Settling scores

▪️ Settling scores ▪️ Safe to cross ▪️ And they lived happily ever after ▪️ Animated talk show

Some book titles can be quite misleading, leading you to doubt whether they are your cup of tea but then turning out to be sizzling.  Such a book is The Successor: My Memories of Benedict XVI. Dull stuff, you might think, until the Argentinian pope starts exposing the political “manoeuvres” used to sway votes during the two most recent elections of popes.

No pope in history has spoken about his relationship with his predecessor, but that is what Pope Francis does in this fascinating interview book.  The book, written as a conversation with Javier Martinez-Brocal, the correspondent for Spain’s ABC daily, contains revelations about the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict pope and the 2013 ballot in which Bergoglio himself was elected.  Pope Francis claims he was allowed to deviate from the cardinals’ oath of secrecy because he is pope.

It is clear that Pope Francis wanted to give his own personal account of his relationship with Benedict XVI, especially the exchanges between them from the day of his election on 13 March, 2013 to the day of his predecessor’s death, 31 December 2022. It appears he did not want that unique story to be told by others, least of all by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the private secretary of the eighth German pope, whose book Who Believes Is Not Alone: My Life Beside Benedict XVI, published on the day of Benedict’s funeral, with excerpts released at the time of his death, grieved Francis.

The Argentine pope says he “felt pain” that Benedict “was being used” in this way and describes the publication of the book at that time as “a lack of nobility and of humanity”. Moreover, “to publish a book that lays into me on the day of the funeral, telling things that are not true, is very sad,” Francis remarks to Mr Brocal.

In the interview with Brocal, Pope Francis speaks with great admiration and esteem for his predecessor, describing a positive coexistence between the emeritus pope and a pope in office. He characteriwes Benedict as “a holy man”, “a contemplative”, “a gentle man”, and “an authentic pastor”. He “was a meek man, and some took advantage of that,” Francis says, but “he was also strong, not weak; he was humble, he did not impose himself, and so he suffered.”

According to Pope Francis, in 2005 he was “used” by cardinals who wanted to block the election of Benedict   ̶   then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger   ̶   and managed to sway 40 out of 115 votes his way. The idea wasn’t to elect the Argentinian but rather to force a compromise candidate after knocking Ratzinger out of the running.

“They told me afterward that they didn’t want a ‘foreign pope’,” says Francis.  Not mincing his words, he makes it clear that the process wasn’t so much about the Holy Spirit inspiring cardinals as it was a cold, hard political calculus.  Francis put an end to the manoeuvring by announcing that he wouldn’t accept being pope, after which Ratzinger was elected.  “He was the only one who could be pope in that moment,” Francis said, adding that he, too, voted for Ratzinger.

In 2013, after Benedict’s resignation, there was also political manoeuvring involved. Bergoglio suspected he might be in the lead after the Spanish Cardinal Santos Abril y Castelló came running after him to ask whether Bergoglio’s ability to take on the physical rigours of the papacy, after opponents apparently had raised his health as a possible impediment to his election.

“Eminence, is it true you’re missing a lung?” Francis recounted Abril as saying, to which he replied that he had had part of one lung removed after a respiratory infection 50 years earlier.  He remembered Abril muttering: “Oh, these last-minute manoeuvres …”  It reminds me of the famous anonymous letter that sunk my late friend Lino Spiteri’s bid for the leadership of the Labour Party on the eve of the election in 1992.

In the book, Francis settles some scores with Benedict’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, whom he initially fired and then exiled from the Vatican after what he described as a series of imprudent decisions that “made life difficult for me”.  Gänswein is widely believed to have helped fuel the anti-Francis opposition during Benedict’s decade-long retirement, allowing Benedict to be used by conservatives nostalgic for his doctrinaire papacy. He was behind some of the biggest hiccups in the unusual cohabitation of two popes.

Reading reviews of the book, I was moved to observe that, just as there is a shock in finding that the same Jesus who welcomed children and fed the five thousand, not long afterwards chased the money-changers from the Temple, it is easy to be startled by the side of Pope Francis on display in this book.  There is a desert-father ferocity in the way he confronts what he spots as the bad spirit — the ‘enemy of human nature’, as St Ignatius describes it in the Spiritual Exercises — seeking to frustrate the Church’s mission on earth.

Safe to cross

Way back in November, the Minister of Transport appointed a new chairperson for the Road Safety Council.  The announcement pompously told us that the appointment had come at a “pivotal moment” in establishing the council’s legal standing.  I would say it is safe to make people cross about such bodies, given that the Council has not even met once since the chairperson’s appointment.

This has led the insurers’ lobby, through their director general Adrian Galea, to claim that road safety has been deprioritised.  Galea alleged that Transport Malta used to carry out regular road checks but had severely curtained this since November.  I’m not sure whether it was a coincidence, but a few days after publication of this report, I saw some inspectors making a great show of being busy.

Galea further claimed that the change of minister and subsequent changes at the headship of Transport Malta possibly played a role in causing the delay.  Though the rotation of people was meant to introduce new blood and inject new ideas, it might also have contributed to disruption and compromised the timely implementation of previous plans.

Photo: Transport Malta

At the same time, a road accident investigations bureau that should have been up and running in December remains in limbo.  Announced in the wake of Malta’s worst year on record for road deaths in 2022, a government document on safer transport had envisaged all necessary legal changes would be presented to parliament by the end of July 2023. Since then, there has been dead silence.

Last December, a spokesperson for the transport ministry had said the setting up of the road accident bureau was at a delicate stage “to ensure that the safety investigation process does not compromise the magisterial inquiry and vice versa”.  Sources privy to the new body’s progress said, however, that work on setting up the road safety bureau “is far from ready”.

It never ceases to amaze me how bungling policy-makers and bureaucracy make asses of themselves.  I think their motto is taken from Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado about Nothing’.  Like in the play, this Road Safety Council business seems to be replete with ineptitude, misunderstandings, and comedy.

And they lived happily ever after

It’s not often that the Press reports something happy or positive.  As journalists say, “there’s no news like bad news”.  So, reading a story about an inseparable rabbit and fox terrier who were rescued after being found abandoned, curled together in a valley on the Chadwick lakes trail, was a great way to start the day.  A video shared on social media shows the two animals comforting each other. 

“These two were seemingly dumped together, since they took shelter together and were in a state of shock,” the Malta Rangers Unit said in a Facebook post.  Subsequent to the rescue, the fox terrier and the rabbit have not left each other’s side and have been sent for medical treatment.  The fox terrier, who is only around a year old, had an ear infection and was treated for flea and tick infestation. The rabbit had mange   ̶   a flea infestation   ̶   and maggots, and also underwent treatment.

The Malta Rangers Unit and Vuċi għall-Annimali, who rescued the furry friends within 30 minutes of a report being filed by a passer-by, say they hope the pair will get homed together. Quite rightly, the rangers reminded the public that abandoning a pet is a crime. The law also states that dogs are meant to be chipped and have an ID tag on their collar.

The rescue happened on a busy day for animal welfare organisations as 27 dogs were rescued after they were found in appalling conditions.  It is suspected that, in this other incident, the dogs were being trained for fighting, which is also illegal. 

Photo: Facebook/Malta Ranger Unit

Not all animals live happily ever after when they are taken up as pets.  According to a report in the Times of Malta, many pet owners are finding they can no longer afford to care for their pets, so much so that animal sanctuaries have seen a “massive increase” in rehoming requests.  The reasons can be various, ranging from financial difficulties through moving to a new place that does not accept pets, to health reasons.

Pet food prices have increased   ̶   a pack of milk sachets that previously cost some €16, now sells at €30.  This is not price-gouging, it’s garguantan profit-taking.   Healthcare can set you back by several hundreds if not thousands.  Add to that insurance, which some owners cannot avoid if they have expensive pets; add grooming; add accommodation for the pets when the owner travels, and all of a sudden you might realise that your pet is costing you as much as a child.  No wonder, then, if the family decides to keep the pet and avoid having a child.  

Animated talk show

I love it when animals are the protagonists in films.  There’s nothing like watching an animated cartoon where the animal characters seem even more real than people.  I watched one recently on The Truth and Nothing but the Truth Channel, co-incidentally on the day of the new President’s inauguration.

The cartoon featured a parrot named Mr Max, a monkey called Curious George, and a gazelle named, well, Gazelle. The three animals were having a discussion about the appointment of the bird Jewel to preside over the animal kingdom.  The discussion was chaired by the dog Toto.

Curious George

I thought the discussion was very civil, not least because all the characters seemed to agree that Jewel would be the ideal president.  Mr Max extolled Jewel’s reputation as a bird who told it like it was.  Curious George sounded convinced that Jewel would be a president for all the animals. On the other hand Gazelle seemed to have some axe to grind.  I got the distinct impression that, if she were left to her own devices, Gazelle would have appointed herself to preside over the kingdom.

The gazelle kept complaining that some of the animals in the kingdom had had the audacity to object to her being a candidate.  She insisted she would not take it lying down. What she would do, given that two-thirds of the animals having a vote had voted for Jewel, was not immediately clear.   

Toto didn’t have a difficult job chairing the discussion.  For a start, there was no dissenting voice.  That’s why I always enjoy Toto.  He makes sure there is consensus by prohibiting any animals with the slightest inclination to dissent from appearing in his discussions.  Presumably, that’s why the channel is called The Truth and Nothing but the Truth.

Main photo: OSV News/Vatican Media

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