Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Nicora to.... Assisi?

The Pope is toying with our heads.

Minutes ago, Benedict XVI effectively quashed voluminous Roman speculation (reported in English here and by Alejandro Bermudez) that Cardinal Attilio Nicora, head of the Holy See's investment office, was in pole-position to become the next Secretary of State by naming Nicora as the permanent papal legate to the Patriarchal Basilicas of St. Francis and S. Maria degli Angeli at Assisi.

The appointment was announced in this morning's Bollettino of the Holy See Press Office. Cardinal Nicora, 68, a management guru also serving as chief planner of the Pope's impending reorganization of the Roman Curia, will remain head of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, which handles the Vatican's stock portfolio.

The position of legate to the Assisi basilicas was created by the Pope in the November motu proprio which imposed a new jurisdictional structure over the churches, severely curtailing the respective Franciscan communities which had previously been granted autonomy over them. This tightening of the reins was done in light of controversial initiatives of ecumenism and other events through which the Assisi Franciscans were seen as baptizing the agenda of the Italian Left.

As a result of the papal decree, all plans for the churches must now be approved by the bishop of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino (currently Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, the former secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship) and, where applicable, the presidents of the regional Umbrian Episcopal Conference or even the president of the Italian Episcopal Conference. While lacking jurisdiction of his own, the document charges the Assisi cardinal-legate with "perpetuating by his moral authority the lengthy bonds between the sacred places to the memory of the Poverello [St. Francis] and the Apostolic See." He is also deputized to "impart the Papal Blessing during the celebrations over which he will preside on the major liturgical solemnities."

In recent weeks, anxiety has gripped the Secretariat of State as the question of the succession to 78 year-old Cardinal Angelo Sodano has edged ever closer to center stage. Many of Benedict's major diplomatic moves to date have involved apponting non-diplomats as apostolic nuncios, nominations which have been seen as a systematic curtailing of the Accademia culture from which the Holy See's Diplomatic Corps has been culled for centuries.

The most prominent of these moves was, of course, last week's appointment of Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from the presidency of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to the nuncio's post in Cairo. Besides being the first head of a Roman dicastery in memory to be moved to a position outside Rome, Fitzgerald -- a theologian -- had never been a member of the Diplomatic Corps, so dispatching him to one of the world's diplomatic hotspots was an indicator that, indeed, a Stato pedigree is not necessary in this pontificate's concept of how Vatican diplomacy is best served.

Given that background, the appointment of Nicora -- who had spent his priesthood in formation work and much of his episcopate in administrative posts in the Italian church -- would have signalled a "Doomsday moment" with the advent of a new culture in San Damaso: a top superior who was not one of their own, with none of the established loyalties or understandings which come with said experience.

While the prospect of Nicora's appointment to the helm of State has seemingly been dodged, several non-diplomatic possibilities remain, most prominently Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, the former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Joseph Ratzinger. Within the Corps and its alumni, names frequently mentioned are Cardinal Gianbattista Re, currently prefect of the Congregation for Bishops (a former Sostituto, head of the general affairs section); Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, currently in Stato as secretary for Relations with States (the Vatican's "foreign minister") and a former nuncio to Germany, and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, a veteran of the Corps who served both in the Curia as secretary for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and as the Holy See's permanent observer to the United Nations outpost in Geneva.