02 January 2020, The Tablet

Our top stories of the year as we move into 2020

Our top stories of the year as we move into 2020

Cardinal Pell and Pope Francis in 2014
CNS/Paul Haring

The last 12 months have been challenging times for many across the globe. Readers turn to specialist publications such as ours for informed news, analysis and reflection to help them formulate a response to events and to grow in understanding. It helps us at The Tablet serve our readers better also, to look at which stories gain most traction. Data analysis can underpin unprecedented knowledge about what readers need, especially in a journal such as ours where strong and well-informed writing is such an important part of the service we offer to readers. By looking at our most read, we can then move forward into 2020 with the aim of improving what we do. And we hope that you can also benefit, maybe by seeing something here that thousands of others have read and enjoyed but, for whatever reason, you might have missed at the time.

So here are our top five features and top five news stories of the last 12 months. We wish you all the best for 2020.




1.   ‘This is Pope Francis calling…’ by James Alison

In the year’s international bestseller, In the Closet of the Vatican, Frédéric Martel revealed that two years ago Pope Francis phoned a prominent gay priest and theologian ordered by the Vatican not to teach, preach or celebrate the Sacraments. Here, the priest himself explains what happened. A moving first-person account of how, six years after ordination, it became clear to him that he could no longer pretend there was anything wrong with same-sex love, and how his life and vocation unfolded after that. 


2. Inside the world of James Martin, America’s most turbulent priest, by Jon M. Sweeney

Fr James Martin (right) pictured during an annual “Pre-Pride Festive Mass” at St Francis of Assisi Church, New York City, with Franciscan Fr Andrew Reitz, the church pastor
Photo: CNS, Gregory A. Shemit

His books are bestsellers and lectures by the celebrated Jesuit writer and media commentator James Martin are guaranteed to fill a cathedral. But, as his biographer Jon Sweeney, who has known him for many years, discovered, his public appearances also draw angry demonstrators. 'These have been years marked by clergy sex abuse scandals, a vocations crisis, and diocesan bankruptcies, which also saw ructions over clericalism, a Vatican abandonment of priests and sisters working among the poorest of the poor and a Vatican silencing of theologians on the cutting edge of new thinking. It could be said, and I do, that these have been decades ripe for Martin’s blend of wit, humour, intelligence and warmth – and his message of inclusivity. I knew, of course, of the hostility towards Fr Martin among some conservative-minded Catholics in the US. But the more I researched the book and became familiar with Fr Martin’s world, the more startled and disturbed I became at the depth of the bitterness and hatred he evokes.' James Martin SJ: In the Company of Jesus, is published by Liturgical Press this January 2020.


3. Communion on the Moon: astronaut Buzz Aldrin's celebration was hushed up by Nasa, writes Joanna Moorhead

Lichfield Cathedral, transformed by sculptor and artist Peter Walker, was where the Lunar communion was remembered at a service in July 2019.

Buzz Aldrin unwrapped the bread, opened the tiny bottle of wine and poured its contents into a mini chalice. “In the one-sixth gravity of the Moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” he wrote afterwards. He then ate the bread, drank the wine, and read from John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit, for you can do nothing without me.” The first liquid poured by human hands on the Moon, and the first food eaten there, were Communion elements. This is the story of how, and why, the first lunar liturgy was kept under wraps by Nasa for so long. 


4. Pell and the Pope’s dilemma, by Christopher Lamb

Cardinal Pell and Pope Francis in 2014. Pic: CNS/Paul Haring

Although many people in the Vatican believed he was innocent, when this feature was published in August, the high-profile Australian cardinal's appeal against his conviction for abuse had been dismissed. He was facing at this point a church investigation and trial in what, as our Rome correspondent explained, had become a nightmare for Pope Francis.


5. How gay is the Vatican? by Timothy Radcliffe

"Growing into a mature and happy celibacy is a long and difficult process, often with failures on the way, but the great majority of priests with whom I talked seemed happy in their vocation and to live it honestly. I met many Vatican officials whose only closet was for keeping brooms in. Nevertheless, the need for discussion of married priests will become even more urgent." Timothy Radcliffe on the Frédéric Martel’s "In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy", the explosive book published last February claiming to expose the double lives of priests and cardinals and the deceit of the Church’s condemnations of homosexuality. As a former Master of the Dominicans, Radcliffe wondered if this crisis could be experienced as a moment of grace.





1.  Wikileaks docs reveal background to Knights of Malta condom row, by Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis received the then Grand Master, Fra Matthew Festing (left), in the Vatican on June 23, 2016
Photo: Vandeville Eric/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta is one of the oldest and most venerable institutions in the Catholic Church. Established in the eleventh century to care for pilgrims to the Holy Lands and to defend Christians during the Crusades, it has evolved into a major global humanitarian agency.  Released on Wednesday 30 January, the Wikileaks cache of documents suggested that Cardinal Burke, the Patron of the Order, sought to co-opt papal authority by giving the  then Grand Master of the Order, Matthew Festing, Vatican approval to remove von Boeselager as Grand Chancellor. Christopher Lamb in Rome had an exclusive inside track on how Cardinal Raymond Burke told the former leader of the Knights of Malta to tackle the issue of condom distribution or face a Vatican investigation.


2. Explosive new book lifts lid on gay priests in the Vatican, by Christopher Lamb

Cardinals and Bishops attend an Ordinary Public Consistory at St Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
Photo: ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

On the day that Pope Francis’ sex abuse summit started, last February, Frederic Martel's book was published, claiming to lift the lid on gay priests in the Vatican and the double lives of senior officials. “In the Closet of the Vatican” claims that around 80 per cent of clerics working in the Roman Curia are gay – although not necessarily sexually active – and details how they adhere to an unspoken code of the “closet”. Martel spent four years of gathering material which took him across the world. A non-believer who is openly gay, he spent around a week a month in Rome, sometimes staying in residences inside the Vatican or on Holy See property. He completed 1,500 interviews with 41 cardinals, 52 bishops and monsignors, 45 papal ambassadors or diplomatic officials, 11 Swiss guards and more than 200 priests and seminarians. 


3. Vatican women's magazine condemns sexual abuse of nuns by priests, by Rose Gamble

Pope Francis greets the nuns at the end of the general audience at the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, Aug 2018

The sexual abuse of nuns by priests and the resulting “scandal” of religious sisters having abortions or giving birth to children not recognised by their fathers was been condemned in an article in the Vatican’s women’s magazine, published last February. According to "Women Church World," distributed alongside the Vatican newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano", religious sisters had for years not reported offences against them by priests, for fear of retaliation. In November 2018, the Catholic Church‘s global organisation of nuns had denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” surrounding sexual abuse in the church.


4. Vatican dignitaries head to Medjugorje amid reports of imminent recognition, by Jonathan Luxmoore

Madonna figurines in a souvenir shop in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzogovina, 2017
Photo: Thomas Brey/DPA/PA Images

More than 40,000 apparitions have been claimed over 38 years at Medjugorje, where six teenagers claim to have first seen the Virgin Mary on 24 June 1981 while herding sheep. Although the then Yugoslavia's Bishops Conference concluded in 1990 it could not be affirmed that supernatural events were occurring in the hilltop town, which was largely untouched by a 1992-5 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, some of the six visionaries say Mary still appears to them daily with messages. This story reports the visit of a Vatican delegation, three months after the Pope officially lifted the ban on official church pilgrimages to the Marian sanctuary. 


5. From zero to 2020 in 83 years: Pope puts his foot down, by Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis delivers his message on the occasion of his Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia, in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican
Photo: VATICAN POOL/CPP/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

As 2019 drew to a close, and with the approach of the seventh anniversary of his pontificate, Pope Francis put his foot on the accelerator as he made clear his intention to press ahead with Church reforms. The Pope revealed the shift in gear during his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, an annual event where he is known for giving blunt, and sometimes brutal, diagnoses of the spiritual illnesses suffered by the Church’s head office. Christopher Lamb reports on how the Pope will address the question facing the Church in the early 21st century: evangelisation in a rapidly changing world where faith is so often forgotten.

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