‘FOBs’ driving the train under Pope Francis
by John L Allen Jr.
by John L Allen Jr.
During the Clinton administration, American politics developed a new bit of argot: “FOB,” meaning “friend of Bill,” an intimate of the president who enjoyed access to the corridors of power and perhaps helped shape his agenda.
Today Catholicism has its own emerging “FOB” class, in this case standing for “friend of Bergoglio.” The reference is to those with personal ties to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known to the world as Pope Francis, who could be positioned to influence his papacy.
The degree to which those friends have the pope’s ear makes the Vatican’s official chain of command less revealing these days about who’s driving the train in the Catholic Church than, say, the pontiff’s Facebook account. (That is, it would be if Francis were actually on Facebook.)
The latest FOB to pop up is Giovanni Traettino, leader of the Protestant “Evangelical Church of Reconciliation.” The Vatican announced this week that Francis will travel July 28 to the southern Italian city of Caserta to see Traettino, who became friends with Bergoglio a decade ago while serving in Argentina.
In Caserta, Francis will join Evangelicals and Catholics for prayer at Traettino’s church. Though not unprecedented, it will mark one of just a handful of occasions when a pope has ventured into a Protestant church to pray.
The trip is part of a recent pattern of outreach from Francis to the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds, in each case driven by people he knows.
In January, Francis sent a video message to a conference led by American Pentecostal Kenneth Copeland in which the pope offered a “spiritual hug.” That prompted a group of Evangelicals and Pentecostals to visit Rome, an event capped off when the pontiff and televangelist James Robison high-fived over the need for Christians to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
“God has begun the miracle of unity,” Francis said in his video, quoting Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni that “God never begins a miracle he does not finish well.”
As it turns out, the video was a byproduct of a FOB. An Anglican Evangelical and charismatic named Bishop Tony Palmer, who had become friends with Bergoglio in Argentina, visited him in Rome earlier in January, and told him about Copeland’s gathering, prompting Francis to volunteer to send greetings.
As for Traettino, he got to know Bergoglio through an Argentine movement called “Renewed Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Spirit.” In 2006, Bergoglio took part in a prayer service sponsored by the movement that drew 7,000 people to Luna Park in Buenos Aires, a venue ordinarily used for boxing matches.
At one stage, Bergoglio knelt and allowed himself to be prayed over by some 20 Protestant clergy. That act led disgruntled traditionalist Catholics to declare the see of Buenos Aires “vacant” on the grounds that it was occupied by a heretic, but the future pope was undaunted.
Francis’ tendency to set policy through friendships is clear across a range of issues.
On Catholic/Jewish relations, no one has more influence than Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of a Jewish seminary in Buenos Aires with whom Bergoglio co-authored a 2010 book and produced a 30-episode TV talk show. Similarly, with Islam, Francis relies on his friend Omar Abboud, former director of an Islamic center in Buenos Aires.
Friendship is also the heart of Francis’ media relations strategy, such as it is. The sit-down interviews he’s given haven’t been arranged through official channels, but have come either with friends or through friends.
Jorge Himitian, another Argentine Evangelical FOB, told the Globe’s Inés San Martín on Thursday that Bergoglio and his circle see friendship as the key to ecumenical progress.
“We’ve learned that the institutional road . . . always becomes a dead end because it runs into doctrinal and practical differences,” Himitian said.
“The dialogue we have is based on friendship and spirituality,” he said. “We hope that the rest will eventually fall into place.”
To be sure, this reliance on friendship has its down side.
For one thing, people who could help the pope on many issues find themselves at a significant disadvantage if they’re not already inside his circle. Deference to friends may also mean that Francis feels obliged to act on their suggestions, even if they’re half-baked, and it runs the risk that friends may oversell their access or misrepresent the pope’s intentions.
Twice, for instance, the pontiff has sat down with a 90-year-old Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, whom Francis considers a chum, and twice the Vatican has had to distance Francis from the fallout. The latest case came July 13, when Scalfari hinted that Francis was about to jettison priestly celibacy and a Vatican spokesman had to walk it back.
For good or ill, however, relationships matter to this pope. The primary reason he opted to live in the Santa Marta hotel rather than the papal apartment, for instance, is because he craves the company of other people.
For those seeking progress on issues such as ecumenism and relations with Jews and Muslims, therefore, the good news is that Francis is not driven merely by abstract conviction. He’s fueled by friendship, which with this pope is akin to saying he’s “all in.”