Monday, January 14, 2008

"Vice's" Vicar?

While appointments of new heads for the English-speaking world's two most prominent sees edge their way toward B16's desk, an assignment closer to home currently stands at the top of the pontiff's personnel pecking order.

And, per usual, the "Vice-Pope" is reported to be all over it.

A well-placed leak slipped into the Italian press over the weekend relayed that the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has "invented" the appointment of Cardinal Agostino Vallini (right), the current "chief justice" of the church, to succeed Cardinal Camillo Ruini as papal vicar for Rome, the de facto shepherd of the Pope's diocese.

In a selection stakes dominated by such Italian church A-listers as Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice and the Urb's high-flying auxiliary Bishop Rino Fisichella, the rollout of the near-invisible Vallini, 67, prefect of the Apostolic Signatura -- the church's top tribunal -- would seem somewhat unusual on its face. Then again, as Il Riformista's Paolo Rodari wrote on Saturday, replacing the all-prominent Ruini -- arguably the most influential Italian churchman of the last generation -- with a much quieter choice would fit "perfectly" into the Cardinal-Secretary's master plan to "direct," from the church's side, "the conduct of relations with the political world": exactly the role which, by force of personality, Ruini has held unchallenged since taking over as Rome's vicar in 1990. The cardinal turns 77 next month.

In airing the backstory, Rodari notes that "things could change" before an appointment is formally announced. That's always the case with Vatican moves, of course, but given the players and their history, it's especially true on this one.

Not long after Bertone's arrival on the scene in late 2006, Benedict's Vicar and "Vice" (both shown above in a 2007 meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Premier Romano Prodi) memorably clashed over the future arrangement of the Italian hierarchy's top tier.

Seeking to deconstruct Ruini's media and policy empire -- which he had built up through his twin posts as vicar for Rome and president of the Italian episcopal conference, the CEI -- Bertone pushed for the appointment of a low-ranking archbishop hidden away in Southern Italy to the latter office. (Given the Pope's role as primate of Italy, the head of its episcopal conference is chosen by papal appointment.)

Protesting his confrere's aim to "publicly disown" his presidency and "decapitate" the CEI, a stunned Ruini persuaded Benedict to halt the plan. In the end, the appointment went to Bertone's successor in Genoa, Angelo Bagnasco, who was deemed an acceptable balance of Ruini's drive for a prominent successor with Bertone's priority for a nominee stationed far from the TV studios and political salons of Rome. Bagnasco became a cardinal at the November consistory.

According to Rodari, the "exclusion" of Fisichella and the CEI secretary Bishop Giuseppe Betori -- a Ruini disciple -- from the shortlist leaves a terna composed of three cardinals: Vallini, Scola and Angelo Comastri, the archpriest of St Peter's and papal vicar for Vatican City.

A former seminary rector, auxiliary bishop and vicar-general of Naples, Vallini was born on the outskirts of Rome. The publicity-shy prelate returned to his native province in 1999 as bishop of Albano, the largest of the city's suburban dioceses, and was named to head the Signatura in 2004. Benedict made him a cardinal at his first consistory in 2006. Of the 120 cardinal-electors who would select a new bishop of Rome in a hypothetical conclave, Vallini is the group's closest thing to a native of the Pope's diocese.

Discussions on the appointment are so far advanced that, according to the leftist daily, the Signatura's top post is already foreseen passing to the tribunal's current #2, Bishop Velasio DePaolis, a 72 year-old Scalabrinian.

Benedict received Ruini, Vallini and DePaolis in private audiences on Friday.

PHOTO 2: AFP/Getty