cardinal back into a position of influence at the Vatican. Becciu’s brother even made some public comments to support that kind of spin. 

Eventually on Friday, Vatican sources had to tell a friendly media outlet that the pope had had no intention of doing anything other than exercising pastoral solicitude.

But those who cover the Church know that a down-and-out Becciu is the kind of person Francis tends to feel sorry for, and that going to visit a guy like Becciu for Mass in his apartment is the kind of thing Francis tends to do spontaneously.

The most reasonable interpretation of Francis’ visit to Becciu — which is coincidentally also the most charitable interpretation— is that the Mass was the kind of one-off work of mercy characteristic of the pope, and not a signal that Francis intends to restore Becciu to his former positions of influence and trust.

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Among critics of the Mass at Becciu’s house are those unhappy that Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper — a Mass that is supposed to represent the unity and the oneness of the Church — in private, just a few weeks after prohibiting private Masses at St. Peter’s. That position is understandable. 

But only the pope knows if some urgent and pressing pastoral reason to extend a gesture of solicitude to Becciu took priority over liturgical expectations. Furthermore, the pope has the right to decide where, and with whom, he will offer Holy Thursday Mass.

Few, however, have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Within a few days of the Holy Thursday Mass, even experienced Vatican journalists have taken Francis to task for, apparently, failing to give the media an advance notice or an explanation of the Becciu visit. Francis and his staff stand accused of lobbing a “pr bomb,” and some journalists seem to think the only reasonable conclusion from the Vatican’s handling of the affair is that the pope is using strategic ambiguity to veil an agenda.

But there actually are other, simpler, more reasonable conclusions, especially given Francis’ personality, and his penchant towards pastoral impulsivity. And most people who know the Church are able to distinguish between an act which smacks of genuine charity — visiting a disgraced former colleague for Mass — and an actual scandal, of which there are plenty. 

For what it’s worth, we at the The Pillar are very, very familiar with Cardinal Becciu’s temperament, and with his litigious tendencies. As journalists we’ve been investigating his affairs for several years. We’ve broken our share of stories about the cardinal, and we’ve no plans to stop, despite his penchant for sending the occasional cease-and-desist letter our way. 

But while commentators left and right criticized Francis for having Mass with Becciu, we thought very little of it, because the reality is clear: Pope Francis is no position to “rehabilitate” Becciu’s image and role among the College of Cardinals.

Whether or not Francis wants to, he needs to see the Vatican financial scandal through to the end, or face serious consequences with European banking regulators. Wherever things stand with the Vatican investigation, the list of flagged issues in Becciu’s file is quite long. And whatever sympathy Francis might feel for Becciu, the pope can’t ignore the international implications that would come from whitewashing the allegations against the cardinal. 

In that light, even a cynic can see that a genuine pastoral visit — on Holy Thursday, a day of solidarity and fraternity among priests — is the most plausible read on the pope’s trip to Becciu’s apartment. I’d like to believe that the pope made his visit with little concern for how Becciu’s brother — or the cardinal himself — might spin things, precisely because he chose an act of Christian charity over the kind of anemic cost/benefit PR strategizing of bloodless corporate and political leaders and their bloodless aides.

It is no secret that there are serious issues Pope Francis must address far better than he has — including the situation of Zanchetta. The Vatican has not answered questions on some of the most serious crises facing the Church in decades, many of which would seem to require intervention from the pope.

But it is possible to know all of that — and work to hold Church officials publicly accountable — without also lamenting a Holy Thursday Mass, or framing it as an exercise in willful or weaponized ambiguity. 

In short, while Francis’ visit gets lambasted as a PR blunder by some Vatican commentators, I think it’s reasonable to believe that the pope —  a Christian —  did an act of Christian mercy during the Christian holy days, with no agenda but the Gospel. 

In fact, absent evidence to the contrary, I think it’s good to believe that. I may be proven wrong, but if I can’t start with a disposition of hope and good faith, I’m not sure I can call our work Catholic journalism.

If the pope’s visit to Becciu is actually the first step toward some serious sea change on the cardinal, we’ll know that soon enough, and we’ll report it, because public accountability matters. Until then, handwringing about the Mass or its handling seems a bit premature, and more than a little cynical.

Francis has a lot to prove on the financial reform front. Many are skeptical that he’s up to the task. He’s mucking out stables few want to approach. But on Holy Thursday, it should be plausible for Catholics to believe that the pope put aside the work of temporal accountability for a few hours, to offer the redemptive mercy — the loving-kindness — of Jesus Christ. 

I pray it was an efficacious visit. But the demands of public accountability only take a day or two off for the Easter holidays. 

Becciu’s (temporal) reckoning is still a task that Francis must resolve. And we should be watching to see what he’ll do next.  

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Does Adam Morrison have a bunker?

Gonzaga’s trip to the NCAA National Championship — and especially its overtime victory over UCLA in the Final Four — has evoked a cultural memory of Adam Morrison, the enigmatic Gonzaga star who in 2006 led a team stunned by an epic UCLA comeback in the Sweet Sixteen.

Morrison is now a radio broadcaster for Gonzaga, and his enthusiasm was unbridled on Saturday when the Zags beat UCLA for a ticket to the big game.

But after his run at Gonzaga, Adam Morrison was an NBA draft bust who ended his basketball career playing in the Balkans and getting cut by Portland in the 2012 NBA preseason. Morrison is also a very, very strange cat, and has long been rumored to maintain a doomsday bunker in the Pacific Northwest. This 2016 profile of the guy is worth your time even if you don’t care about basketball.

Also of interest, at least to me, is this story about the German Jewish refugee who invented Old Bay, America’s greatest seasoning.

And while we couldn’t lasso them together for a picture in our Easter finery, here are the Flynn kids on Easter Monday:

Finally, worth praying about on Easter Tuesday:

In the first reading today, St. Peter preaches Christ crucified and the forgiveness of sins, and 3,000 people are baptized.

May God give us a true zeal for souls, and real confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit. May we be evangelists and witness of Christ. May he make of us great saints by the power of his Resurrection.

Happy Easter everybody.

Yours in Christ,

JD Flynn
editor-in-chief
The Pillar