Monday, May 09, 2011

De Propaganda Filoni: "Chief of Staff" Becomes "Red Pope"

(SVILUPPO: As duly foreseen, everything noted below -- Filoni to Propaganda, and the appointment of his successor as Sostituto -- officially came to pass at Roman Noon Tuesday with the moves' respective announcements in the Bollettino of the Holy See Press Office.)

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After less than four years in the post that's principally responsible for overseeing the machinery of the Roman Curia -- essentially the Vatican's answer to the White House chief of staff -- Archbishop Fernando Filoni's reportedly off to redder pastures.

As early as tomorrow, the 65 year-old Sostituto (Substitute) of the Secretary of State is expected to be named the next prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples -- the venerable Vatican office still widely known by its name of centuries past, De Propaganda Fide (the Propogation of the Faith).

The move buzzed about for weeks, its timing was given earlier today by the most prescient of the Italian vaticanisti, Andrea Tornielli, now of La Stampa.

His ex officio elevation to the college of cardinals essentially a lock at the next consistory, the prefect of the dicastery that oversees the Catholic world's vast reaches of mission territory is traditionally dubbed the "Red Pope" as a reflection of both the power his congregation wields... and, indeed, the blood far too frequently shed by persecuted Christians in the mission lands. Among other instances of the Prop's clout, the office's sizable resources (burnished by income from its long-maintained Roman real-estate holdings) provide a significant amount of funding to the efforts of the developing church, and the congregation's cardinals are responsible for recommending appointees to the episcopacy in mission areas, a task which falls to the Congregation for Bishops only in more established locales.

(While the continental US emerged from over a century of Prop Fide's oversight in 1913, just one of these shores' 197 local churches continues to be supervised by the mission office: Alaska's 410,000 square-mile Fairbanks diocese, whose 20 active priests each have to cover a territory roughly the size of West Virginia... just in case anyone else thought they had it tough.)

Provided the report pans out, the Evangelization post would continue its predominant modern tradition of going to a diplomat -- an especially useful background for the job, given the church-state clashes that often arise in places where Catholics are a pronounced minority. And in this case, moreover, the presumed choice has extensive experience in the mission church... above all, in what's arguably become its most hurting hot-spot.

Prior to his return to the Home Office in 2007, Filoni served as a staffer at the papal nunciatures in Sri Lanka and Iran, but ultimately for six years as apostolic nuncio in Iraq, a tenure which spanned both the US-led invasion and the country's post-Sadaam descent into chaos -- and during which time, so it's said, he was the lone diplomatic mission-chief who declined to leave Baghdad. Given the high profile of Iraq's hemorrhaging Christian community -- some 60 of whom were massacred in its capital's Syriac-Catholic cathedral last October, with most of the rest who haven't fled living in a constant state of fear -- the connection between Filoni's past and future is of no small significance, and in it lies another sign of the Holy See's particularly intense concern for the church there, which has been much in evidence since before the first Gulf War. (Further underscoring the church's challenge in today's volatile Middle East was the weekend's news out of Egypt, where a dozen Coptic Christians were killed after riots that began with the burning of one of their churches by Muslims. According to reports, nearly 200 of the perpetrators have been arrested, and nearly 230 people were injured as a result of the violence.)

At the same time, an ever more pressing area on the Prop's docket is China, as shown by Pope Benedict's late 2010 appointment of the Hong Kong Salesian Savio Hon as the office's new #2, becoming the first ever Chinese named a senior Vatican official. While the freshly-elevated deputy is now understood to be serving as Rome's lead point-man on matters pertaining to Beijing and the Mainland's difficult divide between the state-sanctioned Patriotic Catholic Association and the sizable underground church which has maintained its loyalty to Rome, Filoni likewise happens to bring an unusual amount of his own Chinese exposure, having served the better part of the 1990s as part of the Hong Kong-based "study mission" which, though formally accredited to the nunciature in Manila, served as the Holy See's discreet "bridge" to the Chinese Mainland.

The next Propaganda chief will succeed Cardinal Ivan Dias -- himself a three-decade veteran of the diplomatic corps -- who was transferred to the post from the archbishopric of Bombay in 2006. Having just turned 75 last month, the cardinal's retirement is coming atypically early for a Curial chief due to years of reportedly intensifying diabetes, the impact of which is said to have left him in declining health.

Back at the Big House, though, so the consensus goes, the next Sostituto is likewise tipped to come from another historically fraught (but, of late, notably improving) church-state scenario, with the nuncio to Cuba, 62 year-old Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu (above, con Caridad de Cobre), widely reported as holding the "pole position" to take over the "guts" of the Holy See's day-to-day operations. (On a side-note, given the difficulty the Holy See's had in its communications efforts and getting up to speed with new technologies -- all of which falls within the Sostituto's remit -- if Becciu's presence on Facebook is any indicator, the process should jump-start in short order.)

Six years into his pontificate, B16 has named all but one of the heads of the top ten Vatican offices, the prefect of Catholic Education, Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, being the lone holdout from the reign of John Paul II.

A month from next week, the pontiff's first major "cabinet" pick following his election -- his own successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, LA-born Cardinal William Levada -- reaches the retirement age.