Could Pope Francis deliver yet another ‘July surprise’?

By John L. Allen Jr.
July 06, 2019

Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, on the occasion of their private audience at the Vatican, Thursday, July 4. 2019.
Photo by Alexei Druzhinin

ROME - Once upon a time, Rome in July was a tranquil place for those whose professional activities unfold in and around the vacation.

Popes suspended their audiences and left town, seeking to escape the brutal summer heat, so Vatican personnel and Vatican-watchers alike could while away leisurely days catching up on reading, taking long lunches and equally long naps, and just savoring la vita dolce. (Total honesty? Right now, I’m deeply nostalgic for those days.)

Famously, St. John Paul II had a swimming pool installed at his summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome in 1979 so he could take dips in the dog days of July and August. When Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was elected in April 2005, one of the first items on his to-do list was to organize a summer vacation to Les Combes in Valle d’Aosta, in northern Italy by the Alps, that July.

Then, Pope Francis happened.

This energizer bunny of popes has laid waste to the old days of July as a time of lethargy and repose. Just consider what the month of July has brought over the last six years.

  • July 2013: A papal outing to Lampedusa to signal Francis’s solidarity with immigrants; World Youth Day in Brazil, including the “Who am I to judge” mother of all soundbites; and approval of a miracle clearing Pope John Paul II’s path to sainthood.
  • July 2014: Francis’s first meeting with victims of clerical sexual abuse; his second interview with Eugenio Scalfari, in which the nonagenarian Italian journalist had Francis basically saying that priestly celibacy is on the way out; and the first-ever papal visit to a Pentecostal church, one located in southern Italy and pastored by a friend from Argentina.
  • July 2015: A three-nation homecoming to Latin America in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay, in which Francis’s fiery anti-capitalist rhetoric featured the line that money is the “devil’s dung.”
  • July 2016: World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, including a papal visit to Auschwitz in which Francis deliberately remained silent; appointment of veteran American journalist Greg Burke as the papal spokesman; and calling the assassination of elderly French priest Father Jacques Hamel by ISIS loyalists “absurd.”
  • July 2017: A papal expression of support for the parents of Charlie Gard, who were seeking to keep the infant diagnosed with a rare disease alive despite a court order to suspend treatment; the removal of German Cardinal Gerhard Müller as the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office; and a controversial article by two close papal allies, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Argentine Protestant Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, which posited an “ecumenism of hate” in the U.S. between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.
  • July 2018: The removal of Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals over allegations of sexual abuse (McCarrick would later be expelled from the priesthood as well); and an ecumenical visit to the Italian city of Bari.

Frankly, it’s exhausting just listing all that activity, let alone performing it. All of which brings us to this question: Does Pope Francis have a “July surprise” up his sleeve for 2019?

Francis already spent July 4 - coincidentally, Independence Day in the U.S. - meeting the leader of America’s great Cold War rival, Vladimir Putin of Russia, for what the Vatican afterwards described as “cordial discussions.”

We also know that next Monday, July 8, the pope will celebrate a special Mass for migrants in St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s hardly surprising that Francis would take such a stand, but the gesture will put the issue back in the spotlight at a time when a new CNN poll shows that three-quarters of Americans call immigration a “crisis,” but are bitterly split as to why: Democrats say it’s because of harsh treatment of migrants, Republicans because too many people are spilling over the border.

Beyond that, here are three plausible July surprises that Francis could deliver.

Curial reform: A draft of a new apostolic constitution titled Praedicate Evangelium has been making the rounds for a while, designed to mark the culmination of Francis’s project of reforming the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy. Presumably the pontiff is putting the finishing touches on the document now, and theoretically he could promulgate it anytime.

Trip plans: While it’s long been rumored that Francis will visit Japan in the fall, marking a sort of return to his Jesuit missionary roots, plans have not been officially confirmed. There are also rumors he might add a stop in Thailand while he’s in Asia, although that prospect too remains a mere hypothesis. If Francis is serious about these journeys, July could bring the official ins and outs.

Curia shake-ups: At the moment, there are five heads of Vatican departments over 75, meaning their resignations are on Francis’s desk: Cardinal Marc Ouellet at the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinal Luis Ladaria at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi at the Congregation for Catholic Education, Cardinal Beniamino Stella at the Congregation for Clergy, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri at the Congregation for Eastern Churches, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi at the Pontifical Council for Culture. In addition, the Secretariat for the Economy is vacant as Australian Cardinal George Pell is over 75 and fighting for his freedom after a conviction for “historic sexual offenses.” Should Francis make changes in any of these posts, it would be a huge signal about where he wants the Vatican to go.

Naturally, these are merely three possibilities out of a virtually infinite set. If there’s anything the Francis era should have driven home by now, it’s that anything could happen - even, as odd as it to say in the context of popes and their history, in July.


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