Another Week of Intense Activity at the Holy See

COMMENTARY: The run-up to Pope Francis’ trip to Malta and Holy Week included ‘Canada week,’ ‘Poland week,’ a meeting with the head of the Syro-Malankara Church and the publication of a major instruction on Catholic education.

A fish-eye lens view of St. Peter's Square during Pope Francis' Sunday Palm Mass on April 10. The Vatican continues to be a bustle of activity, from the administrative and instructional to the diplomatic and humanitarian.
A fish-eye lens view of St. Peter's Square during Pope Francis' Sunday Palm Mass on April 10. The Vatican continues to be a bustle of activity, from the administrative and instructional to the diplomatic and humanitarian. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

Holy Week is busy at the Vatican due to the solemn liturgical celebrations, but a recent visit to Rome reminded me that the Holy See is often at the center of intense activity on all fronts. 

For example, the last week of March was highly anticipated by Canada’s Catholic bishops for a meeting planned for years — delayed by the pandemic — with the country’s Indigenous leaders. That led to a papal apology for the Church’s role in the government’s residential school policy which separated Indigenous children from their families. It was a major news story in Canada, on the front pages every day, and with the national television networks present in Rome. With four separate audiences over three days, it might have been considered “Canada week” at the Vatican. 

Except it wasn’t. Or at least, it was also “Poland week.” The president of the Polish bishops was in to see the Holy Father on Monday,  the apostolic nuncio in Warsaw came to Rome to see Pope Francis on Thursday, and then the president of Poland came on Friday. There were so many Poles in the apostolic palace when Canada’s Indigenous leaders arrived each day that they may have thought St. John Paul II was still pope.  

Poland was so prominent because of the pressing refugee crisis caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine. Hence the visit of the nuncio in Warsaw to brief the Holy Father before the arrival of President Andrzej Duda. Poland is the front line of humanitarian assistance; indeed, the special envoy of Pope Francis to Ukraine, papal almoner Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, is Polish.  

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was also in Poland, meeting Duda and religious authorities. The visit of Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, on Monday was part of the preparation for his own meeting in Warsaw with Bartholomew the following day. It’s quite possible that Archbishop Gądecki is the only Catholic bishop ever to have met the Pope at the Vatican one day, only to fly home to receive the patriarch the next.  

The unique position of the Holy See stretches across time as well as space. While “Canada week” was planned for years in response to historic injustices, “Poland week” was assembled in response to rapidly changing circumstances after reports of fresh atrocities. At the Vatican, the Holy Father’s egress from one audience concerned with a current shooting war is followed by ingress into another dealing with events of centuries ago across the ocean. 

The rest of the Church does not stop in the face of various worldly pressures.  

Archbishop Gądecki has been raising the alarm about the German “Synodal Path,” writing a stinging rebuke to his German counterpart on behalf of the Polish bishops. (A similar letter from the Nordic bishops followed the Polish example.) No doubt Archbishop Gądecki discussed that, too, with Pope Francis. 

Also on Monday, the Holy Father received Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, major archbishop of Trivandrum of the Syro-Malankara Church. Cardinal Cleemis is the head of the smaller of the two eastern Churches in Kerala, a state in southern India. The larger Church of the “St. Thomas Christians” is the Syro-Malabar Church. 

While Cardinal Cleemis likely had his own matters to discuss, he was certainly consulted about a 20-year dispute among the Syro-Malabars about how to celebrate their liturgy. That was high on the Vatican’s mind, as later in the week a letter from Pope Francis was released to the Syro-Malabar Church, asking that the liturgical decisions of their synod, favoring ad orientem celebration of Mass, be observed. 

Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church and recipient of the letter, celebrated Palm Sunday according to the papal directive. Yet so heated is the issue that he had to do so under tight security after protests at the bishop’s residence. When a synodal Church cannot agree, Rome needs to step in. 

Simultaneously with key issues in Europe, Canada and India, the Holy See also released a major new instruction on the identity and mission of Catholic schools. It took up delicate questions related to catechetical orthodoxy and scholarly excellence, as well as the requirement that Catholic teachers be not only professionally qualified, but models of the faith. Had it not been such a busy week the instruction would have garnered much more attention, but its influence will last long beyond any headlines. 

As if all that were not enough, “Canada week” and “Poland week” fell in between the Marian consecration of Ukraine and Russia and the papal trip to Malta. The Holy See constantly operates on the universal level, with bishops the world over joining in the consecration, and at the level of the local Church, with the visit to the small country of Malta. 

A postscript? Upon return from Malta, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Peter Turkson, formerly of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, to head up the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The appointment of Cardinal Turkson is intended to restore some luster after the last few difficult years at the academies, which became less scholarly and more partisan under the previous chancellor, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo. 

And now … Holy Week!