VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday opened the most critical week of his year-old papacy: Two commissions of inquiry on Vatican finance are reporting their recommendations for reform and preparations get underway for a summit on family issues that will deal with the widespread rejection by Catholics of church teaching on contraception, divorce and gay unions.
In between, Francis will preside over his first ceremony to formally welcome 19 new cardinals into the elite club of churchmen who will eventually elect his successor. In typical Francis style, the new cardinals hail from some of the poorest places on earth, including Haiti, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
The first half of Francis' busy week is being devoted to the third meeting of his "Group of Eight" advisers, the senior cardinals representing every continent who Francis appointed to help him govern the church and overhaul the antiquated and inefficient Vatican bureaucracy.
On Monday, the G8, the pope and his No. 2 heard recommendations from a panel of experts on rationalizing the Holy See's overall financial and administrative structures. On Tuesday, they will hear from the commission of inquiry studying how to reform the troubled Vatican bank.
Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia, as the Holy See administration is known, to make it more responsive to the needs of the 21st-century Catholic Church. He wants to make the curia more of a support to bishops trying to spread the faith rather than an obstacle, and this week's meetings are a clear indication that improving the Vatican's financial structures is a core piece of that reform.
Francis has placed particular priority on overhauling the scandal-marred Vatican bank, long accused by Italian authorities as being an off-shore tax haven for well-connected Italians and, more recently, a place where money could be laundered.
On the eve of the G8 meeting, the head of the Vatican bank pleaded his case to Francis' hometown newspaper, telling Argentina's La Nacion daily that his process of reform hadn't yielded any "systematic violations" of the Vatican's anti-money laundering laws but just some "black sheep."
One of those black sheep is Monsignor Nunzio Scarano, an accountant in the Vatican's finance ministry who is currently on trial for allegedly trying to smuggle 20,000 euro ($26,000) from Switzerland to Italy, and is also accused in another case of using his Vatican bank accounts to launder money. The bank's top two managers resigned in July after Scarano was arrested.
"We're in a crucial moment," the bank president, Ernst Von Freyberg, told La Nacion. "The (bank) commission will hand in its report in the coming days, as will the commission on the economic affairs, and then the Holy Father will decide what to do."
Von Freyberg, Benedict XVI's last major appointment before resigning, outsourced his reform to the U.S. consulting firm Promontory Group. The other commission of inquiry, tasked with advising the Holy See on more structural reforms in its overall financial and administrative sphere, also brought in outside experts, tapping McKinsey & Co. to help modernize its communications operations and KPMG to bring its accounting up to international standards.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, cautioned against expectations that any decisions would be made this week or even in the near term.
On a slightly more accelerated timetable are plans for the October meeting of bishops at the Vatican on family issues. A broader group of cardinals are expected to discuss the summit, or synod, in the second half of the week and then the main planning group gets down to work early next week.
Francis called the synod late last year and took the unusual step of commissioning surveys from bishops conferences around the world to ask ordinary Catholics about how they understand and practice church teaching on marriage, sex and other issues related to the family.
The results, at least those reported by bishops in Europe and the United States, have been an eye-opener: The church's core teachings on sexual morals, birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce were rejected as unrealistic and outdated by the vast majority of Catholics, who nevertheless said they were active in parish life and considered their faith vitally important.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper has been tasked with delivering an opening speech to the group on Thursday — an indication that the cardinals and pope will get an unfiltered view of this reality when it comes up for discussion this week.
Germany's bishops delivered some of the most startlingly blunt results from the survey, saying: "The church's statements on premarital sexual relations, on homosexuality, on those divorced and remarried and on birth control ... are virtually never accepted, or are expressly rejected in the vast majority of cases."
Francis greatly admires Kasper, who was the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer for nearly a decade. During his first Sunday noon blessing as pope, Francis praised Kasper by name, saying he was a terrific theologian who had just written a great book on mercy.
Lombardi declined to say why Kasper had been asked to open Thursday's meeting. He said Kasper was an esteemed, experienced cardinal and that he would wait to hear what Kasper had to say before commenting further.