A Pope Surrounded by Wolves

Today is Ash Wednesday.

Consistory in St. Peter's BasilicaA moment at the consistory on the 17th, during which 22 new cardinals were proclaimed, including the Spaniard Santos Abril y Castelló, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by Tony Gentile of Reuters.

A Pope Surrounded by Wolves
Intrigues and power struggles are brewing over the succession of the old and infirm Benedict XVI
El País: Un Papa rodeado por lobos
Pablo Ordaz reporting from Rome February 18, 2012

They say that Pope John Paul II was once asked, “Your Holiness, how many people work in the Vatican?” and the Pole Karol Wojtyla, the Pope from 1978 to 2005, ironically answered, “About half of them.” Now we know – following this joke that wasn’t really a joke – what the other half dedicates itself to. For some weeks now, the Vatican has been in a commotion over a series of leaked secret documents that have brought the Holy See’s spokesman, Federico Lombardi, to admit that the Church is suffering from Vatileaks. The publication of an internal denunciation of corruption and a strange conspiracy to kill Benedict XVI exposed naked power struggles between those faced with the possibly imminent end of his papacy. Although he represents God on Earth, Joseph Ratzinger is in fact a sick man about to complete his 85th year of life. In the words of L’Osservatore Romano, he is “a shepherd surrounded by wolves.”

The wolves, although dressed in purple, are excited by the smell of blood. Shepherd Ratzinger already stated two years ago, in an interview with Peter Seewald that was converted into a book, that “if a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.” Is Benedict XVI thinking of stepping down on his 85th birthday April 16 or the seventh anniversary of his papacy three days later?

Maybe only he and God know, but what is very clear is that, given this possibility, the candidates to succeed him have started to fight like men for his divine post. Or to be more specific, like Italian men. Both the surnames that litter this story of intrigues and low blows and the arms chosen for the duels are purely local. There is strong reason for this: the Chair of Peter has been occupied by foreigners since 1978. Isn’t high time already for the Holy Spirit to turn his gaze to an Italian at the next meeting of the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel?

The power struggle in the Church’s headquarters is already playing out – in a manner that is unprecedented and painful for the many true men of faith – in the pages of the papers. The stories are being treated like the latest leaks of the uncouth scandals of Silvio Berlusconi. The first blow came with the disclosure, on a television program, of a letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the current Papal Nuncio (Envoy) in the United States, in which he told the Pope about various cases of corruption inside the Vatican and requested that he not be removed from his post (at that time) as Secretary General of the Governatorato – the department in charge of business tenders and supplies. Viganò was sent far from Rome, nevertheless. The second link took the lid off a supposed plot to kill the Pontiff. The newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano published a letter sent to Benedict XVI very recently by the Colombian cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos in which he wrote that the Italian cardinal Paolo Romeo, Archbishop of Palermo (Sicily), had taken a trip to China, and while he was there, he commented that “the Pope will die in 12 months.” But that wasn’t all. According to the Colombian bishop’s letter, written in German and sealed as “strictly confidential”, the Archbishop of Palermo spoke freely about supposed Vatican secrets, about how the Pope and his number two, Tarcisio Bertone, were going to be killed, and that the Pope was leaving everything tied up so his successor at the head of the church would be the current archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola.

How much of this is truth and how much is falsehood? It could be all of one or all of the other. Perhaps the only certain thing is that a sector of the Vatican curia, the caste of pontifical diplomats, thinks the current Pope has gone too far to promote transparency about Church finances and to cut out all trace of permissiveness toward the abuse of minors…too far and too fast for someone who, after all, is an 84-year old German, sick and alone, lost in a strange labyrinth of intrigue and low blows. For 26 years, the Vatican was ruled by a Polish Pope who was an expert in public relations. For the last seven, the leader has been an introverted German. It gives the impression that Italy has begun its reconquest of the Chair of Peter.

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