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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri

A diplomat who tames enemies

By on Saturday, 9 March 2013

Cardinal Sandri recites the Angelus at the Vatican in 2005, serving as a stand-in for Pope John Paul II (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Sandri recites the Angelus at the Vatican in 2005, serving as a stand-in for Pope John Paul II (Photo: CNS)

The 69-year-old cardinal was born in Buenos Aires in November 1943 and is earmarked as the possible first Latin American pope. But wait: his parents, Antonio and Nella were Italian natives from Trentino, who emigrated to Argentina. Brought up in a bilingual world of Italian and Spanish, Leonardo Sandri grew up in a fusion of Argentinean and European culture.

Ordained in 1967, aged 23, he was only 27 when he was plucked from an ordinary priest’s life to become a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service. From that point on he has spent the past 42 years, up to the present, as a diplomat of the Holy See.

He is known for being reserved and extremely careful about what he says on record, so the four decades of diplomatic discipline have left their mark. The hole in his CV is that he lacks pastoral experience, that nitty-gritty knowledge of Catholics in the pew that most priests gain through years in parish life, and his critics are quick to say that because he is quite private and hesitant when asked for detailed answers. But this could work in his favour: a closed mouth catches no flies and someone so notably discreet has earned the trust of his fellows. Also, perhaps a diplomat who works hard behind the scenes is the right mix for the instant communication age of Twitter and mobile phones, when every move he makes will be scrutinised in seconds and interpreted in myriad ways. He won’t ruffle feathers or make more enemies for Mother Church, but could work to mend divisions on the inside. He also holds a doctorate in canon law, which would come in handy for settling disputes.

He was apostolic nuncio to Venezuela from 1997 to 2000 and nuncio to Mexico in 2000. Also in 2000, he was given the third-highest Vatican post as the Vatican’s “chief of staff”, a post he held for seven years. But he didn’t get global recognition until 2005. As Blessed John Paul II’s papacy drew to a close and he was ailing to the point where speech was near impossible, Sandri read out John Paul’s final communiqués. He was the prelate who announced the heart-rending news that John Paul II had died, saying: “Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father … we all feel like orphans this evening.”

After Benedict XVI’s election, he did not enjoy a public climb in power and prestige. But that’s not to say he didn’t grow in experience and influence – in private. Cardinal Sandri is an expert on everything and everyone in the Roman Curia, and is characterised by his tactfulness, which means few leaks of sensitive information that make headlines. Benedict XVI entrusted him with the role of prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which he has managed smoothly. It has become a refrain among commentators that this post is not a “power position” in the Curia, that it’s an esoteric office where he’s not working with movers and shakers. But just because the bishops that he deals with are outside the glare of our mainstream media does not mean they are any the less powerful or that because Cardinal Sandri works with Eastern Catholics his work is any the less important. He oversees the Church in the Holy Land and for several years has appealed for Catholics around the world to raise funds and pray for the faithful in the Middle East who often live in grinding poverty and face persecution.

There is a misconception that the only prelates who know Cardinal Sandri are Rome-based and that he could lose the vote from cardinals outside the Eternal City. But this seems inaccurate because he is also a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and is a member of the Vatican supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. Since 2010 he has also been a member of the Congregation for Bishops, helping to select Latin Rite bishops. His time as apostolic nuncio in different Latin American countries means that he has intimate knowledge of the lie of the land in countries far from Rome, and knows prelates who are out of the spotlight but nonetheless allies of his. 

Cardinal Sandri is an accomplished polyglot who speaks five languages fluently, including English, French and German. This means he can converse freely with Benedict XVI in the Pope’s mother tongue. He’s not just a diplomat, then, but also a much-loved confidant of countless people, a canon lawyer, a linguist and a seasoned selector of bishops. For someone who is only 69, he has accomplished much and is eligible to participate in a papal conclave until November 2023, when he turns 80. Being comparably younger will also work in his favour. As a result of Benedict XVI citing age as a factor in his abdication cardinals are definitely scouting for a younger pope. For the Conclave of March 2013, some are of the opinion that cardinals around the world who have had quiet dealings with Cardinal Sandri will quietly vote for him.

  • Waldemir García

    Mons. Moraglia (Patrch. of Venice) could be considered.

  • nytor

    He’s not a cardinal so it would outside normal practice and he heasn’t been in the general congregations so won’t have “emerged”.

  • Waldemir García

    How do you know that?, you’re reasonably speculating about the “emerging”

  • Gerketa3

    Cardinal Sandri – God bless you! and may the Holy Trinity inspire the cardinals to vote for you to become our Pope!!  I especially like your comments about women assuming more roles in the administration of the Church.  I am praying for you daily!!!   Pat Gerke, Wisconsin USA

  • Lsmendini

                Cardinal Sandri, God Bless You! We are praying for You daily to be our new Pope!
                                      L. Mendini, New Jersey USA

  • Flowerscot

    Nytor you are misinformed he is a cardinal. Obviously.

  • Mary Stanley

    My prayers are with you and the others in the conclave to elect a new pope. My Our Lord strengthen you in this quest and the Holy Spirit inspire and guide you.

  • Guest

    what’s the obvious, wearing a non-liturgical vestments in red that Moraglia is allowed to wear? he is still not a cardinal.

  • Abraham

    I am not optimistic about what they say about women having a greater role. When they win they get hemmed in by the other cardinal advisers in the different congregations not to proceed so fast. not to make so many changes…and the Roman curia drag their feet…then we just get more of the same

  • Fred

    Yes, he is a cardinal.

  • nytor

    The patriarch of Venice is a recent appointment who has not as yet been made a cardinal.

  • nytor

    You can’t emerge as a strong candidate in a congregation at which you are not even present, and Venice as a non-cardinal was not present in the general congregations.

  • nytor

    As long as you don’t mean anything heterodox such as purporting to ordain them.

  • jose de jesus

    Looks to me like the candidate for Secretary of State.

  • barthomew

    “the lay of the land.” “tact” versus “tactfulness.”