Angels and demons mix with drama and intrigue in high circles in the Vatican

Two arrests and two new books – just the start of a dramatic week for the Holy See

“And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.”

It may just have been a coincidence but, in his homily during Tuesday's Mass In Suffrage for deceased cardinals and bishops, Pope Francis quoted the above words from Numbers 21, 6. In what has been another dramatic week for the Holy See, no one could blame the pope for having "fiery serpents" on his mind. For now, there seem to be a lot of them about.

This has been another Vatican week when reality has outdone the most outlandish Dan Brown fiction. A Watergate-style break-in, stolen documents, not so thinly veiled Mafia-style threats and Opus Dei all featured.

It began with the arrest on Monday by the Vatican gendarmerie of Spanish monsignor Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda and Francesca Chaouqui in connection with "the removal and dissemination" of confidential economic Vatican documents.

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These arrests came just four days before the publication of two books, outlining the resistance of elements in the Roman Curia (and elsewhere) to the ongoing Francis "reform" process.

If Monday's arrests provided the bones of a very good story, the two books – Via Crucis ("Way of the Cross") by Gianluigi Nuzzi and Avarizia ("Greed") by Emiliano Fittipaldi – put an embarrassing amount of flesh on the story.

Before last Monday, there had been intense media speculation about an ongoing Vatican investigation into the hacking of the computer of Libero Milone, a former Deloitte Touche consultant who now works as a sort of overall Holy See financial controller.

Opus Dei

The arrests and a subsequent Holy See statement confirmed such an investigation. Significantly, the two people arrested, both close to the influential lay movement Opus Dei, had served together on Cosea, a commission established by Pope Francis in July 2013 to rationalise the “economic-administrative” structure of the Holy See.

Even more significant is the fact that when Nuzzi unveiled his book, it transpired that the majority of the confidential documents revealed came from the work of that same Cosea commission.

Many of the findings of both these books, particularly in relation to the Institute for the Works of Religion – better known as the Vatican bank – and to the Vatican’s once far from transparent and mismanaged finances, are not new.

Many of the revelations have already appeared in print. What is new are the secretly recorded words of the pope, presumably at a Cosea meeting, saying: “If we are not able to look after our money properly, something which we can see, how are we ever going to look after the souls of the faithful, something we cannot see . . . Transparency, that’s what you have in the most humble business and we must have it, too.”

The Holy See has argued this week that both books are already out of date, in that the Vatican economic clean-up has already moved on from the deliberations of 2013.

Reform opposition

This is true, but what does emerge from both these books is confirmation of another, arguably more worrying, consideration – the long-suspected resistance by elements within the curia (and others) to the Francis reform process.

How else to explain the break-in at the Vatican office, in which the records of the Cosea commission were held, in March 29th, 2014? Documents, old and new, including, curiously, some related to Mafia banker Michele Sindona, were stolen. Some time later, the Sindona files were "anonymously" returned.

Nuzzi calls this a “pure act of intimidation”, linking it to the “blatantly false” reports, circulated during the recent synod, that Francis is suffering from a brain tumour. That was just more intimidation and a further attempt to undermine the pope, he argues.

What these two books also highlight, somewhat embarrassingly, is that when it comes to a "church of the poor for the poor", some curia cardinals are not exactly on the same page as Francis. There is the €200,000 "contribution" from a children's hospital foundation to the renovation of the apartment of retired secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Fittipaldi's book details the accounts of Australian cardinal George Pell, who between July 2014 and January 2015 ran up an expenses bill of €500,000 in his role as head of the secretariat for the economy.

Business class

Pell often travels business class and he (and others) have run up a bill of €2,508 with Gammarelli, the famous papal outfitters. Pell’s accountant,

Danny Casey

, is paid €15,000 a month while the secretariat authorised €90,000 of renovations to Casey’s rented apartment.

Not that rent is a problem for the 68 cardinals who live in Rome. Their apartments, ranging from 700-200sq m, come rent free. Meanwhile, Francis lives in 50 square metres in the Santa Marta residence.

It is not only the cardinals who enjoy the privileges of the Vatican City state. Fittipaldi claims the Vatican has a property portfolio worth approximately €4 billion, but one that is badly managed and consequently undervalued.

Many of the 5,050 apartments in Rome owned by Apsa, the Vatican City state treasury, are rented out on lifelong rents as low as €50-100 per annum.

It is well known that the Vatican’s museums generate a turnover of €90 million, thanks to five million annual visitors. What is less well known is that the Vatican City pharmacy, cigarette shops, stamps, supermarket and filling station generated €110.4 million in 2012.

Not bad for a 100-acre city state with 800 residents and 3,000 employees. Clearly, there are more than just Vatican City people filling up in the Holy See.

“Calm and serene”

Meanwhile, Vatican insiders report Pope Francis to be “calm and serene”, unworried by this latest plague of fiery serpents, even if he is clearly disappointed by the arrests of Chaouqui and Balda. The two books contain little that he did not already know.

However, those close to him say that on one front, that related to Vatican real estate, “things” are going to change.

This week the pope gave an interview to Straatnieuws, published by the homeless of the city of Utrecht, in which he said: "The church must speak with truth and, by its testimony, the testimony of poverty. A believer cannot talk about the homeless and poverty, whilst leading the life of a Pharaoh."

Fiery serpents, watch out.