On the Empty Papal Chair Conspiracy

One Vatican specialist (Sandro Magister) headlined a recent article thus: The Hundred Days of Francis and the Enigma of the Empty Chair. And there it was, at the top of his and a hundred other articles, now the most famous chair in Christendom, conspicuously empty, with all around it immaculately becassocked curial cardinals, bishops and other monsignori and a few lay people. Addressing these in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, explained that the Pope was not coming because of an “urgent commitment that could not be delayed.” Well, and what’s wrong with that as an explanation? Sandro Magister was inclined to make more of it than that: “His sudden refusal to listen to the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven,” he wrote, “…is the seal on the beginning of a pontificate that is difficult to decipher.”

He was not the only one regarding that empty throne-like chair as full of symbolic meaning, though few thought of it as a refusal to listen to Beethoven’s ninth. Pictures of the “empty chair” were splashed all over the Italian press and then the internet, with pundits such as the church historian Alberto Melloni styling it a “metaphor for a rejection of imperial pomp.” Some even said it was a deliberate “snub” by the Pope of the Roman Curia. One leading Italian daily had Francis declaring “I am not a Renaissance prince,” though without quite claiming he actually used those words.

John L Allen had a simple explanation for the story: “Here’s a recipe for overinterpretation: Start with intense public fascination with a new pope and add a basic lack of substantive movement on matters of policy and personnel. Sprinkle in the coincidence of the new regime reaching its 100-day mark and mix with a slow news cycle.”

Well, if we rule out the theory of a papal snub of the curial monsignori, how about another theory: what about a curial conspiracy against the Pope? How come that photo of the empty chair became, and so quickly, such an “enigma”? How did it get itself plastered all over the Italian media? Why, as soon as it was known that the Pope wasn’t coming, wasn’t the chair simply removed before the announcement of his non-appearance was made? And why, anyway, was that big white throne placed so conspicuously in the middle of the hall, at a considerable distance from other members of the audience, as though the Pope, rather than the musicians who were to play Beethoven’s ninth, was supposed to be the real center of attention?

John L Allen has a plausible explanation for the Pope’s absence: “Papal ambassadors, or nuncios, from around the world were in Rome last week for a conference, including a session with Francis on Friday. Since he does not come out of the world of Vatican diplomacy, Francis apparently felt his time Saturday evening would be better spent getting to know these guys, given that many of them were returning to their posts Sunday afternoon or today. That familiarity is especially important given that some of them may be in line for other Vatican positions that Francis shortly will have to fill, including the all-important role of Secretary of State.

“In other words, his withdrawal from the concert may actually illustrate his work ethic more than a rejection of Renaissance ostentation.”

But what if that empty chair does, in fact, convey a message, which, if not deliberate, is still one which conveys part of who the Pope is and how he operates? The following day, he gave his regular Sunday Angelus blessing in St Peter’s Square, and told young people not to be afraid of “going against the current.” That in fact, is just what he himself was doing the previous evening, and what he has been doing ever since his election as Pope, if “the current” he has been “going against” is interpreted as how he is supposed by Vatican insiders to behave. Pope Benedict would certainly have turned up at the concert: but then, the event was probably more his kind of thing.

Father Z has an amusing take on the event: “Perhaps,” he speculates, “this is part of [Pope Francis’s] continuing deconstruction of the papal person: listening to concerts of classical music (this time, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony) is not what El Pueblo does, thus he doesn’t do it.

“Or, maybe he doesn’t like the concert thing, which was clearly organized with Benedict in mind. The other part of me, however, the Romanized part, is wondering if the Holy Father didn’t use an occasion when he knew where all of his ‘handlers’ were going to be, and how long they would be there, to have a one-on-one meeting with someone who knows what is going on in the Vatican and where the reform is most necessary. After those years in Rome I have a conspiratorial streak. Either way, the Pope is keeping everyone guessing, and—in the Curia—on edge.”

I have to admit that I find the thought of all those curial prelates, sitting there “on edge,” listening to Beethoven declaring that “aller menschen werden brueder,” and uneasily wondering what exactly Pope Francis is up to, curiously gratifying.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared June 26, 2013 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission.

Dr. William Oddie


Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    Let’s stop with the conspiracy theories,paranoia and palace intrigue. This nonsense is put forward by those who, for the past 50 years, have fashioned the mission of the Church to be about power and politics.

    If there is one recurrent theme to what Pope Francis has been saying for the past few months it is this: the Church is moribund…get off your butts and start doing what the Church is missioned to do. Go out and proclaim the gospel, gets back to basics and cut out all the bull. The Pope is saying, “Show me the charity; show me the evangelization; show me more than words.”

    You know what his absence means: “Sorry, boys, there’s work to be done. I don’t know what the rest of you are going to do with your time but I got the Lord’s work to get done.” This is a heads up to all cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laypersons.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I have a similar situation in my own archdiocese, where Archbishop Emeritus Vlazny was recently replaced by Archbishop Sample.

    I think it would be a wonderful gesture for Pope Francis to use Pope Emeritus Benedict for such purely ceremonial events, while he concentrates on the real work of cleaning up the curia.

  • Allan Daniel

    Could it not just be that the pope is heavy-handed and a bit rude? Rudeness appears to be one of his “teaching” tools. He exhibited it when he mocked the numbered bouquet of rosaries offered to him in Brazil. He has slighted everyone attached to the Latin Mass–Immediately following a period of encouragement offered by Pope Benedict. He has gone out of his way to meet and speak kindly with every motley group he can find, but has refused to open up to the SSPX.

    It is difficult to believe that Pope Francis was too engaged to attend a concert that had been planned long ago. One can hardly think he was too busy with work to attend. He really hasn’t done much of anything but act out his disapproval of just about everything that went before him.

    There is more evidence toward the pope being blundering and rude than anything else. What does one do when he suspects the pope is not up to the job? In the past we were told the Holy Spirit would take care of it all, not to worry. Well, 50 years after Vatican II we find ourselves with a church vacuumed of people, heresy taught in almost every parish, animosity among bishops and sexual perversion in high places. Universalism has become the norm in modern theology. And there are bishops and cardinals who, looking at the above list, would say, we have doing well.

    Pope Francis is making a serious mistake when he preaches returning to a simple faith without defining what the faith is. The Catholic faith today can mean just about anything. Not attending a Beethoven concert is not the way to teach the faith.

  • marcelus

    No conspiracy, what Deacon Ed Peitler mentions seems to be exactly so. They must get used to Francis and his ways. and Allan., the message was meant for the Clergy in this case, sort of “you guys go to the concert, I got work to do”

    Former Cardenal Bergoglio happens to be a classical music lover, he shared this taste with the Bishop Emertitus of New York if I remerber correctly .

    Pope Francis IS a man of action, get a move on and follow me, That’s what the absence means. You can expect a firm pastoral message that requires something from us and them as our shepperds, not just words.

    Whether our Church needs this at this time is a matter of opinion. I, bellieve so and I suppose lots of Catholics may share this.

    Teaching with words will not suffice now.

    Benedict, loved as he is, and please please do not get me wrong, had a very different way of approaching his flock, and not at all times understood, particularly in Latin America.

    THe Holy Spirit has placed this man as our leader for a reason.

    A man who had already sent in his resignation, who had quarters already reserved for him in a retirement facility for priests here in BA, a man used to battling and dealing , most of the time alone , with goverments that may not be “close” to our faith, Google that, his relations with our government in Argentina were not at all cordial.

    Fought againt the same sex marriage issue, same sex adoption, and so many other issues I can not recall.

    I know ENciclicas are on their way too, One written with Benedict and the other by Francis himself, so we can expect enlightment in the future

    In one of my former posts I mentioned that he wanted a street Church as he said and practiced here in Buenos AIres, priest out on the street reaching out.

    Different Pope, different ways

    • Allan Daniel

      Marcelus, the pope’s “message” here is not a message at all. The whole world is scratching its collective head and wondering, what the heck was that. A message has a meaning that can be understood, otherwise it is not a message. This had none. I don’t think it is too extreme to call it another one of the pope’s blunders.

      Pope Francis as a man of action is miscasting. He has done little but carp about the existing Vatican way of doing things. That is not the problem! The problem is that Catholics no longer know what to believe. They don’t know their catechism. Their bishops and priests are teaching error. Their priests are ill prepared to teach the way of Our Lord because they didn’t learn it and they don’t live it.

      With many pressing problems destroying the church, the pope offers vague suggestions about how we ought to be a poor church–again, without defining what he means by poor church. Perhaps it would do him and us good if he read Blessed Mother Teresa’s writings carefully. Whereas Teresa rightly understands the poverty within souls and the need to offer Jesus Christ as a solution, the pope appears to be offering something akin to liberation theology.

      Marcelus, isn’t it a bit absurd to laud the then Cardinal Bergogli’s support of marriage as being between a man and a woman? Good grief, he was a bishop cardinal of the Catholic Church! Sadly, his recent instructions on homosexual vs heterosexual marriage has been surprisingly few.

      This “street church” you speak of is what? If I recall, Cardinal Bergogli did nothing exceptional when he was in Buenos Aires. There were few candidates in his seminary and the moral climate was not better than in countries with fewer Catholics.

      He is our pope and we must support him with prayer. We need not support him in those areas that appear dubious and unsupported by the teachings of past popes.

      • Steve Culy

        Why is it absurd to applaud Bergogli’s support of Marriage? That is his job. He need not offer instructions or teachings, THOSE ARE ALREADY IN PLACE. (It’s OUR job to whack our fellow Catholics upside the head, use the paperback version of the CCC, btw.) His job, imho, is to be a Pastor. That is what he is doing. Would that all parish priests/bishops were out amongst the people….sort of…like…..Our Lord?

      • marcelus

        Allan , thank you for your comment.!! Agreed, we need to pray for him, as He usually says.
        It’s Bergoglio by the way.
        My friend, messages not always have to be spoken or written, they have and all of us for that matter, are used to gestures or actions to transmit ideas.
        PLease I suppose He may not have been your choice for Pope, but please try to look into his work before.
        I am Argentinian and believe me, the same sex marriage issue was a BATTLE in Argentina, and for him it was not confirming marriage between man and woman or just that. It triying to keep the govnt of Argentina and the mayor ofl Buenos AIres Governement from passing that bill, He did not succeed and Argentina became one of the first countries in the world to pass that.
        Abortion has also become “legal” , so that was another battle fought, I remember , and here is another message not spoke, Cardnl Bergoglio blessing a child in the mother’s womb, baptizing single mom children, (baptism was denied to them until not long ago) and so many other thing I can not recall
        He usually speaks of spiritual poverty, not necessarily material.
        ANd finally, let me just tell you are much mistaken on the Liberation Theology issue as well as to what he did here, and this mention of seminaries in Argentina? PLease my friend review your sources.
        THe Catholic Church is growing and blooming here in Latin Armerica! Particularly after his election. Wait and see when the World Youth Reunion next month in Brazil takes place.
        He did nothing exceptional in BA? In all honesty I can not recall a more outspoken and firm pastor and Im 47, He went thru some real real complicated times in Argentina, Latin America has a whole diff. reality compared to the rest of the world, economic and social crisis long before what we see today in some countries
        It is precisely because of him,. that the Liberation THeology did not progress in Argentina as it did in Brazil, where it came from by the way (Fr L Boff) He kept the Jesuits at bay.-
        So thank you adn bless you , and please do not get me wrong
        good luck

  • Ed

    Pope Francis has spoken out against the comfortable bourgeois lifestyle and he probably considers attending these classical concerts the epitome of a snobbish bourgeois lifestyle. He probably finds these events a waste of time and money that could be spent more constructively helping the poor and disenfranchised.

  • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

    I am a lay Catholic classical musician. There was a time in my life when music (classical for the most part) was everything to me, in a way a false God. Music meant more to me than Jesus and Mary and my faith, for sure. Now, it is 20 years later, and I am 41, and have experienced many deep conversion experiences in my life. I still like classical, but now music bores me in comparison to my faith and all aspects of it. I am on the side of the Holy Father. Beethoven is great, but the Church needs fixing- that’s more important!

  • James Stagg

    Since no one seems to know the “exact timing” of this, why are all just “mouthing off”? I agree with the poster who asked why the chair was left in such a prominent place?

  • Terrye Newkirk

    Pauperism is a false doctrine, and I trust that this is NOT the motivation for Francis’s actions.

  • jhmdeuce

    Francis has shown a decided reluctance to “be” the Pope. The Papacy is an office of authority, the authority given to St. Peter by Christ when he was personally present here on Earth. It is the office of unity, the visible unity of the Body of Christ. Francis should have refused the election if he planned not to fulfill the office. I see only dire consequences in his Papacy.

  • Steve Culy

    Dont you just LOVE this Pope? The most compelling thought in the article to me was “In other words, his withdrawal from the concert may actually illustrate his work ethic more than a rejection of Renaissance ostentation.” This Pope is a worker Pope!! Thanks be to God!!

  • Uuncle Max

    How are you all doing with the ‘Fortnight for Freedom’? We’re halfway through and I just thought I would ask.

  • Slainte

    Maybe Pope Francis just wanted to relax and watch Mother Angelica on television.

  • Jamie

    Why do we have to puzzle this one out? Either His Holiness had “an urgent task that could not be delayed,” or he’s lying! Let’s just take him at his word!

    • Marietta

      He could have sent “regrets” two or a day before the concert, but he didn’t. He simply decided not to show up at the last minute. That was rude.

  • buttercup

    Now we know why lightening hit the Vatican upon his “election”. Atheists go to heaven? Homosexuals are OK? Priests can marry? He spits in the Catholicism eye while his predecessor was shuffled to obscurity.