Arguably the most polarizing figure on the global Catholic stage due to his outspoken, unstinting conservatism in matters of liturgy and church teaching, the move caps a yearlong dismantling of Burke's clout, which began last December with the 66 year-old's sudden yanking from the membership of the Congregation for Bishops, where he helped facilitate the most controversial US appointments of Benedict XVI's pontificate. While the cardinal rejected the description in one of his many recent interviews, even his champions have termed the former archbishop of St Louis as the leading face of "opposition to the new orthodoxies" in the age of Pope Francis.
In a surprise choice for Burke's replacement at the Signatura, Francis tapped his "foreign minister," the Corsican Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, 62, who's served as Secretary for Relations with States since 2006. Yet with the diplomatic role become ever more crucial given the Argentine Pope's concerted forays into geopolitical affairs, today's most significant move is neither of the above, but the even more astonishing choice of Mamberti's successor at the helm of the Holy See's foreign service: Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher (right), 60, the Liverpool-born Nuncio to Australia, who becomes the first native English-speaker ever to hold the post.
A three-decade veteran of the diplomatic corps, Gallagher's first assignment at ambassador level was in Burundi as successor to Archbishop Michael Courtney, who was shot and killed in a December 2003 attack reportedly planned by senior officials in the war-torn country.
Since arriving in Canberra in late 2012, Gallagher has proven an immensely popular figure on the Aussie scene, and one whose ecclesiology is said to line up squarely with Francis' emphasis that ecclesiastical desk-holders work to keep their rootedness in pastoral life and ministry.
Set to conduct Wednesday's all-important installation of Anthony Fisher OP as archbishop of Sydney, a planned December celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Vatican's diplomatic presence in Australia will now double as Gallagher's farewell Down Under. For his opening stroke in Rome, meanwhile, the new Secretary for Relations will take the lead alongside Cardinal Pietro Parolin in advising Francis on his next "State of the World" speech – the traditional New Year's greeting to the diplomatic corps, given in early January.
* * *Returning to Burke, having gone into overdrive during the recent Synod on the Family to protest any prospect of change to the church's existing pastoral practice toward couples in irregular situations – as well as stoutly defending the existing annulment process amid Francis' recent moves to probe its effectiveness – whether intentional or not, the timing of the cardinal's "exile" to the Rome-based Malta post is almost certain to be taken as an added provocation by his allies among the US bishops, as the announcement coincides with the prelates' arrival in Baltimore this weekend for Monday's start of their November plenary.
Then again, following the cardinal's recent comments that the church under Francis "is like a ship without a rudder" and affirming "the risk" of a schism over the Pope's decisions following next year's Ordinary Synod, one senior US prelate termed the steady stream of polemics a form of "public suicide."
In any case, the wheels of the cardinal's transfer from the church's lead tribunal have been in motion for over a year. From the first months after Francis' election, as Burke went unconfirmed by the new Pope at the Signatura, Whispers ops indicated the top canonist as a top choice to become Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre once Cardinal Edwin O'Brien reached the retirement age of 75 last April.
Much as that match would've killed two birds with one stone as the US boasts the lion's share of the millennium-old order's membership and Burke's well-known homesickness for the States, the prospect would've inevitably been shot down by Francis' domestic brain-trust, for whom even a Rome-based foothold on these shores for Burke was still too close for comfort. In the end, Burke now becomes the first non-European to serve as chief chaplain of the thousand-year-old Order of Malta, which is always headed not by a cleric, but a celibate layman elected in a Conclave who holds the title Sovereign Prince. (The current Prince-Grand Master is Fra Matthew Festing, the second Englishman to occupy the office.)
Having taken the unorthodox step of confirming reports of the Malta move in an on-record interview during the Synod, just last weekend, Burke was the star attraction in St Peter's for one of his favorite causes, as he celebrated Mass in the Extraordinary Form to close an international pilgrimage of devotees of the pre-Conciliar liturgy.
In a pointed message to the gathering, the now Pope-emeritus Benedict expressed his pleasure at the "full peace in the church" which he restored to the Tridentine books with 2007's Summorum Pontificum, adding his praise that the rites were being "celebrated by great cardinals."
With Burke's effective demotion, for the first time in three decades, no US prelate leads an office of the Roman Curia as traditionally understood. As Francis' reform of the governing apparatus is expected to roll out in early 2015, it nonetheless bears reminding that – alongside his seat on the Pope's supreme council of nine cardinal-advisors – Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley OFM Cap. now heads up the newly-created Pontifical Commission which reports directly to Francis on the church's response to clergy sex-abuse and the care of survivors.