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After his surprise election, Pope Francis must maintain momentum to reform the Curia

The Pontiff’s ‘Italian identity’ and a wise choice of Secretary of State will help bring about change at the Vatican

By on Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Pope Francis greets parishioners outside Sant'Anna church (CNS)

Pope Francis greets parishioners outside Sant'Anna church (CNS)

John Thavis, who has a blog that can be found here, is the veteran Vatican commentator who distinguished himself, alone of all those watching the election, in correctly predicting its result before the Cardinals even went into conclave. Mr Thavis is also the author of a book, The Vatican Diaries, which tells the inside story of his days as a Vaticanista, and which I have read and can strongly recommend.

It is early days still, and we have to give Pope Francis time before we can really come to a judgement of what his Papacy holds in store for the Church. So far, he reminds me of Pope John XXIII, and Pope John Paul I. He is a breath of fresh air – and I say that without detracting from the very considerable achievements of Pope Benedict. Like everyone else, apart from Mr Thavis, I was surprised by the choice of the Cardinals. My own preference was Cardinal Caffarra, the Archbishop of Bologna. I heard the Cardinal preach when he was Archbishop of Ferrara, and spoke to him; he is both brilliant and affable, but being 74 years old, I was pretty sure far too old to be a successor to Benedict XVI. My eye was also on a younger candidate, Cardinal O’Malley, of Boston: he was an American, whose no nonsense attitude might well shake up the Roman Curia, and a Capuchin: I had a feeling a Franciscan Papacy would be a good thing. As it turned out, we did get a Franciscan Papacy, but not in the way I had imagined. God loves to pull a fast one.

The single biggest thing to watch out for over the coming days and weeks is the appointment of a new Secretary of State. Whoever is appointed will be the second most important person in the Vatican after the Pope, and on his shoulders will rest the mammoth task of guiding the nuncios around the world; without an effective Secretary of Sate, reform of the Curia will be impossible.

Pope John XXIII appointed his Secretary of State on the very night he was elected. But in Cardinal Tardini the Blessed John XXIII had an obvious candidate. In that there is no obvious candidate, it seems right that Pope Francis should pause and ponder; but the longer this pause goes on for, the longer it may seem that the desire to change has run into the sand. But he has to appoint someone sooner or later, given that the current incumbent is in his late seventies. The question is – who?

John Thavis has spotted that Pope Francis speaks Italian to the exclusion of almost everything else. This is deeply significant. It reminds us all that the Pope is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome, and one who told us, at his election, that he sees the evangelisation of the city of Rome as one of his major tasks. That is certainly welcome. There are parts of Rome, the parts where people live and where tourists never go, the periferia, which will remind the Pope of parts of Buenos Aires, and which are almost totally godless. One can expect the Holy Father to start visiting places like Tor Bella Monaca, and soon.

The emphasis on Italian is also music to the ears of Italians. Many a time and oft in the John Paul II era I heard Italians discussing how a future Pope had to be Italian, as he was Bishop of Rome, an Italian city. Never mind the fact that many medieval bishops were born far from their diocese; it is a matter of national pride for Italians that the Pope should be one of them. And this one is: Italo-Argentino, but essentially an Italian son of Italian parents in Italian eyes.

But does the Pope’s perceived Italian identity count in the wider scheme of things? Will it make the reform of the Curia easier? Or will it signal business as usual? Will the ‘Italian way of doing things’ carry on under the Italian-Argentinean Pope?

Beyond this is another question. Can the Roman Curia in fact be reformed? Is it not far too late for that? One remembers the ways in which various ministers of Louis XVI grappled with the question of reform, and failed. The way various Ottoman Sultans tried reform, and failed. And the way the Chinese Emperors also tried to modernise, and failed. But maybe something can be learned from the Chinese and Ottoman experiences.

The Auspicious Incident of 1826 which saw the forcible dissolution of the Janissary Corps may be one pointer. Another may be the stern measure take by Pu Yi in 1924: annoyed by the rampaging theft of the eunuchs in the Forbidden City, he had them all expelled without warning. By then, of course, it was far too late, and the damage had been done. But the principle – that of suppression of a body that proves irreformable – is a good one.