Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Palace Notes: Already, Parolin's Under the Knife... and At the Hat Shop, Francis' Curial "Cinderella"

For Pietro Parolin, this was supposed to be "Coronation Day" – the moment when, at a noontime audience with the Pope, the three-decade veteran of the Diplomatic Service formally stepped into the line of Gasparri, Pacelli, Casaroli and Sodano to become Secretary of State.

Yet, alas, there was a hitch. While Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB formally took his leave by offering a eulogy for Benedict XVI and receiving his walking paper from Francis'  own hand, the Pope stoked some surprise by explaining that the welcome for his chosen top Curialist would have to be "in absentia" due to "a little surgical procedure" Parolin was undergoing.

The new Secretary "will take possession of his new post some weeks hence" Francis explained, offering neither a precise timetable, nor the cause of Parolin's infirmity. (SVILUPPO: According to a Catholic News Agency brief, the incoming SegStat was sidelined from his Big Day by a case of appendicitis.)

Even if the lapse creates a de facto operational vacancy at the helm of the First Dicastery – at least, as it remains of this writing – it bears reminding that the role of Stato in a Francis-reformed Curia is likely to undergo some surgery of its own... just of the amputation kind.

On Parolin's 31 August appointment as Secretary, officials stressed that the nominee's mandate would focus on the ad extra side – the Second Section work of geopolitical affairs where the 59 year-old archbishop made his name. Alongside this, reports from this month's first meeting of the "Council of Cardinals" indicated the body's considerable discernment of the future of the Curial "clearinghouse" functions currently run out of Stato's First Section (General Affairs), with the establishment of a new "Moderator of the Curia" structure to handle interoffice coordination advanced as a very distinct possibility.

Whatever the case, one thing's clear. Though State had maintained its founding function – namely, that of the "Office of the Pope" – for nearly five centuries, even before today, that distinction has already departed San Damaso for the Domus.

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Even if the helm of State is the ultimate "brass ring," for the lifers of the Curia and the Diplomatic Corps, another post has long been almost as coveted toward the end of a cleric's rise... and over the weekend, the Pope used it to send a message sure to resonate like an upending of file-cabinets.

In yet another move few, if anyone, could foresee outside the Domus, on Saturday Francis named the Brazilian Msgr Ilson de Jesus Montanari (right) – a 54 year-old junior staffer at the Congregation for Bishops – as the all-powerful Hat Shop's new secretary, at the same time elevating him to the customary rank of archbishop. (I
t shouldn't be lost on anyone that, to further punctuate his intent, the Pope's choice was announced on the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, Brazil's patroness, to whom Francis consecrated his Petrine ministry over the summer.)

An entry-level minutante who's only been at Bishops since 2008, Montanari – a good Italian name, of course – succeeds Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was plucked to oversee Papa Bergoglio's intended bulk-up of the Synod of Bishops last month.

As the #2 of Bishops traditionally doubles as secretary of the College of Cardinals, the newly-chosen Francis kept with long-standing Conclave tradition by conferring his red zucchetto on Baldisseri, 73, at the close of the March election to fill his own seat in the Pope's "Senate." Said to have formed a close bond with the new pontiff, the so-called "semi-cardinal" is expected to be properly elevated at the Pope's first Consistory, which could come as soon as sometime this winter.

The daily taskmaster overseeing much of the Curia's most sensitive – and, indeed, most obsessively-watched – material, for the last several decades the deputy at Bishops has usually been chosen from among the top tier of veteran Nuncios, who would be fluent in the appointment process after decades of preparing vacancy dossiers in their respective assignments. (Baldisseri, for example, had spent two decades serving by turns as the Vatican legate in Haiti, India and Brazil before landing at the congregation in 2012.) After a couple years in the job, each was then moved to a post that guaranteed a red hat, and the next Stato product to be rewarded would come up.

By marked contrast, especially for such a crucial role, Montanari's sudden ascent is roughly equivalent to tossing a sledgehammer at a plate-glass precedent. With Francis, however, no one should be terribly surprised at that by this point.

For starters, the promotion of a minutante (in English, a "desk-clerk") to #2 of a major congregation flies in the face of practically every convention of the Curia, where – at least, until now – top officials have either been gradually bumped up through the ranks or recruited from significant duties outside. Simply put, for Vatiworld, this is the closest thing to a "Cinderella" story anyone will be able to remember.

Keeping with the "pecking order" thread, as age goes, it's been a quarter-century since the post's holder was last in his mid-50s: not since 1989, to be precise, when Archbishop Justin Rigali (likewise 54 at the time), was moved into the slot from the helm of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican diplomatic school where the LA-born future cardinal was serving as its first-ever American president. Perhaps most pointedly, though, over the last 50 years since the Conciliar reforms – and perhaps well longer – not one choice for Secretary of the old "Consistorial Congregation" (its roots dating to 1588) has, until today, been drawn from the office's own staff. Beyond giving a boost to in-house morale and knowing the "guts" of the operation firsthand, the move marks a significant shift of perspective as the appointment process is markedly different from a staffer's vantage as opposed to that of a Nuncio or other senior official.

Accordingly, that's part of the rationale for the appointment, which – personnel being policy – underscores Francis' push to markedly change the way things "have always been done" (a mindset he specifically took to the woodshed some days back in Assisi).

Even for a 2nd class staffer with only five years on the job, Montanari is an unusual case in that he didn't come to the Curia until the tail-end of his forties, unlike the bulk of minutanti, who arrive some two decades younger, whether to put in a five-year term or two, or stay on for the long haul. Yet in particular, what the now archbishop-elect did over that time bears noting: though trained at the Gregorian – and aside from a two-year return there (2002-4) for a licentiate – from his 1989 ordination until arriving at Bishops, the incoming secretary served as a parish priest, teacher and vicar forane in his home archdiocese of Ribeirão Preto, at the outskirts of Brazil's Sao Paulo state. That Montanari has returned to minister at his old parish during vacations would, of course, be even more music to the new Boss' ears.

As for how the new Vice-Hatman came to Francis' attention, two figures stand out. Beyond ostensibly enjoying a solid relationship with Baldisseri – who served in his now-successor's home country for a decade before they worked together – until recently, Montanari was stationed alongside another Latin American named Fabián Pedacchio Leaniz. That arrangement changed shortly after the Conclave as Don Fabián – a priest of Buenos Aires said to have been Jorge Bergoglio's Roman agent – was brought over to the Domus as the Pope's co-private secretary.

Pedacchio serves alongside Msgr Alfred Xuereb, the Maltese personal aide who the new Pope inherited from B16.

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Speaking of the rising "Argentine mafia," with the first Latin American pontificate having reached the seven-month mark over the weekend, it's rather astonishing that essentially no one has grasped what might just be the most interesting internal nod the Pope has made to date.

Though Francis brought no one from Buenos Aires to be part of his formal household, five weeks after his election, he did quietly summon one key lieutenant from home to his side – at least, to "himself" in an unofficial capacity.

The longtime judicial vicar of Buenos Aires, head of its tribunal and dean of the canon law faculty at Argentina's national Pontifical University, on 20 April Papa Bergoglio named Fr Alejandro Bunge an auditor (judge) of the Roman Rota, the church's second-highest appellate court. Yet with the impending Curial reform, Francis' interest in studying issues of marriage and other sacramental law and all the usual issues that tend to arise on a pontiff's plate – not to mention the reams of airtight decree-writing that will be required to codify his desired results and execute them into praxis – even if he doesn't bear the title in the daylight, perhaps the 61 year-old jurist is most accurately described as the legally-unsteeped Pope's "pocket canonist."

Given much of Francis' internal thrust to date – namely, the beginnings of a movement toward enhancing synodality and collegiality across the board – it's likewise of note that the formation and evolution of modern consultative structures has been a keen focus of Bunge's research: among the published works of the new Prelato Uditore (above) is an examination of the statutes and praxis of the CELAM, the Latin American mega-conference of bishops which, responsible as it is for nearly half the global church's entire membership, comprises Catholicism's largest collaborative entity of ecclesiastical authorities... and a remarkably effective one at that.

Back to Montanari, it's most likely that he'll be formally elevated at the first episcopal ordination over which Francis will preside, slated for 26 October. Two other archbishops-elect are already on-deck to be invested at the rite.

And as for the congregation he'll help lead, it is indeed conspicuous that while the Pope has already reconfirmed or reshuffled the leaders and/or memberships of several dicasteries over the last six weeks, no such announcement has yet been made for Bishops. Then again, given the detail which Francis has devoted to scouring the various office-lists before moving to sustain or shake up the current compositions of each major Curial organ, the delay in this instance can seemingly be chalked up to the massive clout of the Hat Shop's vaunted "Thursday Table" – the meetings of the congregation's 27 cardinal-members – in recommending nominees for episcopal appointment to a Pope who's still getting a crash course in the global church...

...one thanks to whom Montanari now has a seat where it counts.