TIME diplomacy

The Vatican Helped Seal U.S.-Cuba Deal

Hosted secret talks between the two nations

The Vatican played a key role in securing the release of an American contractor held in Cuba for five years and in setting the stage for a cooling of relations between the two countries, officials said Wednesday.

Pope Francis encouraged the neighbors, who have not had diplomatic relations since the rise of Fidel Castro in 1961, to negotiate a deal, and even hosted secret talks at the Vatican between the two nations, Obama Administration officials said. Canada hosted many of the negotiations, until the final meeting at the Vatican.

The deal to release Alan Gross was finalized in a call between President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, but Obama noted that the Vatican was instrumental in brokering the make-up.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States, and also encouraging the united states and cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” an official said, calling the papal letter “very rare. … The Vatican then hosted the U.S. and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

MORE: What to know about Alan Gross

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller / Washington

TIME Foreign Policy

How Pope Francis Helped Broker Cuba Deal

Pope Attends His Weekly Audience In St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis on Dec. 3, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

President Obama thanked Pope Francis for his role in negotiating a more open policy on Cuba and the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross from Cuban custody.

In a 15-minute speech announcing that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba, Obama said that the pope helped spur the change and personally thanked him. The Vatican then released a statement noting that the Vatican hosted delegations from both countries in October to negotiate the deal after Pope Francis had written to both leaders.

A senior administration official said that the appeal from the Pope was “very rare” and unprecedented.

“Pope Francis personally issued an appeal in a letter that he sent to President Obama and to President Raul Castro calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship,” said the official. “The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations where we were able to review the commitments that we are making today.”

American officials have also noted Francis’ deep familiarity with the Americas, being the first pope from the continent. The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward,” a white House official said. “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discuss.”

The move is perhaps Pope Francis’ boldest foreign policy move yet, but it is not his first.

• He showed letter-writing prowess in September 2013, when he wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin, host of the G-20 Summit which Obama was attending, urging world leaders and the United States to oppose a military intervention in Syria.

• After visiting Bethlehem and Jerusalem in May, Pope Francis hosted both Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican for a joint prayer service for Middle East Peace.

• When he visited South Korea in August, he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the papal plane crossed into Chinese airspace—a historic step toward improved relations since the last time a pope visited East Asia, Chinese officials did not allow the plane to fly over Chinese territory.

When it comes to Cuba, Pope Francis is continuing the work of his predecessors. Just over half the Cuban population is Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and the Vatican stepped up its relations with the country over the past two decades. In 1998, Pope John Paul II became the first pope to visit Cuba. Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba in 2012. At an outdoor mass, he urged Cuba to “build a renewed and open society, a better society, one more worthy of humanity and which better reflects the goodness of God.”

The announcement of the Vatican’s role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations is particularly noteworthy as Pope Francis plans his first trip to the United States in September 2015. The Vatican has not said whether or not Pope Francis will travel to Cuba or other US cities on that trip.

TIME faith

Vatican Report Finds American Nuns are a Graying Workforce

US-RELIGION-POPE-MASS
Nuns pray during a mass in celebration of Pope Benedict XVI at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York, Feb. 28, 2013. Emmanuel Dunand—AFP/Getty Images

Nuns express "great concern" about declining numbers, average age in mid-70s

American nuns have expressed “great concern” about their aging workforce, according to a Vatican survey released Tuesday that finds nuns in the U.S. are advancing in age and declining in number.

Vatican surveyors sent questionnaires and conducted “sister-to-sister” dialogues at 341 Catholic institutions across the United States. They found that nuns had reached an average age of mid-to-late 70’s, opening up an ever-widening age gap with fresh recruits. The report also noted that the total number of apostolic women, at 50,000, had declined by 125,000 since the the mid-1960s.

“Many sisters expressed great concern during the Apostolic Visitation for the continuation of their charism and mission, because of the numerical decline in their membership,” the Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Religious Women in the United States of America said.

The report also upended expectations that it would take a more critical stance of American nuns for a rising “secular mentality” and “a certain ‘feminist’ spirit,” as one Vatican official warned in 2009, Crux reports.

Instead, the report largely praised American nuns for their “dedicated and selfless service.”

 

TIME

Vatican Discovers Hundreds of Millions of Dollars That Were ‘Tucked Away’

Cardinals listen to Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 20, 2014.
Cardinals listen to Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 20, 2014. Max Rossi—Reuters

Pope Francis is pushing for more financial transparency in the Vatican

The Vatican’s economy minister says that the Vatican has discovered hundreds of millions of dollars that were previously “tucked away” in various departments.

In an article to be published Friday in Britain’s Catholic Herald, Cardinal George Pell writes that Vatican reformers had uncovered the funds in a push for transparency among some 200 separate Vatican entities, though he did not suggest wrongdoing. The findings, he wrote, have helped boost Vatican finances.

“In fact, we have discovered that the situation is much healthier than it seemed, because some hundreds of millions of euros were tucked away in particular sectional accounts and did not appear on the balance sheet,” Bell writes.

Pope Francis has made reforming the Vatican’s finances a priority since he was elected in 2013. Earlier this year, he named Pell, an Australian Cardinal, head of the new Secretariat for the Economy.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Says Children Have a Right to a Father and a Mother

VATICAN-POPE
Pope Francis kisses a baby during an audience with members of the Association of Italian Catholic Doctors at Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican on Nov. 15, 2014. Filippo Monteforte—AFP/Getty Images

The statement seems at odds with the Vatican leader's push to make the church more accepting of nontraditional families

Pope Francis caused quite a stir on Monday with a statement that was criticized as a rolling back of his much lauded attempts to make the Catholic Church more inclusive of the LGBT community.

“Children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother,” said the Pope during a speech at the Complementarity of Man and Woman conference in Rome.

The statement, made to the attending conservative religious leaders around the world, was the only concrete reference the Pope made to heterosexuality, with the rest of the speech remaining largely ambiguous on the concept of complementarity between man and woman.

Many religious leaders present at the conference took this to mean an unequivocal support of traditional families. “Pope Francis made clear that male/female complementarity is essential to marriage and cannot be revised by contemporary ideologies,” Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention tweeted.

However, the Pontiff’s announcement at the conclusion of his speech that he will attend Philadelphia’s World Meeting of the Families in September was conversely deemed a nod toward more acceptance of nontraditional families.

Sister Simone Campbell, an advocate on various social-justice issues who has taken on the church in the past, predicted that there would be several nontraditional families present at the Philadelphia conference. “He’s bringing in the various realities and letting people speak for themselves, and that creates change,” Campbell told the Washington Post. “He’s opening hearts. He’s not changing definitions.”

TIME faith

Pope Francis Confirms U.S. Visit in 2015

The pope will attend the triennial World Meeting of Families

Pope Francis has confirmed he will travel to the U.S. next year to attend a gathering in the city of Brotherly Love, marking his first visit to the U.S. as pontiff.

“I wish to confirm according to the wishes of the Lord, that in September of 2015, I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families,” Pope Francis said Monday, according to Vatican Radio. “Thank you for your prayers with which you accompany my service to the Church. Bless you from my heart.”

The World Meeting of Families is a triennial gathering and claims to be the world’s largest meeting of Catholic families. It will be held Sept. 22-27, with the Pope set to attend the final weekend events. During his visit, the pope will host a mass at the close of the event in Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Details of his visit, however, have not been finalized.

“A hallmark of his papacy has been a keen focus on the many challenges that families face today globally,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. “I believe that the presence of the Holy Father will bring all of us –Catholic and non-Catholic alike – together in tremendously powerful, unifying and healing ways.”

Pope Francis hinted he’d be traveling to the U.S. in 2015 in August, but it had yet to be confirmed.

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Demotes Outspoken Conservative Cardinal

Raymond Burke Pope Francis
Archbishop of St. Louis cardinal Raymond Leo Burke attends Palm Sunday Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on April 13, 2014. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Cardinal Raymond Burke was the Vatican's highest ranking American

Pope Francis has demoted a conservative American cardinal who has criticized his leadership of the Catholic Church.

The pontiff removed Cardinal Raymond Burke as the leader of the Vatican’s highest court and appointed him to a ceremonial position as chaplain of the Knights of Malta, a charity group, according to a press bulletin issued Saturday.

That is a significant demotion, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “The position of Patron of the the Order of Malta is usually given to a retired cardinal, or as a second task to an active cardinal,” Michael Sean Winters writes. “It has almost no responsibilities.”

The move was not a surprise, as Burke, the Vatican’s highest ranking American, had said last month that he was going to have a new post.

The outspoken, conservative bishop — who pushed for the Vatican to revise and water-down its recent, tentative step toward greater acceptance of LGBT people — has butted heads with the pope since the Argentine was elected last year. Last month, he compared Pope Francis’ leadership to “a ship without a rudder” during an interview with a Spanish magazine.

TIME Religion

Vatican Official Calls Brittany Maynard’s Assisted Suicide ‘Reprehensible’

"The gesture in and of itself should be condemned"

A Vatican official condemned the planned death of Brittany Maynard on Tuesday, calling her decision to end her life rather than succumb to a terminal form of brain cancer “reprehensible.”

Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, one of the Catholic church’s leaders on bioethical issues and head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the decision to end one’s life undignified, the Associated Press reports. “Brittany Maynard’s act is in itself reprehensible,” he told the ANSA news agency. “What happened in the consciousness we do not know.”

The official stressed that he did not mean to pass judgement against Maynard herself, but rather took issue with Maynard’s argument that people faced with devastating, terminal medical conditions should have the freedom to end their lives at a time of their choosing. “The gesture in and of itself should be condemned,” Carrasco de Paula said.

[AP]

TIME faith

What the Synod Taught Us About Pope Francis: He Takes Risks

Pope Francis Leads Ordinary Public Consistory
Pope Francis, flanked by former Vatican Secretary of State cardinal Angelo Sodano arrives at the Synod Hall for ordinary public consistory on Oct. 20, 2014 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

If there is a single takeaway, it may be this

The Vatican’s synod concluded Sunday with little fanfare. The bishops in the red and pink zuchettos, or skullcaps, filtered out, many departing for their different corners of the globe. The room’s burgundy, stadium-style seats were empty. The first major policy event of the Francis papacy was a wrap.

A lot happened in that windowless room in Rome over the past two weeks. What began with the Holy Father asking more than 250 participants inside the hall to speak their minds on issues of the family ended with them giving him a five-minute standing ovation. And beyond the hall, the synod prompted a dynamic conversation about where the global Catholic Church is headed under Pope Francis’ leadership.

If there is a single takeaway, it may be this: Pope Francis showed the world that he is not afraid of making mistakes. He takes risks, and his commitment to listening allows a host of voices to rise and controversy to surface.

The first big surprise came on the first day of the second week, when Cardinal Péter Erdő of Hungary—the synod’s organizer and a man usually seen as a conservative—read aloud a mid-Synod report that to many sounded like a shift in tone on welcoming the gay community. Liberals cried victory and conservatives urged caution. Three days later, the Vatican revised the section headline “welcoming homosexual persons” to “providing for homosexual persons”—but only in English, leaving the official Italian verb the same. The drama fostered murmurings that the mid-Synod document represented just a handful of bishops’ opinions and that Pope Francis stacked the deck of bishops composing the Synod’s report with more liberal voices.

Francis played the controversy close to the chest, but he furthered his own desire for openness and discussion in three ways. First, he requested that the synod’s concluding document be published in full, so everyone could see the vote tallies and the paragraphs that did not pass the bishops’ final approval. Only three paragraphs did not pass—the paragraph that expressed welcome toward gays fell four votes short of the two-thirds majority needed for inclusion, and two paragraphs about divorced and remarried Catholics also did not pass by a slightly larger margin.

Second, Pope Francis did not shy away from difference and challenge. He reminded the bishops in his concluding speech that the synod was “a journey,” full of “running fast,” “fatigue,” “enthusiasm and ardor,” and also acknowledged it was “a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.”

Third, he showed that amidst it all he maintains a sense of humor—he wryly joked about the “welcoming” gays controversy in the same concluding speech, misusing the word “welcome” and then correcting himself.

“We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops,” Francis said in Italian, amid some laughter among the bishops. “So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.”

The Synod’s peripheral drama also shook up the traditional power players on all sides. Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany, a vocal advocate of relaxing rules about communion for the divorced and remarried, got caught in an odd interview and ensuing controversy for saying that African bishops “should not tell us too much what we have to do,” and he distanced himself from the remarks. Cardinal Raymond Burke—a conservative whom Pope Francis had already removed from the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops—confirmed to the National Catholic Reporter that he will be removed from his post as chief justice at the Vatican’s highest court, and when asked who told him he would be removed, he said, “Who do you think?”

Many of the subtleties of the event, and the esoteric ways of the church, were lost in the way the event was communicated with the world. Much of the global coverage confused the Synod’s possibilities and its outcomes. After news reports that the Vatican was announcing an historic welcome of gays, mainstream outlets were forced to walked back the news. Some blamed the Vatican for a reversal, when in fact no conclusion had even been reached. Reuters said the bishops “reversed a historic acceptance of gays, dropping parts of a controversial document that had talked more positively of homosexuals than ever before in Church history.”

It would be wrong to cast the Synod in terms of such reversals or failures—gay marriage was never on the table, and reaching consensus implies that that was this Synod’s primary goal in the first place. Francis sought from the beginning to listen, and in true Jesuit style, to learn together what issues are facing families in the changing global context.

It also became clear that not all the issues about the family got similar play. By the synod’s end, issues of sexual ethics like divorce and homosexuality remained the hot-button issues. Big challenges to family life like war, disease, migration and sexual abuse failed to make a real appearance in the concluding document.

While no one knows the future, Pope Francis is looking toward newness. “God is not afraid of new things!” he preached at the Synod’s closing mass on Sunday when he beatified Pope Paul VI. “Here is where our true strength is found. … It is so that we can live this life to the fullest—with our feet firmly planted on the ground—and respond courageously to whatever new challenges come our way.”

The challenges to newness ahead are plenty. This Synod was just the beginning of the Church’s deep dive into global family life. Next fall a larger group of bishops will gather in Rome to conclude the process this synod started, and as Pope Francis reminded the bishops in his concluding remarks on Saturday, “We still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.”

The intervening time will tell what taste this year’s gathering leaves in people’s mouths. Synods, in many ways, are like summer camps: pack a group of devotees together in a pressure cooker environment for a short but intense period of time, let thoughts and emotions run deep, and see what relationships and opinions last for the long term.

Pope Francis, for his part, is pressing on. Monday morning, he returned to the same windowless room with a new set of cardinals. The topic this time? Crises facing Christians in the Middle East.

TIME faith

Vatican Changes Draft Report Translation About Welcoming Gays

Pope Francis arrives at a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues, at the Vatican, Oct. 16, 2014.
Pope Francis arrives at a morning session of a two-week synod on family issues, at the Vatican, Oct. 16, 2014. Alessandra Tarantino—AP

"Welcoming homosexual persons” is now “Providing for homosexual persons"

The Vatican adjusted the English translation of a controversial phrase in its mid-Synod-of-the-Bishops report on Thursday, adapting “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons.”

The original Italian verb in question, accogliere, remains unchanged. Italian is the official language of the bishops’ meeting, and because the official language of the document is Italian, a Vatican spokesman explained at a press briefing, the report has technically stayed the same.

Parts of the paragraph that followed that phrase have also been updated in English. According to the Associated Press:

The first version asked if the church was capable of “welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities.” The new version asks if the church is “capable of providing for these people, guaranteeing … them … a place of fellowship in our communities.” The first version said homosexual unions can often constitute a “precious support in the life of the partners.” The new one says gay unions often constitute “valuable support in the life of these persons.”

Initial reaction suggests that the original English translations more closely follow the Italian. The change comes after press reports of a Vatican shift on teachings of marriage as between one man and one woman flooded the Western media earlier this week. In Thursday’s press briefing, a Vatican spokesperson urged media to not give too much importance to the new translation change.

Translation issues have prompted confusion at several points during the Synod so far. Summaries of Synod conversations have been relayed to the press at daily briefings in Italian, English and Spanish, and different points have been emphasized depending on the language of the person giving the briefing. Questions at the daily press briefings are also asked in a variety of languages, and usually replied to in Italian, English, Spanish or French. That means a question asked in English has been responded to in Italian, or a question in Italian could get a response in French.

A final Synod “message,” not report, is expected to be approved Saturday, according to the Vatican’s press office. The message will be composed by a group of church leaders. Pope Francis also added South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier to that group on Thursday. Napier has been critical of the initial mid-Synod report this week. “The message has gone out and it’s not a true message,” he told the press after the report was released on Monday. “Whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control.”

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