Saturday, April 13, 2013

For "Project of Revision," Francis Calls A Council

Precisely a month since his election, Pope Francis has served notice of even more changes in the Vatican – this time, on the all-important administrative front.

This morning, the pontiff announced the establishment of a group of eight cardinals with the sweeping remit "to advise him in the government of the universal church and to study a plan for revising the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, 'Pastor Bonus.'"

Said to have been inspired by "a suggestion that emerged during the General Congregations preceding the Conclave," as relayed in the move's formal notice, the membership of the group is:

–Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State;
–Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile;
–Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay;
–Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Friesing;
–Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa;
–Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley OFM Cap, archbishop of Boston;
–Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney;
–Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, SDB, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, in the role of coordinator;
–and Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, who'll serve as the group's secretary.

In retrospect, this plan has apparently been on Francis' mind since the first days following his election – the new Pope had his first announced audience of any sort with Semeraro on the evening of March 17th, the same night he met with the Father-General of the Jesuits, Adolfo Nicolás.

While Benedict XVI summoned a group of cardinals to consult on the state of governance last June, in the wake of the first throes of the "Vatileaks" fiasco, in the early days of this pontificate the notion of a more formalized "crown council around [Francis]" was first floated by the Italian vaticanista Sandro Magister.

Even if the formation of an advisory body of this sort has repeatedly been proffered in the past, the idea has historically faced heavy resistance in the Vatican given the sense that it would undermine the traditional standing of the entire College of Cardinals as the principal counsel to the Pope.

The group's first meeting is slated to take place from 1-3 October – conspicuously, the days immediately prior to the feast of St Francis of Assisi. Beyond Bertello, the only other member of the group with Curial experience is Errázuriz, a member of the Schoenstatt movement who served as Secretary of the "Congregation for Religious" from 1990-96.

On another front, the retired Chilean prelate is a former president of the CELAM – the mega-conference of the Latin American bishops – while Gracias is the current head of the umbrella-group of the Asian episcopal conferences, the FABC, and Marx (a sociologist by training) oversees COMECE, the Brussels-based commission of European bishops' conferences.

As for the group's coordinator, despite having served as archbishop of the Honduran capital since 1993, Rodríguez (above) – like Errázuriz, another past president of CELAM – is a well-known figure both on the Roman scene and in the wider church thanks both to his days in the continental post and his current side-role as president of Caritas Internationalis, the federation of the global church's charitable and humanitarian-aid agencies. In the latter capacity, the 70 year-old cardinal was involved in a scrap with B16's Curia over its 2012 push to overhaul Caritas, a process which saw the forced departure of the group's secretary-general, Leslie Ann Knight, allegedly for having been overtly "critical of the Vatican machine." 

In a similar vein, the famously-combative Pell – the only non-Curialist in the four-man group convoked last year by Benedict – had been tipped in 2010 as the now-retired pontiff's choice to lead the Congregation for Bishops, but the plan fell apart after a vicious "dirty pool" effort behind the walls succeeded in its intent to block the Australian's appointment. 

Notably, in the run-up to the Conclave, even one of Pell's most strident critics conceded that the Sydneysider was one of the few electors who "ha[d] the stuff" to successfully broach a cleanup of the shambles-ridden Roman apparatus – a task many cardinals cited as an overarching concern in the choice of the new Pope.

Put bluntly, by calling in figures who have clashed to a considerable, highly-public degree with the Establishment he's inherited, Francis is bringing the Curia's chickens home to roost.

The last major reform of the Curia, Pastor Bonus – "The Good Shepherd" – was promulgated by John Paul II twenty-five years ago this June 28. 

As required by law in the days following his election, the Pope reconfirmed the chiefs of the Curia – who lose their posts during a papal vacancy – in the exercise of their functions, but only on a provisional basis. As the Holy See explained at the time, Francis wished "to reserve time for reflection, prayer, and dialogue before any final appointments or confirmations are made."

The Vatican said that Francis has already begun contact with the members of his working-group, ostensibly by his preferred means – the phone. 

Meanwhile, the pontiff's homily at this morning's "workers' Mass" in the Domus Sancta Marthae seemed to implicitly address the move.

In its report on Francis' latest daily liturgy for Vatican employees, Vatican Radio said that Papa Bergoglio cited the early church's conflict over "practical necessities" present in today's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, on which the Pope "commented that, rather than openly address[ing] the problem, their first reaction is one of whispered criticism and gossip.

"'But this does lead to any solution' [he said], 'this does not give solutions.

"'The Apostles, with the help of the Holy Spirit, responded well: they summoned the group of disciples and spoke to them. And this is the first step: when there are difficulties, we need to look closely at them, and confront them and speak about them. But never hide them."

In a briefing following the announcement, the lead Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, said that the council would not supplant the daily functions of the Roman Curia, adding that the body "will have no legislative power and that its main function is to 'help' and 'advise' the Pope."