Sainte-Marthe, room 201, another office of the Pope (1/5)

The joke was launched at the end of one of the lunches focusing on life in Vatican Rome. “I bet that in Sainte-Marthe he has a control room with screens and microphones to see and hear what is being said everywhere! He knows everything about everything. » Our interlocutor, who is very familiar with the mysteries of the Holy See, humorously interprets a widely shared feeling: no one can escape Francis, who wields an iron rule.

In this restaurant in the Borgo, the district bordering the Vatican, or more discreetly in the center of Rome, the decisions of the pope and the life of the Curia are the subject of endless commentary. And to this chorus of murmurs the same observation always returns, like an antiphon. Far from the happy and smiling image he shows in his public appearances, the Argentine pope is above all a man of authority. Many people have experienced this. His choices, once made, are not contested. So much so that one adjective comes up systematically to describe his style: vertical.

Informal network

There is a paradox here. It is rare in recent history that a pope consults carefully before making his decisions. But his method is unique. He will listen to his services, of course. But he also has – and this is the originality of François – many personal sources. An informal network that maintains direct relations with him, and that feeds his reflection, bypassing the filter of the all-powerful Secretariat of State, which plays the role of a control tower.

Dad is used to directing impromptu phone calls. This is not without creating some incidents. One of his contacts – a national of a country at war living in Rome – recalls his surprise when one morning his phone rang: “Do you have someone to come and see me tomorrow in Sainte-Marthe, at 5 in the afternoon? » This is François, in person. The man went there the next day, but when he reported to members of the Vatican Gendarmerie stationed at Porta del Perugino, none of them knew about it. You should call the pope’s personal secretariat to make sure he has an appointment.

In the small office in room 201, the pope works and consults: after the official audience in the morning at the Apostolic Palace, he receives every afternoon for work appointments. The list of whom he will meet there is never made public. During these meetings, with politicians, economists, journalists or activists, François speaks little, taking notes.

“Visitors to Sainte-Marthe”

When he studied his files, François crossed the sources and did not leave the Curia alone the privilege of informing him. This monopoly ended shortly after his election, when he decided to move to Sainte-Marthe. On that day, what was once just a residence for Vatican officials became a place of power in its own right.

In the Apostolic Palace where the members of the Secretariat of State work, but also in other dicasteries distributed widely around Saint Peter’s Square, the feeling of “double” aroused confusion and resentment. Those who occupy these offices are accustomed to systematically participate in papal decisions. From now on, it is common to hear them reprimanded “Visitors to Sainte-Marthe”. They complained as much as they envied them, just as others in Paris resented the influence of the “night guests” on the Elysée.

“We don’t really understand how decisions are made,” said, somewhat confused, a priest who has worked in the Curia for ten years. “These are the chef’s surprises!” », said another, smiling. Surprises that feed a kind of mutual distrust.

The list of short circuits is long. We can no longer count the decisions that the Curia knows about by reading the newspapers. This is especially the case of many interviews given in recent months to the Italian and Argentinian media. The dicastery for communication, which the pope is theoretically charged with promoting his action, for example was never involved in the speeches Francis gave in May of Corriere della Sera, nor in the television interview broadcast by RAI on Good Friday. Nor in the big interview at the beginning of July with the Vaticanist agency Reuters.

When the pope announced in October, during an audience given to Catholic and Orthodox theologians, his decision to proclaim Saint Irenaeus of Lyon a doctor of the Church, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, even yet who manages the file, is not warned.

Vertical operation

But it is about the war in Ukraine that this single rider raises many questions. On February 25, the day after the invasion, Francis went to the Russian embassy near the Holy See, alone with his driver. A visit in which almost no one was informed in the Vatican, including the top diplomatic officials.

Since the beginning of the conflict, he called Elisabetta Piqué, special correspondent for the Argentine newspaper, several times a week. The Country in Ukraine – and a long time friend – to get information on the ongoing war… in addition to what was given by the Apostolic Nuncio in kyiv, whose first job was precisely to inform the Holy Pope.

This vertical operation began on March 19. This Saturday, when no one expected it, the pope published a document on which he worked for seven years: the new apostolic constitution. The document is supposed to freeze the stone of the reform of the Curia, one of the key points of the “program” in which the pope was elected by the cardinals in April 2013. No one in Rome knows about this publication. True, a press conference was planned, but only two days later. Also, when the 54-page document was sent to reporters at 12 noon, there was general surprise.

The Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was traveling to Dubai, where he left to inaugurate the pavilion of the Holy See at the Universal Exhibition, was not announced until less than an hour later.

For those in charge of communication with the pope, they only knew about it twenty minutes before noon… leaving them enough time to go home and work, with no time to read the text itself. “The Pope wants to prevent any obstruction of the Secretariat of State”, believes a Roman source, who acknowledges that some services may hinder the text, explaining that such and such a point cannot be used.

Avoid the resistances of the Curia

Those in Rome who seek to explain this “verticality” of Francis consider it a necessity. This way of doing things allowed him to avoid opposition on the part of the Curia, an administration by nature reluctant to change. Benedict XVI opposed it at the end of his pontificate, especially during the VatiLeaks scandal. The leaked documents contributed to his rejection.

“I remember a meeting with Benedict XVI, between the announcement of his resignation and his actual departure, says a former head of a dicastery. We were a whole group then. During the conversation, we shared a problem that we wrote to him. Then he told us that he answered us a few days ago. However, we have not yet received the answer! We realized afterwards that someone had blocked it and it was never sent. » A few years ago, one of the pope’s relatives observed, clearly: “If he doesn’t resist, he won’t govern. Without this verticality, he will be taken on a trip. »

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The house of Sainte-Marthe

An ecclesiastical hotel located within the walls of the Vatican, the Domus Sanctae Marthae (house of Saint Martha) was commissioned in 1994 by John Paul II. Its 129 rooms are mostly occupied by members of the Curia. But when there is a conclave, everyone must evacuate the area for a few days and leave their room to the cardinals who come from all over the world to elect the next pope. This house guarantees, during the conclave, total confidentiality on the days on which the future pope will be elected. It is managed by the Daughters of Charity of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul.

Pope Francis has lived since his election in room 201 of the residence, on the second floor. In addition to a spacious room, this so-called “pontifical” suite includes a large office, a reception room and a small entrance room. He eats there alone or with passing guests.

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