For the first time in history, eight cardinals from the five continents will advise the pope "in the governance of the universal Church." But they have not been elected. They have been chosen by Pope Francis, and he will be the one to make the decisions.
On the very evening of the election as pope of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Cardinal Camillo Ruini told the newspaper “la Repubblica”:
“There is a structural problem, already addressed by Vatican Council II, but which has not yet found a satisfying and stable solution: that of the relationship between the primacy of the pope and the college of the bishops. I have great trust that Francis will be able to take a significant step forward in this direction.
“Then there is the problem of the relationship of the curia with the pope, and also with the bishops of the whole world. One thing is clear: the curia cannot be anything other than an instrument at the service of the pope, not an organism that is in some way autonomous and much less an influence on the exercise of the ministry of the successor of Peter and his relationships with the episcopate.”
Precisely one month after that March 13, with lightning speed, the new pope has begun to bring into action exactly the two innovations forecast at the moment of his election by Ruini and other cardinals:
“The Holy Father, revisiting a suggestion that emerged in the course of the general congregations preceding the conclave, has set up a group of eight cardinals to advise him in the governance of the universal Church and to study a plan for the revision of the apostolic constitution 'Pastor Bonus' on the Roman curia."
It is news of great significance, and yet it was not given with a solemn motu proprio, but – with the sobriety of forms that characterizes the current pontificate – with a simple “statement of the secretariat of state” released on Saturday, April 13.
Even having called simply a “group” the cardinal advisers he has appointed is an “understatement” typical of pope Bergoglio.
The eight cardinals personally chosen by Pope Francis were listed in strictly alphabetical order.
– the Italian Giuseppe Bertello, 71, since September of 2011 president of the governorate of Vatican City-State, after a brilliant career in Vatican diplomacy that culminated in his appointment as nuncio in Italy, backed personally by cardinal secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone at the beginning of his mandate;
– the Chilean Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, 80 next September, archbishop of Santiago from 1998 until 2010, president of the CELAM, the Latin American episcopal conference, from 2003 to July 2007, and in this latter role the president of its 5th general assembly celebrated in Aparecida in May of 2007, where then-cardinal Bergoglio coordinated the working group that wrote the final document;
– the Indian Oswald Gracias, 69, since 2006 archbishop of Mumbai/Bombay, since 2010 president of the CBCI – the episcopal conference that incorporates the Indian bishops of the three rites – and since 2011 president of the FABC, the federation of Asian bishops' conferences, as well as being elected a member, in 2012, of the general secretariat in the synod of bishops;
– the German Reinhard Marx, 60, since 2007 archbishop of Munich and Freising, and since 2012 president of the commission of the episcopates of the European community, which made news after the conclave when it stigmatized the “courtly affectations" present in some of the practices of the Roman curia;
– the Congolese Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, 74, since 2007 archbishop of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; he as well elected a member of the general secretariat of the synod in 2012;
– from the United States Sean Patrick O’Malley, 69, a Capuchin, since 2003 archbishop of Boston, known for his austere way of life and for having revived the fortunes of a diocese devastated by the scandal of sexual abuse;
– the Australian George Pell, 72, since 2001 archbishop of Sydney, another elected member of the general secretariat of the synod in 2012;
– the Honduran Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, 71, a Salesian, since 1993 archbishop of Tegucigalpa, from 1995 to 1999 president of the CELAM, and since 2007 president of Caritas Internationalis (in his roles he has had some conflicts with the Roman curia).
To this last has been entrusted the “function of coordinator.”
While “with the function of secretary” the group of eight cardinals will be assisted by Monsignor Marcello Semeraro, 66, since 2004 bishop of Albano and since 2007 president of the administrative board of the newspaper "Avvenire," owned by the Italian episcopal conference.
“The first collective meeting of the group,” concludes the brief statement from the Vatican of April 13, “has been scheduled for the days of October 1-3, 2013. His Holiness is nonetheless already in contact with the aforementioned cardinals."
As much as to say that the first formal meeting will be held in a few months, but the “group” is already operational.
All of the cardinals selected are obviously well known to and esteemed by Pope Francis. But in a particular way are three who have special prominence.
The only one of the eight who resides in Rome, Bertello, shared with the current pontiff a close relationship with the deceased archbishop Ubaldo Calabresi, the nuncio in Argentina under whose mandate Bergoglio became bishop, after having had him as head of mission in the pontifical consulates in Sudan and Venezuela at the beginning of his diplomatic career.
The coordinator of the group, Rodríguez Maradiaga, was among the very first to be invited to a private lunch by the newly elected pope.
Also very strong is the esteem of the pontiff for the “secretary” of the group, Semeraro, an esteem that dates back to the general synod of 2011, at which then-cardinal Bergoglio was adjunct relator general and Semeraro, at the time the bishop of Oria, was special secretary. He reserved for him the first private audience of his pontificate, the official communication of which was given on March 17, just four days after his election as pope.
With the sole exception of the Australian Pell, considered more conservative, all of the other cardinals are attributable to the moderate or progressive camp of the college of cardinals.
Of the eight, Pell, Rodríguez Maradiaga, and Errázuriz Ossa were made cardinals by John Paul II, the other five by Benedict XVI.
The “group” set up by Pope Francis has a twofold charge. The second is to study a reform of the curia. But the first is much more vast and new. It is to “advise” the pope “in the governance of the universal Church.” A mandate that seems to have no precedent in history.
In past years, as also in the course of the last preconclave, there were some who had expressed the hope for the creation of a “council of the crown” that would accompany the pope along with the curia and the synod.
In an interview with “30 Days” in 2007, the Belgian cardinal Godfried Danneels, who participated as an elector in the last two conclaves, said that he was “convinced that gathering every now and then around the pope a small council of personalities of the Church from different countries, the members of which might vary every two or three years, would be of assistance to him for being sure of being able to check the temperature of the Church.”
And he added:
"The curia cannot feel and register this temperature, that is not its task. Of course, there is already the synod of bishops and the college of cardinals. But what I call the 'council of the crown' could be a more flexible, discretional, contingent instrument, which certainly does not stand above the pope, but is only an organ of assistance at his service.”
Now, the innovation launched by Pope Francis seems to take up at least in part precisely this idea of a “council of the crown,” even if – and this comes as no surprise – with a decisively less regal designation.
Having said this, it must be seen how the activity of this new “group” of advisers will be articulated, what will be its effective relationships with the curia, and what concrete impact it will have on the governance of the universal Church.
It seems clear in any case that the initiative undertaken by pope Bergoglio has nothing of democratism about it. It is true that the advisers are for the most part also occupants of elected positions in the national and continental episcopal conferences or in the synod, but this was not the main criterion of selection. What counted much more was the personal relationship with the pope. And their power will also be purely consultative, because in the end it will be the pope who makes the decisions.
The second charge entrusted to the “group” of eight cardinals – not new, but still significant – is that of “studying a plan for the revision” of the apostolic constitution “Pastor Bonus" with which John Paul II in 1988 reformed the structure of the Roman curia in the light of the new code of canon law of 1984.
What is approaching, therefore, is the fourth organic intervention of reform of the Roman curia born, in the modern sense of the term, in 1588 with the constitution "Immensa Aeterni Dei" of Sixtus V.
The fourth after:
– the "Sapienti Consilio" of Saint Pius X of 1908, which served to adjust the structures of the curia to the disappearance of the Pontifical State in 1870;
– the "Regimini Ecclesiae Universae" promulgated by Paul VI in 1967 with the intention of adapting the curia to what was established by Vatican Council II, institutionalizing the predominant role of the secretariat of state over the other dicasteries;
– the "Pastor Bonus" of 1988, which, in addition to a few structural adjustments, confirmed the leadership role of the secretariat of state in the governance of the curia.
The reform of Saint Pius X, who was elected in 1903, was realized in one year, between 1907 and 1908.
That of Paul VI, announced by pope Giovanni Battista Montini immediately after his election in 1963, took four years of intense work by a dedicated commission made up of three cardinals.
A similar commission of cardinals instituted by pope Karol Wojtyla in 1985 and headed by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, finally, took three years to arrive at "Pastor Bonus."
Of the eight cardinals chosen by Pope Francis, only one has a position in Rome. It is Bertello, who however holds the formally non-curial role of president of the governorate of Vatican City-State.
And only one other has worked in the curia before: Errázuriz Ossa, who was secretary of the congregation for religious from 1991 to 1996.
While only two – Bertello and Gracias – have earned degrees in canon law, although they cannot be considered real and proper canonists.
What is taking shape, therefore, is a team of reformers of the curia predominantly from outside of the curia itself and without specific juridical competencies. And this choice appears not casual, but intended.
Although it is still premature to identify what will be the contents of the reform of the Roman curia, one can nonetheless imagine that at least three main areas will be addressed:
– the significant reduction of curial dicasteries;
– a less suffocating role for the Roman curia with regard to the local Churches;
– the return to greater collegiality within the curia.
With regard to this last point, it should be noted that pope Bergoglio has already returned to receiving in regularly scheduled audiences all of the heads of dicasteries.
It was John XXIII who let this practice fall into disuse, entrusting to the secretariat of state the role of acting as a filter between the dicasteries and the pope.
Most recently only the prefects of doctrine of the faith and for bishops were received in audience on a weekly basis, and, less frequently, the prefects of “Propaganda Fide” and for the Oriental Churches.