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Change will come, but at the pope's pace

Reform is likely to start with the Curia

  • Alessandro Speciale, Vatican City
  • Vatican City
  • March 26, 2013
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After Pope Francis dazzled the Catholic and secular worlds with symbolic gestures that hint at a simpler, humbler Church with a clear focus on helping the poor and protecting the environment, many are now waiting for his first real government actions.

They will probably have to wait a little longer.

The Holy Week is upon the Vatican and from Thursday on Francis – as all the Vatican's top officials – will be involved in an intense liturgical schedule.

Before that, the Argentine pope will have another of his many ‘firsts' – his first general audience on Wednesday, the weekly sermon that is, together with the Angelus prayer on Sundays, the main regular public appearance of a pope.

Francis has shown that he wants to get slowly into stride with his new role. For example, on Palm Sunday for the first time he briefly addressed the crowd in English and French – until then, besides a few sentences in his native Spanish, he had only spoken in Italian, the language he learned as a child.

But even if he doesn't want to rush things, Pope Francis has clearly signaled that the Vatican bureaucracy shouldn't delude itself that “business as usual” will resume shortly.

He reconfirmed – as is customary – the heads of Vatican departments, but made it amply clear that this was just a provisional measure until he gets his head around the new job.

After all, one of the key priorities highlighted by all the cardinals that elected him was the reform of the scandal-scarred, gaffe-prone Roman Curia.

It isn't just that the central administration of the Vatican has proved over the past years to be inefficient in carrying out the pope's messages and guidelines – a competent manager could solve that problem.

The real issue, for many cardinals – especially those far from the buzz of Rome – is that its infighting, quarrels, frequent involvement in money and even sex scandals, centralism coupled with lack of professional standards have tarred the Church's image in the eyes of the world and of many believers, providing a powerful counter-message to the simplicity of the Gospel that parish priests preach in churches every Sunday.

The Vatileaks scandal was just the last straw.

That the cardinals chose to elect Cardinal Bergoglio – a man of personal austerity and deep spirituality – shows that the need for reform is not just at the administrative level.

Pope Francis' most watched move will be, of course, the choice of a new Secretary of State, the powerful head of the Vatican central administration.

The current secretary is Tarcisio Bertone, a man even Benedict took care to praise mostly for his fidelity. His term in office has been widely criticized, linking his lack of diplomatic skills and his desire to increase his personal influence to the many mishaps of Benedict's papacy.

Vatican tradition would require the role to go to an Italian – John Paul II, after his election as the first non-Italian pope in almost five centuries, said that his “foreign-ness” should be compensated by giving the “number two” job to a native of the Bel Paese. Since then, it's always been like that.

But this could change now with Pope Francis, especially as many of the recent Vatican crises have been linked to the politicking and petty ambitions of Italian churchmen, often linked to very local figures and agendas.

The Argentine – who never worked in the Curia – has few friends in Rome.

But one of them was considered, before the conclave, a leading papabile: Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who runs the powerful congregation that manages bishop appointments. He spent 10 years in South America as a missionary and speaks fluent Spanish. He is also rumored, early in the conclave, to have lent his support to Bergoglio.

In a recent interview, Ouellet gave his full support to Bergoglio's presumptive reform agenda: “He will certainly act in the Curia; we know there is a need of reform, but reform in the sense to regain moral credibility. This was an important factor.”

He also added something that will play like music to Asian ears: “We need a broader vision beyond Europe.”

Many tip Ouellet as the obvious candidate for Secretary of State. But the Canadian may be lacking a key prerequisite: He doesn't come from the Vatican diplomatic corps, the traditional reserve where secretaries of state are chosen, with a tradition of efficiency and vast international experience.

A former nuncio who would definitely bring to the job the “broader vision” the Church needs is Cardinal Fernando Filoni, current head of Propaganda Fide, the Vatican department responsible for the more than a thousand dioceses in mission areas, including most of Asia.

But it seems that Francis might want to keep Filoni in his current place and, perhaps, value his work more.

Among the current ranks of Vatican diplomats, other names are rumored to be in the running: Piero Parolin, the current nuncio to Venezuela and a former well-respected Vatican 'foreign minister';  Celestino Migliore, now in Warsaw but for many years the Holy See's representative at the United Nations; or Luigi Ventura, current nuncio to France.

A former diplomat is also Lorenzo Baldisseri – he was Vatican ambassador to Paraguay, India and Brazil, and is now Ouellet's deputy and secretary of the College of Cardinals who played a prominent role during the conclave.

It is rumored that, following an ancient tradition, upon his election Bergoglio took off his red zucchetto to replace it with the white one that popes wear, and put it on Baldisseri's head, hinting at an imminent promotion to cardinal in his first consistory.

But Francis might also choose to look more out of the box – he has shown a propensity for breaking with traditions and formalisms after all – and that could bring Asia some surprises: How about a Roman role for Manila's Cardinal Tagle? Or for Tokyo's well-respected Archbishop Takeo Okada?

But shaking up the Curia will not just be a matter of appointments. In the weeks leading up to the conclave, a project to reorganize the Church's central administration, dating back to 2005, has resurfaced. It entails shrinking the domineering role the secretariat of state now plays, giving more autonomy and authority to single departments, who would work more closely with the pontiff, without the 'filter' role now played by the Secretariat.

Under Benedict, a Vatican department chief complained he had to wait for weeks or even months before being able to meet the pope and talk about his office's agenda with him. Another once resignedly admitted on the eve of a key international event: “We prepared a beautiful, clear statement for this. It's now in the hands of the Secretariat of State and I don't know what they will do with it. And anyway, when they get back to us it'll probably be past the event and so it will be pointless anyway.”

Some analysts, such as Alberto Melloni, even speculated that Pope Francis might put into action one of the code words of the Second Vatican Council, “collegiality,” and create a standing committee of the world's cardinals to discuss the Church's agenda and challenges on a regular basis.

If the College of Cardinals voted for change in the Sistine Chapel, this would definitely signal they got what they wanted.

Alessandro Speciale is the Vatican correspondent for ucanews.com

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