While the Synod of Bishops on the Family was being conducted in Rome last October, the revelation of a letter expressing the concerns of 13 cardinals over the proceedings marked a turning point in the event. As I reported at the time, it was on 8 October, 2015, that a close friend of the pope himself – the La Stampa journalist Andrea Tornielli – first publicly mentioned the existence of the 13 Cardinals Letter, which had been given to Pope Francis three days earlier by George Cardinal Pell. The cardinals’ main concern was that the Synod was being manipulated in an unorthodox direction with the help of new Synod rules and the placement of questionable prelates in important synodal positions. Tornielli’s own treatment of the letter was dismissive, implying that the cardinals’ concerns were unfounded, and thus, little better than conspiracy theories that should be ignored.
On 12 October, the well-informed Vatican expert Sandro Magister published a full version of the letter in order to give the public a just assessment of what these prominent cardinals – among them the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith himself, Cardinal Gerhard Müller – were saying, and whether or not their concerns were valid. (At the time, Magister’s Vatican press credentials were revoked; it appears that his contacts within the Apostolic See were not.)
Word soon spread that the same day the letter was made public, Pope Francis unleashed an angry public outburst against its authors. The first reports of the spectacle were published by journalist Roberto d’Agostino, founder of the Italian tabloid website Dagospia. The site — known for interspersing news with salacious gossip and lewd pictures — is not fitting to receive a link from a Catholic publication. But the story was soon picked up by the more reputable Italian daily, il Giornale. These early reports indicated that during the evening of 12 October, after learning of Magister’s publication of the letter, the Holy Father fell into a fit of rage at his residence at Casa Santa Marta — in front of some priests and bishops then present. He was said to have shouted, “If this is the case, they [the 13 cardinals] can leave. The Church does not need them. I will throw them all out!”
At the time of this report, I contacted one of the editors with whom I was then working, and his reaction was that it came from a gossip website and that he did not believe the story. With nothing further to go on, I dropped it.
Last December, however, several other incidents brought this topic back to mind. First, I received an email from a priest friend who, after a recent visit to Italy, shared with me that during his visit he had heard from several sources about the incident at Santa Marta. This priest then put me in contact with another priest — an Italian — whom, for the sake of anonymity I will call Fr. Giuseppe. It was Fr. Giuseppe who had personally told my priest friend about the incident. Fr. Giuseppe responded to own my inquiry as follows:
Greetings! The incident certainly appears to be true. I have heard from several second-hand sources who know people who were present that the Holy Father had a terrible outburst in the dining room at Santa Marta in front of bishops, priests, seminarians and many others. He was apparently screaming “Full power has been given to me! I run the show around here. Who do these cardinals think they are? I will remove their [red] hats.” He was so angry that he almost fainted; some say he almost had a heart attack. People were shocked, and the news spread like wildfire in certain circles in Rome.
As a journalist, I wanted more to go on, so I asked if Fr. Giuseppe would contact those those with whom he had spoken who had first-hand sources. Would any of them, I asked, be willing to write down carefully and accurately what they had witnessed, even if only anonymously?
The unanimous response was a resounding, “No.” All of these eye-witnesses appeared to be too afraid even to write an anonymous account of what had transpired! Father Giuseppe was unwilling to let it go. He also had several contacts who live at Casa Santa Marta. Surely, these must have been present in the dining room when Pope Francis spoke, or had at least have heard about what happened? Their response to his question was not to deny it, but only to change the topic. Their unwillingness to confirm it was telling, but their refusal to deny it even moreso.
Father Giuseppe assured me, however, that the story about the papal outburst of anger is now known everywhere in Rome, a city “where there are no secrets; it is too small a place for that.”
I later mentioned the story to a nun of my acquaintance who lives not far from Rome, who has many important and trustworthy contacts in the Vatican. She immediately responded affirmatively, saying: “Oh, yes, I have heard about it, too.” She said that yet another priest had related the story to her, “just after the Synod was over.”
Before publishing this article, I sent a draft of it to two well-informed sources in Rome whom I very much respect. One of them confirmed that he, too, has heard of the story from different people but that he also could not find anyone willing to give a first-hand account. He considers this story to be probable and in line with Pope Francis’ character and conduct. He said, and here I quote him anonymously, but with his permission:
I have heard the same kind of things, from different sources; but I have not been able to find somebody who witnessed the event and was willing to speak about it. Confidentially: I think that it is very likely that the accident was true, considering the character of the Pope and the kind of public reactions he had later.
The other source, Marco Ansaldo of the Italian liberal newspaper La Repubblica, thought the article was accurately written, but he doubted the words of Pope Francis as quoted by Father Giussepe, saying that it does not sound like Pope Francis and adding that Pope Francis would not act like this even when angry. (Father Giuseppe, as we know, had the words from second-hand sources, so it is probable that even if the story is true, they were not an exact account of what was said, but merely descriptive of the tone.) Ansaldo wrote:
I read your article, which is interesting and accurate in the way is reported. The story on the discomfort of the Pope regarding the letter written by the 13 Cardinals could be reliable. But what seems untrue to me are the words of Francis quoted by Father [Giuseppe]. Bergoglio is not expressing himself in that manner. Those are not his common words. Never. And, that the one that is now described is not his way of behaving, even when he could be angry.
This entire story, though widely corroborated through various sources in a position to know, has been impossible to verify definitively. It seems that once again, an atmosphere of fear, and of concerns over papal reprisal, keeps people unwilling to go on the record about what they witnessed. We know that Pope Francis is unafraid to make enemies; he has been described as deeply autocratic; his removal of Cardinal Burke in the wake of the latter’s defense of traditional Catholic teaching on marriage has been described by some as “punitive”; and we have of course seen the atmosphere of fear of papal retribution described elsewhere, perhaps most memorably in the recently-published Open Letter to Pope Francis, composed by a former high-ranking member of the Curia. Another important witness which Sandro Magister recently published was also released by an anonymous author, out of fear for reprisals against the his testimony.
What is the whole truth about this matter? Why has there been so much fear and timidity, so much self-censorship and reticence?
The Vatican has ever been a source of rumor and intrigue, where matters of politics obscure the very fullness of truth that is, perhaps ironically, found only in the Catholic Faith. The answers to these questions are worth knowing, not for satisfying a need for idle gossip, but because they directly indicate the direction of the Church under the present pontificate, and offer insight into just what the Synod agenda truly was, and who was behind it. They may very well also help us to understand why so few bishops have spoken up against the more troubling things that have taken place in Rome since 13 March, 2013.
For the truth to come out, men of courage must come forward. Are there any such men left in Rome?
Editor’s note: the original article has been updated to include two quotes (the first from an anonymous source, the second from Marco Ansaldo), as well as an additional link to a recently-published article by Sandro Magister. The rest of the text remains unaltered.