In a surprise move, Pope Francis chose to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy this year with the Sardinian Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, whom he earlier accused of betraying his trust and forced to resign from the Curia. The liturgy was held in Becciu’s private chapel with a small group of people from his household staff attending.
In former years, the Pope’s tradition was to share lunch with ten clergy at Becciu’s apartment on Holy Thursday afternoon. The Pope would then go on to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy with inmates in a prison. The outreach to prisoners continued his tradition, dating from his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, of washing the feet of prisoners or residents of shelters.
This year there was no liturgy in a prison or shelter, possibly because of pandemic restrictions. Instead, the Pope celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper with Becciu. To understand why this was significant, one needs to review the background.
A Shocking Humiliation
In September, the Pope asked the Cardinal to resign from his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Saints. He also stripped him of the privileges of the cardinalate. Though Becciu still retains the title of Cardinal, he will not be able to vote in the next conclave.
The resignation was precipitated by a financial scandal concerning investment in a property in London, a disastrous deal dating from Becciu’s time in the Secretariat of State — one which cost the Holy See millions of euros. His downfall was a stunning humiliation. A half dozen Vatican employees have been implicated in the scandal, but the most high-profile target of the investigation was Becciu.
According to the Cardinal’s own account, Pope Francis told him he “no longer had faith in me because he got a report from the magistrates that I committed an act of misappropriation.” The Cardinal has professed innocence and fought the case. On November 16 he also filed a $12 million lawsuit against the Italian magazine l’Espresso for publishing statements leading to his ouster. Both the civil and the Vatican-based investigations are ongoing.
Francis is obviously concerned about his brother-in-Christ Angelo, and in the aftermath of the scandal has made it clear that he doesn’t want to abandon him. He phoned him on the First Sunday of Advent, and now has made this extraordinary outreach by celebrating the Eucharist of Holy Thursday with him in his home.
The cardinal was overjoyed at this, and deeply grateful to the Pope for what he called this “fatherly gesture.” It was reported in all the worldwide news. The Sardinian press is now predicting that Becciu will soon be completely vindicated.
So Francis continues to surprise us. But although I found the outreach to prisoners on Holy Thursday to be a rather inspired and transparent gesture, in this case… I wonder if what Francis has done has muddied the waters concerning the Holy Thursday liturgy.
Here are the questions this year’s celebration raised for me.
When Francis departed from papal precedent to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison, it was clearly a prophetic gesture. Is this also the case with the disgraced Cardinal?
Perhaps it was meant to be prophetic in just the same way. But if so, that disposes of the theory that this is a vindication. By going to the prison, Francis did not proclaim anyone innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated. Neither did his visit result in a commutation of their sentences. Following the logic of the prison example, the hope is rather that the person who has committed a crime might still be viewed as precious in God’s eyes, and worthy of redemption. Social rehabilitation is important. No human life should be “thrown away.”
In this particular case, however, because the original offense seems to be cast as a betrayal of Francis’s trust, the other possible “prophetic” interpretation of this gesture is that Jesus ate with his betrayer at the Last Supper, so Francis follows in the footsteps of Jesus here. No one has claimed this interpretation, and I am sure the Cardinal would not be happy to be cast in the role of Judas! But the possibility fairly leaps to the eye. Could this be the intended parallel? Ouch.
We didn’t have this problem with the prisoners whom Francis visited, because he was not involved, either directly or indirectly, in the circumstances which landed them in jail. Here Francis is a protagonist in the case, which adds complexity and ambiguity to the situation.
On the other hand, maybe it was not intended as a prophetic gesture at all, but simply meant as a “fatherly gesture” as Becciu stated. The goal may simply have been pastoral care for someone who has been isolated because of a scandal in which he is currently embroiled. Perhaps what is happening is that Francis is putting charity ahead of justice, and thus giving us an example to follow. “As I did, you also should do.”
Obviously, one can have no quarrel with charity, and pastoral care is a virtue.
But if that is the case, another important question arises. Why now? Why the Holy Thursday liturgy? Is this undoubtedly precious personal outreach to a former member of the Curia really so important that it should take center stage during the first liturgy of the Triduum?
Personal Drama vs. Liturgy
I do not in any way question the goodness of the motivations of the Holy Father. But I do question whether it is a good idea to make one of the three integrally-related liturgies that form the high point of the whole liturgical year into a quasi-private event in response to one man’s pastoral needs.
It’s really a question of liturgy. What is this liturgy? What is it for? I am concerned that this use of the liturgy has veered a bit too far into the realm of personal drama. This no longer seems prophetic to me, but rather a public liturgy being put to a purpose which is good but idiosyncratic. It raises more questions than it answers, because the Triduum liturgies belong to everyone.
Because we know the crime of which the Cardinal stands accused (which we did not know for any of the prisoners) it also implicitly drags into the liturgy the question of whether he’s guilty, whether Francis still thinks he’s guilty, and whether white collar crime and specifically misuse of church funds by the clergy, so seldom seriously punished, is being played down in the process. We don’t have to wonder whether this will stir up speculation concerning the criminal case; it’s evident in the press coverage.
The relationship between the personal and the public in liturgy is a well-known tension. To be sure, we all have personal dramas. And we bring these with us into the Triduum. How could we not? But the normal way we do this is by entering into the publicly celebrated rites, which are freighted with meaning and symbolism large enough to embrace our personal struggles and individual hopes for redemption within the story of Jesus Christ. The most personal issues, at bottom, are also the most universal.
Yet in this instance it looks like the personal dimension has taken priority.
Perhaps Francis is right, and we need more lessons in humble service from the Pope, whose knack for the potent gesture is unparalleled. Perhaps my own cynicism is at work, when I see a privileged figure — a curial Cardinal who has had millions at his disposal and even now has the wherewithal to sue a media company — as the object of the Pope’s solicitude on Holy Thursday, rather than some wretched group of people in prison who have nothing, and who stand as a symbol of all the people who have nothing.
Reconciliation is reconciliation, and I trust that something worthwhile was accomplished. Still, I wish Francis had decided on a different form of outreach. They could have shared a meal. Or celebrated Morning Prayer together. Or something else. The Bishop of Rome can do anything he wants, obviously. But the liturgy of Holy Thursday is a very special celebration, which has its own agenda. A personal “use” of that liturgy seems problematic to me.