Fr Federico Lombardi is trying to allay fears about redundancies as best he can

‘What’s the mood like? It’s one of real fear,” said a Vatican official speaking about plans drawn up by the Holy See to cut staff.

On February 13, Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin sent a letter to all Vatican department heads, notifying them of an immediate end to new hires, wage increases and overtime in an urgent effort to cut costs and offset budget shortfalls. The instructions, drawn up by the Vatican’s central accounting office, also determined that volunteers could be used to help provide for any labour shortages. Employment contracts vary according to department but some temporary workers will not have their contracts renewed when their terms are up, according to the letter.

Around 300 Vatican staff are on temporary or fixed-term contracts, the Vatican says. Some have had this working arrangement more than 20 years (the Vatican often flouts a statutory five-year limit on such contracts) and have families to support. Most of them are non-Italians.

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The Pope’s decision to hire four large management consultancies to increase efficiency has only increased fears. Officials are also angry because the costs of these consultants aren’t officially known (one fee is said to be over €10 million, according to the website Korazym).

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi is trying to allay fears, stressing that although sacrifices have to be made any cuts will strive to avoid “serious damage”. “Certainly the Pope doesn’t want people to be ‘laid off’, with serious consequent problems for them and their families,” he said.

The majority of those on fixed-term contracts cannot be eliminated without causing serious damage to the services these entities provide, he said, so their contracts won’t be suspended once their term has expired. But those of a “clearly temporary nature”, such as those brought in to cover maternity leave, are different and would in any case not have been renewed, he added.

The Vatican is keen that staff realise the seriousness of the situation but also that it is being handled with “responsibility and care for the people involved”. It’s especially cautious given that the Pope has frequently decried unemployment, in his 2014 Lenten message that it can lead to destitution and suicide.

But many can see how the situation could be handled better. “Everything is cuts, cuts, cuts,” said one official. “Not once have they talked about how we could raise revenue.” A senior official in the secretary of state told me they’re so understaffed and overworked that “the work simply never gets done”. “The problem is they’re so socialistic here,” the first official said. “You say the word revenue and they respond with: ‘Oh filthy lucre!’ They’re all secretly jealous [of enterprising initiatives].” Some have proposed a fundraising office for the Holy See, but it’s apparently ruled out because it would appear crass.

The Vatican’s union is ineffective, but some are putting hope in Cardinal George Pell, the new head of Vatican finances, who is known to have business acumen and common sense. Others fear he
will favour more cuts.

Whatever the changes, staff will be hoping these are handled with the diligence and care that’s been promised.

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