This is a longer than usual column but I think you’ll be quite intrigued. Whatever time of the day it is when you start reading this, make sure you have a coffee – or perhaps a prosecco – at your side!


Starting Saturday, August 27, the Vatican will host four days of big events, perhaps even historic ones, when Pope Francis creates 20 new cardinals, visits L’Aquila in Italy’s central Abruzzo region, and meets behind closed doors with the entire College of Cardinals on the 29th and 30th. He called them to Rome in May to discuss his document on the reform of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium. On August 30, Francis will celebrate Mass with the entire College of Cardinals, including the new ones.

It was at the May 29 Angelus that Pope Francis announced that he would create new cardinals in a consistory on a distant August 27th. Normally these consistories for new cardinals take place a month after the announcement of the names of the new cardinals. He also announced the meeting of the full College of Cardinals. No explanation was every given for the three-month delay.

Sixteen of the new cardinals are under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a future conclave. Today the College has 116 cardinal electors from 65 countries. On August 27, there will be 132 electors, 12 over the ceiling set years ago by Paul VI of 120.   Francis is not, however, the first Pope to go over the magic number of 120.

Three of the new cardinals hold office in the Vatican. Fourteen nationalities are represented, including the curial cardinals.

A consistory is a particular kind of assembly of the College of Cardinals, called by the Pope and conducted in his presence.   Consistories are either public – at which the Pope and Cardinals gather in the presence of others for some important purpose – or private – at which only the Pope and cardinals are present.

This is only the third private consistory Francis has held in his papacy, the last one being in 2015.

A public ordinary consistory allows the Pope to create new cardinals in the presence of the entire College of Cardinals. As I said, the identities of the cardinals-to-be are generally announced some time in advance, but only at the time of the consistory does the elevation to the cardinalate take effect, since that is when the Pope formally publishes the decree of elevation. Some men have died before the consistory date, and if a Pope dies before the consistory all the nominations are voided.

There will actually be a second public consistory on August 27 in which cardinals will be asked to assent to the canonizations of Blesseds Giovanni Battista Scalabrini and Artemide Zatti. Popes hold several of these public ordinary consistories regarding future Blesseds and Saints every year.

As I said, on August 29th and 30th, the Pope will meet privately with all members of the College of Cardinals. As I write, there are 206 members of the college. On August 27, members will number 226, 132 of whom will be electors.

The Pope indicated that the focus of this private consistory would be to discuss the new constitution on the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium. Given that this papal document is a done deal, one wonders what kind of input the cardinals will have. Or will they merely ask questions about the new and improved Roman Curia?

It is more than likely, however, that the world’s cardinals – who barely know each other except for the region they live in – the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa – will have a lot of questions to ask the Pope about matters other than the constitution.

The Pope has written many documents recently, mostly motu proprios, that deal with Opus Dei, the Order of Malta, the liturgy – especially the TLM, Traditional Latin Mass – Vatican tribunals, modifications in Canon Law, the new structure of the former Congregation, now dicastery, for the Doctrine of the Faith and Vatican finances!

In fact the cardinals may have many questions about the dicasteries and especially what seems to be, in the constitution, a more prominent place given to Evangelization than to Doctrine. How does one evangelize without first having doctrine?

Another point, for example: In the past, the heads of congregations were always cardinals and the heads of councils were either cardinals or archbishops. As of June 5, lay people may assume those posts. Could a lay person head the dicastery for priests or dicastery for bishops? Lots of questions to answer here but that’s just one example of a questionable change in the constitution.

The cardinals may have questions about the Pontifical Academy of Life and what seems to be its openness to changing Church teaching on certain ethical issues.

Since many of the cardinals have never met each other, their questions will be a way for their fellow cardinals to learn how they feel about Church teachings and current issues. Just how a question is asked on ethical or moral principles or the liturgy, for example can reveal a lot about the person asking the question.

I am sure all of the cardinals will use every minute of their time in Rome to get to know each other – to chat over coffee breaks or to share meals together, perhaps even a stroll in the Vatican gardens or the beautiful piazzas of the Eternal City.

It’s only a guess but I feel confident that each cardinal has also, since the May 29 announcement of the consistory, since the news of the Pope’s health and somewhat reduced activities, since the papal interviews where Francis indicates that resigning is not off the table – wondered if the College is perhaps being called together to hear a resignation.

Although no explanation was ever given for the three-month delay between the May 29 announcement of the names of cardinals-designate and the August 27 consistory to create them, in recent months many have wondered if the Holy Father has not been using that the three-month span to tie up loose ends of his pontificate.

Is there a deadline only he knows of?

Looking back over the past months, we see that the Pope has made a slew of appointments (for many, a larger number than usual). He has received an impressive number of groups and individuals, religious and civil leaders, heads of State and government, apostolic nuncios, bishops, etc.

He has made an impressive number of video messages for groups and organizations and some that commemorated important events. Given his mobility issues, videos require less of a Pope, allowing him to sit in his study rather than spend more time in a private audience he would meet and greet people, shake hands, etc.

Earlier, I mentioned the slew of documents, mostly motu proprios, that deal with Opus Dei, the Order of Malta, the liturgy – especially the TLM, Traditional Latin Mass – Vatican tribunals, modifications in Canon Law, the new structure of the former Congregation, now dicastery, for the Doctrine of the Faith and Vatican finances!

Relative to Vatican finances: Just today, August 23rd, the Pope issued what is known as a rescript that clarified, in answer to questions raised, that IOR, the Institute for the Works of Religion, aka the Vatican bank, has exclusive competence for managing all of the Holy See’s movable and liquid assets. Thus, all financial assets of all Holy See dicasteries and entities are to be transferred to IOR.

Another possible sign of a papal deadline…

One thing that puzzled those of us who cover the Pope and Vatican was the March 19th release of Praedicate Evangelium.

Published on the Vatican news website with absolutely no fanfare, no press conference, no leaks by anyone in the Vatican, the new Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium – Preach the Gospel – caught everyone by surprise -employees of Vatican City State, the Roman Curia and the media!

Other than the constitution being a stunning surprise for everyone– even though it has been in the planning for 9 years! – we know that Popes always look for significant dates to publish a document. In this case, March 19 is the Solemnity of St. Joseph – beloved by Pope Francis – and also the anniversary of the start of his pontificate. That could easily have been a date to intuit the publication of this Constitution…but no one intuited!

Another remarkable fact: Praedicate Evangelium was published only in Italian! It took a while but it has since been translated into the other traditional Vatican languages for documents: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Polish and Arabic.

Looking back, can we now ask: Was this hurried publication (there were even errors that had to be corrected!) because the Pope had a deadline only he knew of and absolutely wanted the defining work of his papacy to be released?

Of all that I’ve written so far, the August 28 papal visit to L’Aquila will surely be – for the media at least – the most spotlighted event of these four days in the Vatican.

On June 4, days after the May 29 announcement about new cardinals, the Vatican announced that, “Pope Francis will make a pastoral visit to L’Aquila on August 28 for the annual ‘Celebration of Forgiveness’, held in the city in the central Italian region of Abruzzo which was devastated by a massive earthquake in 2009.”

This celebration was established by Pope Celestine in 1294 with his papal Bull of Forgiveness that grants a plenary indulgence to anyone “who, confessed and communicated and visited the basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio from the vespers of August 28 to those of August 29.”

An interesting fact about L’Aquila and Celestine, who is buried there: In 1294, Celestine V was elected Pope, ending a two-year impasse. Among the only surviving edicts he issued as Pope, was the confirmation of the right of the Pope to abdicate. In fact, immediately after publishing this edict he resigned, having reigned for only five months from July 5 to December 13, 1294.

Only one Pope has resigned in the 719 years since 1294: Benedict XVI.

On April 29, 2009, after the massive earthquake, Benedict XVI went to L’Aquila and visited the tomb of this medieval Pope named Celestine in the basilica of Santa Maria de Collemaggio. After a brief prayer, he left his pallium, the symbol of his own episcopal authority as Bishop of Rome, on top of Celestine’s tomb. Four years later he resigned the papacy.

Much was read into this when the Vatican announced Pope Francis’ August 28 visit.

This June 4 announcement by the Vatican led many, myself included, to speculate on a possible resignation by Pope Francis, either at Mass in L’Aquila or when he is with the entire College of Cardinals, 132 of whose members can vote in a conclave. If the Pope resigned, the cardinal electors would already be in Rome for a conclave to elect his successor.

Pope Francis for months has suffered debilitating pain, including a fracture in a bone in his right knee. He is being treated for that quite assiduously but has been using a wheel chair publicly since May 5, and has been unable to fully preside at Mass. He did travel to Canada in July and there were restrictions, and he is set to go to Kazakhstan for an inter-religious prayer event in mid-September.

Other physical ailments have been hinted at in the media but there has been nothing from anyone in the Vatican, except a few words on the Pope’s knee problem. Most of what we have learned about his knee, in fact, we have learned directly from Francis in interviews.

However, in those same interviews with the media in recent months, Francis has not shied away from the idea of resigning. He has indicated he would live in Rome, probably at the Lateran, and would like to devote time to confessing people, among other things. He said he’d prefer the title of Bishop of Rome emeritus, adding that Benedict XVI was the model for resignation.

If you want to align the stars for a resignation, this could be it: We are looking at 20 new members of the College of Cardinals (and 16 additional electors). We are looking at a visit by Pope Francis to the shrine of the last Pope to retire before Benedict XVI and we are looking at meetings that will bring all cardinals to Rome, as if for a conclave.

By the way, Celestine was 85 when he resigned. Benedict XVI was 85 when he resigned. Pope Francis is 85 years old.