Our parish priest came round to give my mother Communion yesterday. Afterwards, as one does on these occasions, we had a chat about the state of the Church and the world. The conversation turned to the appointment of a new papal secretary of state, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, and the departure of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. I asked Father what he thought of the Cardinal’s widely publicised parting words, in which Bertone claimed that during his term of office under Pope Emeritus Benedict, he had been surrounded by “crows and vipers” who had actively worked against him.
Not surprisingly, Father thought Bertone had been ungracious; whatever the provocations and sense of personal injury, the outgoing Secretary of State should have kept his thoughts to himself and bowed out with more charity and discretion. I agree; we do expect more of dedicated ministers in the Church. Yet the standard of Christian behaviour and the requirement to turn the other cheek is very high and, being human, we are all prone to fall below it from time to time – even it seems the highest ranking Vatican official after the Pope himself.
I was struck by the language used by Bertone; Italians might be more operatic than us northerners – but “crows and vipers”; in one small phrase the Cardinal has put the Vatican straight back into its historical stamping ground of corruption, intrigues and plots that we all hoped (and still hope) it had left behind in a new age of transparency. I understand the “viper” analogy; venomous and, being a serpent, never getting a good press in the Bible. But crows? Not being a twitcher I had to look up their characteristics: “Bird of family Corvidae, esp. carrion; smaller than raven and larger than rook; feeding on dead flesh.” It does not paint a pretty picture of what went on at the centre of the largest and most ancient Christian Church and it puts Pope Benedict’s untimely resignation in a new light.
According to the report in the Telegraph of Tuesday 3rd September, Cardinal Bertone signalled his feelings about his time in office, and in particular, what went on behind the scenes in the “Vatileaks” scandal, by saying, “On balance I consider those seven years to have been positive. Naturally there were problems, particularly in the last two years they have made many accusations against me…A mix of crows and vipers.” He added, “There were matters that got out of control because they were problems which were sealed within the management of certain people who did not contact the secretary of state.” He also remarked that “An honest assessment cannot but take note of how the secretary of state is the first assistant of the pope, a faithful executor of the tasks with which he is entrust. Something I did and will do.”
One has to feel sorry for a man who confesses, “I always gave everything but certainly I had my shortcomings and if I could relive certain moments now I would act differently. But it does not mean I did not try to serve the Church.”
Much emotional hurt lies behind this self-justification; Vatican officials are human after all. Fr Ray Blake’s blog on this topic suggests that Bertone got the blame “for much of the papacy’s disfunction and poor decision-making.” Blake describes the Vatican’s “swollen bureaucracy” as a “hotbed of conspiracy and cronyism”, adding that the former secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, whose retirement preceded Bertone’s elevation, deliberately made his successor’s role as difficult as he possibly could. The blog includes a picture of Sodano that looks straight out of a Dan Brown novel. Fr Blake is not confident that “any real clean-up” will take place in “the Vatican sewers”. More strong language.
Meanwhile the Holy Father has preached on the subject of “gossip”, likening it to murder. Now that he is, perforce, at the heart of the Vatican’s peculiar eco-system, he knows what he is talking about.