During a Sunday homily in his native Sardinia, Cardinal Angelo Becciu told the assembly that Pope Francis had called him the previous day to invite him to this week’s consistory, and — according to Becciu — promised to reinstate his rights as a member of the College of Cardinals.
It is, as the saying goes, “big, if true.”
While the cardinal’s account of the telephone call has been splashed across Italian and Catholic media, and his brother Mario has written on Facebook that it marks the end of “two endless years” for Becciu, there has been no official explanation from the Holy See on the matter.
This is not the first time the Becciu clan has confidently predicted the rehabilitation of “Don Angelino,” as he is known in his hometown.
In April last year, Francis celebrated a private Mass in Becciu’s home, kicking off a spate of confident predictions that the cardinal was on his way back into the pope’s inner circle and public good graces. Instead, just a few months later, Becciu found himself on trial for embezzlement, abuse of office, and a host of other charges.
But unlike Holy Week of 2021, Becciu isn’t spinning what was later described by the Holy See as a “private act of pastoral mercy” — the Vatican’s official news site has seemingly confirmed that Becciu will be in attendance at next week’s consistory of cardinals.
While it is possible the cardinal is over-selling whatever the pope allegedly told him about his future “reinstatement” to his “cardinalatial functions,” it seems settled that when the consistory meets later this week, Becciu will be there, at least in some capacity.
Of course, there are a range of possible ways in which Becciu could be “present” for the consistory, each open to a different interpretation.
The Vatican’s official outlet, somewhat oddly, cited unnamed “sources in the Holy See,” who apparently noted that “the rights of the cardinalate do not refer to participation in the life of the Church; Christians are called upon to take part in it, according to their state.”
“In the case of cardinals this may include an invitation - sometimes personal - to attend certain meetings reserved for them,” the Vatican news site said.
The Vatican’s media move is somewhat reminiscent of previous efforts to downplay the 2021 home Mass: In short, it is possible that Becciu could be invited as a courtesy by the pope to sit in at the back of the consistory’s meetings as, essentially, a spectator.
Such a move would be, for sure, still be hailed as a public display of support for the cardinal by Francis, even if it was intended as a personal gesture of consolation for a former close colleague and friend, similar to the Holy Thursday Mass last year. But it would be markedly different to Becciu being allowed to, for example, formally process into the public sessions along with the members of the college, and sit among them as an supposed equal.
Becciu “resigned” his rights as a cardinal, along with his position as prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, in September of 2020, apparently just hours after the pope was presented with evidence of possible financial crimes by the cardinal.
That resignation was a formal act and would need to be legally undone with a similarly formal act. But if Becciu does end up participating in the consistory in a way indistinguishable from the other cardinals, he and his supporters will be almost sure to insist that his status has been restored de facto.
If Becciu’s status remains ambiguous, his rights at a future conclave will be especially difficult to navigate.
Absent a formal, public statement from the pope, there might be no way to settle Becciu’s legal rights ahead of a possible future conclave. Barring an act of papal clarity, it will likely be left to the discretion of the camerlengo, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, to decide if Becciu can be admitted to the next papal election.
In either event, if the pope brings the star defendant in the Vatican financial trial back into the public life of the curia, it will be anything but a “private act,” however the Vatican press office tries to spin it.
A reinstatement will be interpreted by some Vatican-watches as a response by the pope to Becciu’s recent court appearances, during which the cardinal repeatedly indicated he is willing to defend himself by passing responsibility for his allegedly criminal actions to the pope.
In his criminal trial, Becciu began his turn as a witness by asserting his absolute innocence, and at the same time insisting there was little he could say in his defense, because he was bound by the pontifical secret, and by personal loyalty to the pope.
In subsequent appearances, the cardinal resorted to blaming a faulty memory when asked about financial documents he had signed while working in the Secretariat of State — trying to paint himself as, essentially, a trusting creature of his own officials, with little real understanding of what was going on in the department he oversaw.
While he offered an emotional denial that he had enriched members of his own family using Church funds, Becciu seemed unable to refute the substance of the accusation that he arranged for large financial transfers into personal bank accounts belonging to his brother and others.
After Francis waived pontifical secrecy, Becciu — as some predicted — pivoted to telling the court that controversial operations, like the sacking of the Vatican auditor general Libero Milone were papally approved.
Any move by Francis to hug Becciu close in public, or give the impression that he is rehabilitating the cardinal into ordinary curial life, could be read as a papal signal that Becciu has fundamentally acquitted himself — that would likely pile enormous pressure on both the judges and the prosecution for the remainder of the case.
That case remains in recess, after several sessions scheduled for July were canceled, but looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. Prosecutors and lawyers intend to call some 200 additional witnesses in the case, setting the stage for at least another year of hearings.
And while the court has already heard from most of the 10 defendants, including Becciu, it has not yet dealt with much of the hundreds of pages of allegations deposited by the prosecution when it announced the charges last year.
Moreover, Becciu has already placed Pope Francis in an awkward position over the sacking of Libero Milone, apparently showing the pope to have acted against his own landmark financial reforms.
But the cardinal has yet to address in court several other allegations — including that he employed Cecilia Marogna as a kind of private spy to gather compromising information on senior curial figures. If Becciu mounts a similar defense in that case — that these were papally-sanctioned operations — the testimony could be immensely damaging to the pope’s personal credibility.
According to statements from the prosecution’s star witness, Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, when Becciu was asked about payments made to Marogna, and large amounts of cash walking out the door, the cardinal claimed the sums were all personally approved by the pope.
Becciu reportedly “became very angry” when he discovered Perlasca had discussed that money with investigators, and demanded to know why the monseigneur had not destroyed the departmental records of the transactions.
“Why should I have eliminated them if they were ordered by His Holiness?” Perlasca said he responded to the cardinal. Trial-watchers have been hoping Becciu will be asked that question in court.
Even away from the financial trial, those around the Vatican have warned for years that efforts to prosecute Becciu would have to contend with the cardinal “knowing where all the bodies are buried” around the curia. Conspiracy-minded Church commentators would likely try to portray any measure of “rehabilitation” for Becciu as an effort by Pope Francis to mollify a potential threat to his legacy.
At the same time, more feverish corners of the Roman press will likely insist that any papal courtesy extended to Becciu during his ongoing trial is evidence that Francis is trying to tip the scales in favor of his formerly closest collaborator.
But it remains entirely possible — perhaps even more likely — that an invitation to attend this week’s events in Rome could be nothing more than another personal consideration by the pope for an old friend in difficult times.
But whatever the pope’s actual motivation, the appearance of showing public favor to Becciu in the middle of his trial will strike many as reminiscent of Francis’ treatment of Bishop Oscar Gustavo Zanchetta, the pope’s close friend and former bishop of Oran.
After allowing Zanchetta to resign as bishop in Argentina for “health reasons” in 2017, Francis created a special post for him in the curia, where he lived in the Domus Sanctae Marta while prosecutors in his home diocese built a case against him for aggravated sexual assault of seminarians — charges on which he was convicted earlier this year.
While Francis has been criticized by local Catholics for his treatment of Zanchetta, both before and after his civil conviction, the pope’s consideration for the bishop could not bear upon the civil legal proceedings. This is not the case with Becciu in Vatican City, where Francis is the absolute sovereign.
However well-intentioned or “pastoral” Francis may intend to be by inviting Becciu to the consistory this week, the move will be interpreted across the Vatican — including by those involved in the cardinal’s trial — as a sign of the mind of the city state’s supreme judge.
That reading will drag the pope further into the middle of Becciu’s trial — even while the both cases against the cardinal, and for Francis’ credibility as a legal reformer — hang on the court’s independence.