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Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo

Behind the scenes at the Vatican

Voices Feb. 7, 2018

Unlike the cardinals who are supposed to be the Pope's chief consultors, Francis established an inner circle of nine cardinals who meet regularly to advise him. 

The joy of the entire Christian world touched its summit on March 3, 2013, when the cardinal camerlengo (the highest prelate in charge of the papal household) proclaimed “Habemus Papam!” – “We have a Pope! His name is Francis!”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was from Latin America, so again, the Pope was a non-Italian. The crowds were delighted when they learned that Pope Francis emerged as a forceful preacher of Divine Mercy, a champion of the poor, and a courageous reformer ready to tackle the more administrative task of curial reform which his predecessor Benedict XVI, now retired, was not able to accomplish.

Francis established an inner circle of nine cardinals who meet regularly to advise him. This group is very different from the college of cardinals who are supposed to be the Pope’s chief consultors. Given their number (about 220) and geographical dispersal, opportunities for wide-ranging consultation are rare. Hence the creation of this restricted number of personal advisers. 

This has led to speculation that Francis is trying to avoid forums in which growing discontent might be expressed, and that meetings of the sacred college might degenerate into an acrimonious confrontation. Nevertheless, those close to him maintain that he remains serene in the face of opposition.

Changes of pontificate often see adjustments of the pendulum when it comes to the direction of Church policy, but there are those, including some who welcomed the new pontificate enthusiastically in 2013, who now fear an excessive polarization as a result of Francis’s governing style, which could put at risk the legacies of his predecessors as well as his own positive contributions.

Five years of his pontificate have passed and one significant, concrete reform was the creation of a Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, under Cardinal Kevin Farrell, and a Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, under Cardinal Peter Turkson, both replacing a plethora of existing pontifical councils.

This was meant to promote a unified direction and avoid an overlapping and hazy distribution of responsibilities. A year after being launched, vital staff are not yet in place, and officials from bodies that are now dissolved remain at their desks, not knowing whether they will be employed in the new structures. Impressions of chaos reportedly generate frustration among the most loyal of papal collaborators – which opponents of reform do not fail to exploit.

Francis’s precise roles in these manoeuvres and his attitude toward both progress and setbacks is unknown. Access to him is a huge issue. Yet the Secretariat of State’s control over this is only partial since Francis has his own networks of trusted advisers outside the Curia.

His decision to reside at the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican guest house, was motivated in large part by the desire to bypass curial channels. Yet this aspect of his pontificate also generates questions.

It is clear, however, that Francis, like a true Jesuit, has a very spiritual life. Nothing is more appropriate for him than to fulfill his vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, the apogee of perfection. The simple room of a guest house is adequate for him, and he has avoided the breathtaking luxury of the Vatican Palace. 

So far, Francis’s popularity has prevented these contradictions from being exploited to damage him and the Church. The successor of Peter must guide the Church and overcome the doctrinal disputes, the financial troubles, the confusion, and transform the college of cardinals, and Francis’s apparent broken system of governing the Church is new proof of the divinity of the Holy Church, since she, the Church, “alios ventos vidit, aliasque procellas” (“has seen other winds and other storms”).

The Holy See is well aware that the current process for appointing bishops is faulty and that is why the council of cardinals is currently discussing a major reform. According to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, one of the nine-member group, the council is considering whether to ask the Pope to make lay consultation on bishops’ appointments obligatory.

Curial reform may be experiencing problems in the detail, but its general direction also disappoints many. The Secretariat of State, whose overweening power, combined with an institutional resistance to rocking boats, was seen from the outset as a principal factor in curial dysfunctionality. But it now seems certain to retain its hegemony.