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“A safe pair of hands”: Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/01/13

A Bagnasco papacy would be an efficient machine, but there's little there to sparkle, excite, and inspire

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It is inevitable that Italian candidates for the papacy be embroiled in the inner turmoil and intrigue of the Italian Church. As such, Angelo Cardinal Bagnasco is a perfect example.

Born in the town of Pontevico and brought up in Genoa, the young Angelo Bagnasco began serving as an altar boy at the age six. By the time he was in elementary school, he heard the call to the priesthood. After high school, he graduated with a degree in Philosophy from the University of Genoa and became a professor of metaphysics and modern atheism. He served as a chaplain to students and to the scouts. In 1998, he was appointed Bishop of Pesaro, and was later promoted to Archbishop of Genoa in 2006. A year later, he was made a Cardinal.

Shortly thereafter, Cardinal Bagnasco was appointed President of the Italian Bishop’s Conference by Pope Benedict XVI. John Allen, chief Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, explains that he was a compromise candidate between moderates and conservatives and between the established power in the Italian Church: Camillo Cardinal Ruini and the rising power, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, who served as Secretary of State under Pope Benedict (the second most powerful position in the Vatican, after the Pope himself). According to Allen, Bagnasco got the job as leader of the Italian Bishops’ Conference because the powers that be thought he would not do much with it and be a safe pair of hands.

Non-Italians – who may look on all the power politics of the Italian Church as just a bit too close to the warring families of the Mafiosi – will want to avoid the intrigues of Italian churchmanship and ask what kind of man Bagnasco is.

He is smart and articulate; a conservative, he also has a pastoral style that is conciliatory and consultative. At the same time, he has shown himself to be a strong leader with real backbone. He has led the Italian Church’s opposition to same-sex “marriage,” courting controversy by comparing homosexuality to incest and pedophilia. John Allen reports that during the storm of complaints, Bagnasco received an anonymous envelope arrived at at his office containing a single bullet and a picture of the Cardinal with a swastika carved into it.

What would a Bagnasco papacy look like? It would invariably bring the center of the Church back to Italy. Bagnasco speaks several languages, but he does not have much experience with the global Church. He is a good political operator and would be able to handle the delicate work of reforming the Curia and negotiating Italian politics, but one wonders whether he has the experience and skill to move much beyond the Italian Church.

A Bagnasco papacy would be an efficient and polished machine, but there seems little there to sparkle, excite, and inspire. He seems like an establishment figure – capable and dependable, but not dynamic and charismatic. Where John Paul II was an actor, poet, philosopher, and passionate disciple, Bagnasco would be a civil servant, a safe pair of hands, and a reliable pastor. Where Benedict XVI was a gentle, bookish mentor, scholar, and pastor, Bagnasco would be more of an establishment intellectual – an administrator, political operator, and moderator.

Is that what the Church needs now? The cardinals will have to make a decision on this crucial matter as they head into the conclave. Does the Church need a safe pair of hands like Cardinal Bagnasco, or someone who may be able to turn over the tables in the temple and sweep the Church and the world with the whirlwind and the fire of the Holy Spirit?

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism, Pure and Simple. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at

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