Monday, November 24, 2014

For The "New CDW," A New Kind of Prefect

After several weeks of rumors of an impending Curial "earthquake" – ahead of schedule, the first throes of a sweeping, Francis-driven restructuring – the Holy See released a one-line statement that "At 9.30 this morning, the Pope presided over a meeting of the dicastery heads" who comprise the church's central government.

While whatever transpired remains to emerge, the most-awaited of the expected moves has been released with today's appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the 69 year-old Guinean until now in charge of the Vatican's humanitarian efforts, as the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (His name having circulated for the spot over recent weeks, Sarah is seen above on a visit to the Philippines in the wake of last year's Super-Typhoon Yolanda – the catalyst behind the Pope's own planned visit in mid-January.)

Ordained a bishop at 34, in the post overseeing the global church's formal life of prayer, Sarah succeeds Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, who was returned to his native Spain – by some accounts, at his own request – in late August as archbishop of his native Valencia.

Having served as head of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – in the coming shuffle, likely to be merged with the body for Justice and Peace – since 2010 and before that as #2 at the Propaganda Fide, not much is known about Sarah's background or expertise in matters of worship; lacking a doctorate, the cardinal's final degree was a licentiate in the Scriptures. Then again, the CDW under Francis is not expected to continue along the office's path of recent decades, which saw the congregation preside over revolutionary shifts (e.g. the sweeping re-translation of the English Missal) alongside maintaining an intense disciplinary oversight of liturgical abuses – whether real or perceived – at the local level. (As a friend once mused – perhaps only half-jokingly – during Cardinal Roger Mahony's quarter-century as archbishop of Los Angeles, CDW "had a whole wing" dedicated to handling complaints from the US' largest diocese.)

Instead, the office's new mission is likely to hew closer to Francis' own liturgical approach – as one op summarized its principles: "Go by the book. Don't make a fuss about it. And remember that liturgy's always a means to an end – not an end in itself."

Along those lines, the choice of a prefect whose ministry has been immersed in the work of charity and the perils of the missions – far removed from the boutique "liturgy wars" so beloved by polarized Anglo-European elites (whose churches aren't necessarily thriving) – serves above all as a fresh pointer to the risks, rewards and messiness of the "peripheries," the concept which remains the key to everything in this pontificate.

Returning to the wider frame of Curia reform, while Italian and Spanish media accounts have been rife with suppositions and projections of the coming state of things over recent days, the reminder's apparently in order of the degree to which Francis keeps his cards close until he's ready to break out.

Ostensibly, we'll see the full picture soon enough – after two overseas trips this week alone (a daylong trek to the European Parliament in Strasbourg tomorrow, then a three-day visit to Turkey starting Friday) – the Pope will convene his top council of nine cardinals charged with crafting the reform from 3-5 December.

If the ride so far is any indicator, you'll want to prepare for surprises.