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Whither The Reform? – Amid a Move to Korea, Aftershocks in Rome

As the news-cycle already begins to immerse itself in the coming fifth anniversary of Francis' pontificate in two weeks' time, this Monday brings another inflection-point for one of the Pope's key projects – and yet again, one that leaves more questions than answers in its wake.

Topping today's batch of appointments, Papa Bergoglio named Msgr Alfred Xuereb (above left) – the 59 year-old Maltese best known for his years as deputy secretary to Benedict XVI – as Nuncio to South Korea and Mongolia, elevating him to the rank of archbishop. Yet while the pick's history with the Pope-emeritus has garnered no shortage of sentimental headlines, the move's real ramifications lie elsewhere, reaching right to the heart of both the reigning Pope's foreign policy, not to mention Francis' attempts at reform within the Vatican itself.

First, given the current drama surrounding North Korea's nuclear ambitions, even if the Nunciature in Seoul is long accustomed to being a global hotspot, in the present moment it's arguably one of the most critical postings in papal diplomacy. As the Holy See has no bilateral relations with the Communist North, Xuereb now becomes Francis' de facto legate to the whole of a divided peninsula facing the threat of an epoch-defining war, but the irony is that the new Nuncio has never served in the diplomatic corps, his career spent instead as a nuts-and-bolts administrator.

All that said, Xuereb's closeness to Francis – who inherited the Maltese as his top personal aide upon his election – portends an effectiveness of a different sort, and the archbishop-elect's background in organization could well come in handy for humanitarian efforts. Still, as each prior Nuncio to Korea since the South's democratic rebirth in the mid-1980s had come to the posting with decades of experience around the globe, the break from convention is conspicuous, all the more amid the region's backdrop today.

Beyond the fluid situation with the North, the incoming legate will face two other notable aspects in the role. First, for just the second time, South Korea's head of state – and the lead figure on any talks with Pyongyang – President Moon Jae-In, is a Catholic, part of a fold whose extraordinary rate of conversions has seen it come to comprise some 15 percent of the South's population within a matter of decades. And with the Korean Church's profile as a dynamic, mission-based outpost – its emergence into the mainstream coming in tandem with a remarkable run on building institutions of education and social service – Xuereb's arrival comes months before the 75th birthday (and hence the succession) of Seoul's Cardinal Andrew Yeom. Ergo, it'll fall to the new Nuncio to lay the groundwork of Francis' first choice to a seat that hasn't merely become one of Asian Catholicism's top pulpits, but one of the global church's most sensitive ones, to boot; with the North almost hermetically sealed off from the outside world, the last several archbishops of Seoul have likewise been tasked with pastoral oversight of the church's small, heavily-monitored remaining presence above the DMZ.

Significant and full as the Korean plate is, on the internal front, the one Xuereb leaves behind is even more charged.

After Francis took note of the Maltese's adeptness at management, by the end of 2013 the pontiff dispatched his then-secretary to undertake the studies which quickly culminated in the creation of the Secretariat of the Economy – and, with it, a seismic upending of the many-headed financial apparatus which had long been the proverbial "800-lb gorilla" of Vatican scandals.

Having tapped the Australian Cardinal George Pell to lead the new organ as the Holy See's first-ever "CFO," armed with a sweeping mandate to wrest all its fiscal, budgetary and personnel operations under his control, Francis named Xuereb as his deputy. And now, after a four-year turf-war saw no shortage of wrenches thrown into the works, both are literally gone: while still holding the title of Prefect, Pell has been in Australia since last July after he was charged there on decades-old allegations of unspecified "sexual offenses," which are slated to come to trial in his home-state of Victoria next month.

Regardless of the outcome of the court process, the hostilities aroused by the famously hard-charging Pell's full-on battle for financial supremacy, combined with the stain of the abuse claims and the 76 year-old Aussie's prior complaints of difficult health, have virtually assured that the cardinal won't be returning to Rome. To avoid the appearance of a rush to judgment by the Vatican, however, any successor to him as Prefect for the Economy ostensibly wouldn't be named until after his trial concludes.

Meanwhile, no successor in Xuereb's Economy role was named today, either, leaving Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – the chair of the 15-person Council which supervises the office – as the last man standing of the three main figures to whom the reform was entrusted, the other lead posts (and only full-time ones) now lacking functioning occupants.

Again, today's move brings more questions than answers... but as Francis' 5th comes increasingly into focus and the assessments abound, one of his marquee attempts at a Roman shakeup was just dealt a sizable blow, and maybe even a fatal one.

Together with another diplomat elevated today – Msgr José Bettencourt, 54, a Portuguese-born immigrant to Canada named a Nuncio without posting (thus to remain in Rome) – Xuereb is expected to be ordained a bishop by Francis on March 19th: St Joseph's Day, and with it the fifth anniversary of the Pope's inauguration as the church's Universal Pastor.


For These 40 Days, Francis Pushes "Pause"

Even as this Ash Wednesday invariably draws the hordes to churches across the globe from dawn to well past dusk, for the Popes, the launch to Lent is always relatively sparse.

For some eight centuries, the Bishops of Rome have marked this day away from their daily centers of power – first the Lateran, then the Vatican – instead heading up the Aventine Hill for a penitential procession that, in times past, saw the pontiffs stripped of their splendor, wrapping up with a simple Mass at the Dominican base of Santa Sabina, the first of the traditional station churches.

Further marking the sobriety of the day, protocol dictates that the Pope wears the traditional "simplex" miter reserved to him – unadorned white silk, with a thin border in gold – only employed in life on this day, Good Friday and at funerals: most notably of all, the headpiece in which he will eventually be buried. (On this front, Francis has slightly altered the custom, alternating between the customary model and one trimmed in silver, the latter used today.) In addition, while the cardinals resident in the city are present as ever for the rite, the starkness of the occasion sees none of them concelebrate.

While last week saw the release of this year's formal Lenten message calling for a turn away from indifference, today's homily took an even more practical look at how to live these 40 Days, delivered in Francis' oft-used style of "three words" – here, its English translation:
The season of Lent is a favourable time to remedy the dissonant chords of our Christian life and to receive the ever new, joyful and hope-filled proclamation of the Lord’s Passover. The Church in her maternal wisdom invites us to pay special attention to anything that could dampen or even corrode our believing heart.

We are subject to numerous temptations. Each of us knows the difficulties we have to face. And it is sad to note that, when faced with the ever-varying circumstances of our daily lives, there are voices raised that take advantage of pain and uncertainty; the only thing they aim to do is sow distrust. If the fruit of faith is charity – as Mother Teresa often used to say – then the fruit of distrust is apathy and resignation. Distrust, apathy and resignation: these are demons that deaden and paralyze the soul of a believing people.

Lent is the ideal time to unmask these and other temptations, to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus. The whole of the Lenten season is imbued with this conviction, which we could say is echoed by three words offered to us in order to rekindle the heart of the believer: pause, see and return.

Pause a little, leave behind the unrest and commotion that fill the soul with bitter feelings which never get us anywhere. Pause from this compulsion to a fast-paced life that scatters, divides and ultimately destroys time with family, with friends, with children, with grandparents, and time as a gift… time with God.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the need to show off and be seen by all, to continually appear on the “noticeboard” that makes us forget the value of intimacy and recollection.

Pause for a little while, refrain from haughty looks, from fleeting and pejorative comments that arise from forgetting tenderness, compassion and reverence for the encounter with others, particularly those who are vulnerable, hurt and even immersed in sin and error.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the urge to want to control everything, know everything, destroy everything; this comes from overlooking gratitude for the gift of life and all the good we receive.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the attitude which promotes sterile and unproductive thoughts that arise from isolation and self-pity, and that cause us to forget going out to encounter others to share their burdens and suffering.

Pause for a little while, refrain from the emptiness of everything that is instantaneous, momentary and fleeting, that deprives us of our roots, our ties, of the value of continuity and the awareness of our ongoing journey.

Pause in order to look and contemplate!

See the gestures that prevent the extinguishing of charity, that keep the flame of faith and hope alive. Look at faces alive with God’s tenderness and goodness working in our midst.

See the face of our families who continue striving, day by day, with great effort, in order to move forward in life, and who, despite many concerns and much hardship, are committed to making their homes a school of love.

See the faces of our children and young people filled with yearning for the future and hope, filled with “tomorrows” and opportunities that demand dedication and protection. Living shoots of love and life that always open up a path in the midst of our selfish and meagre calculations.

See our elderly whose faces are marked by the passage of time, faces that reveal the living memory of our people. Faces that reflect God’s wisdom at work.

See the faces of our sick people and the many who take care of them; faces which in their vulnerability and service remind us that the value of each person can never be reduced to a question of calculation or utility.

See the remorseful faces of so many who try to repair their errors and mistakes, and who from their misfortune and suffering fight to transform their situations and move forward.

See and contemplate the face of Crucified Love, who today from the cross continues to bring us hope, his hand held out to those who feel crucified, who experience in their lives the burden of failure, disappointment and heartbreak.

See and contemplate the real face of Christ crucified out of love for everyone, without exception. For everyone? Yes, for everyone. To see his face is an invitation filled with hope for this Lenten time, in order to defeat the demons of distrust, apathy and resignation. The face that invites us to cry out: “The Kingdom of God is possible!”

Pause, see and return. Return to the house of your Father. Return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy (cf. Eph 2:4), who awaits you.

Return without fear, for this is the favourable time to come home, to the home of my Father and your Father (cf. Jn 20:17). It is the time for allowing one’s heart to be touched… Persisting on the path of evil only gives rise to disappointment and sadness. True life is something quite distinct and our heart indeed knows this. God does not tire, nor will he tire, of holding out his hand (cf. Misericordiae Vultus, 19).

Return without fear, to join in the celebration of those who are forgiven.

Return without fear, to experience the healing and reconciling tenderness of God. Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfil the prophecy made to our fathers: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36: 26).

Pause, see and return!