The choice of conferring the cardinal’s biretta on Bishop Oscar Cantoni has raised questions in the minds of many observers. His diocese, Como, Italy, is not known as a cardinal’s see. A small diocese in Lombardy, it’s often overshadowed by the very prestigious northern dioceses of Venice, Turin, and Milan, of which Como is a suffragan diocese. In fact, when Pope Francis unveiled his list of new cardinals during the Angelus on May 29, many expected that he would finally give a cardinal’s hat to one of the archbishops in these dioceses again.
This was not the case. And it is probably a reflection of the Argentine pontiff’s willingness to choose – even in Italy – dioceses that are considered peripheral to the Sacred College. This is not the first time since 2013: for example, Francis gave a cardinal to the dioceses of L’Aquila (2018), Agrigento (2015), and Ancona (2015).
But the appointment of Archbishop Oscar Cantoni, 71, is not by chance either. Perhaps Pope Francis chose him to console a diocese that has suffered from the recent martyrdom of a priest and to encourage a bishop who “smells of his flock.”
Born in 1950 in the Italian province of Como, north of Milan, Oscar Cantoni was ordained a priest in 1975 for his home diocese. Founder and then director of the center for vocations and a teacher of religious education in the region’s secondary schools, he contributed to the development of the Ordo Virginum, an association of consecrated virgins. In 1990, he became the spiritual director of the diocesan seminary, a role to which he devoted himself for 15 years, thus getting to know a large part of its current clergy. Episcopal vicar of the Diocese of Como for two years, he was appointed in 2005 as bishop of Crema, south of Milan. In 2016, Pope Francis finally asked him to return to take the reins of his home diocese.
A man of the field, and the initiator of many charitable projects, the bishop continues the missionary dynamic begun years earlier, especially with young people and the most disadvantaged. In 2020, one of his priests, Fr. Roberto Malgesini, was murdered by a street person he was caring for. The death of this 51-year-old pastor shook all of Italy, and Pope Francis was moved by it, saying during a general audience. “I give praise to God for the witness, that is, for the martyrdom of this witness of charity toward the poorest,” he said, calling for a time of silence for the deceased and “for all the priests, sisters, lay faithful who work with the needy and those society casts away.”
Returning to the figure of this priest a few days later, Pope Francis saluted a man who “was not interested in theories” and who “simply saw Jesus in the poor and found the meaning in life in serving them.” Bishop Oscar Cantoni, also upset by the tragedy of this priest to whom he was close, was received by the pope with the family of the deceased. “We experienced a moment of tenderness during which Pope Francis comforted us,” he said.
The day after the announcement of his cardinalate, he spoke to Vatican News about Fr. Malgesini: “I feel him very close because I was very close to him. I feel his protection and I believe that from Heaven he blesses me and also the ministry that awaits me, but he also blesses all the members of this diocesan community.”
A diocese that had already suffered
Some Italian media have also pointed out that this is not the first time in recent years the Diocese of Como has had a martyr, and that Pope Francis may have wanted to pay homage to this battered Italian land. At the turn of the century, two other religious lost their lives in tragic circumstances: Fr. Renzo, shot at the door of the parish house by a young man in his 30s looking for money in 1999. And the now blessed Sr. Maria Laura Mainetti. In the year 2000 this nun was murdered by three women claiming to be followers of Satan. Mortally wounded, the Italian nun had just enough time to ask God to forgive her murderers.
All of these tragedies led the Italian journalist Nello Scavo to draw the following conclusion upon learning of Bishop Cantoni’s elevation to the cardinalate:
“Almost no Italian or European diocese has seen such a high number of martyrs, blessed and saints in the last 30 years. Religious and priests killed in their communities for their concrete witness of faith. Still others have risen to the honors of the altars for their spiritual heritage […] Oscar Cantoni is the son and pastor of this Church. And anyone who saw and heard him at the time of the martyrdom of Fr. Roberto Malgesini knows that the meaning of the ‘purple’ has long been the key to his mission as a bishop.”
Bishop Cantoni’s name in the London affair
Surprisingly, Bishop Cantoni’s name has recently surfaced in two legal cases that have shaken the Vatican. The first case concerns the St. Pius X minor seminary, which was located within the Vatican until 2021, but which was administrated by the Diocese of Como. In this trial, which ended in the fall of 2021 with an acquittal, one of the two defendants, a man from the diocese of Como who was a seminarian at the time of the events, was accused of having abused one of his companions in the seminary around 2010. Before the Vatican court, Bishop Cantoni had to explain his handling of this seminarian, whom he ordained in 2017 before taking disciplinary measures against him after the dissemination of a journalistic investigation the same year.
The other case is the sprawling London building trial in which Cardinal Angelo Becciu is appearing alongside nine other defendants. Becciu, the former deputy of the Secretariat of State, is charged with embezzlement, abuse of power in an organized group, and witness tampering. On this last point, the person on whom the Sardinian cardinal tried to put pressure was none other than the bishop of Como. Cardinal Becciu allegedly asked him to push a priest incardinated in his diocese—Msgr. Perlasca, responsible for the administrative office of the First Section of the Secretariat of State between 2009 and 2019—to withdraw the accusations against him. An accusation which the former “number 3” of the Holy See formally denies; during a hearing last May, he said he found this accusation “particularly painful.” On this issue, Vatican justice has not yet come to a determination.