SINCE 1985 Sebastiano Baggio had been camerlengo, or chamberlain, of the Roman Catholic Church, an office of potential rather than actual importance since he would have been responsible for arranging the next conclave following the death of the present Pope. The fact that he was seven years older than Pope John Paul II suggests that the camerlengo appointment was largely a way of honouring an old friend and ally.
Betwen 1973 and 1984 Baggio was one of the most powerful figures in the Roman curia. He was Prefect (that is, director) of the Congregation of Bishops, whose task is to prepare lists of candidates for the episcopacy throughout the Catholic world, and to check up on the work of existing bishops.
Though Baggio always insisted that he was not the bishop-maker - he proposed while the Pope alone disposed - he did in effect have considerable powers of patronage. He had immense knowledge of the dossiers of possible candidates, and knew their weaknesses for drink or women.
His knowledge of the world-wide Church was based on diplomatic experience as Nuncio in Chile and Brazil and Apostolic Delegate in Canada, where he was a particular friend of Cardinal Emmett Carter, the former Archbishop of Toronto. Carter, knowing his love of objets d'art and antiquities, gave him a valuable Coptic ring which, its authenticity duly certified by a Paris antiquaire, Baggio habitually wore.
Affable, smiling, squat and somewhat worldly, Baggio in private supported many charitable works and did good mostly by stealth. His housekeeper was his sister. As Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, he did what the Pope of the time wanted. Under Paul VI he appointed conciliar- minded bishops like Cardinal Basil Hume and renewed the United States episcopacy with the aid of a remarkable Apostolic Delegate, the Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot who - in a departure from precedent - was not made a cardinal on retirement from Washington.
Baggio was immediately confirmed in office by John Paul I and again by John Paul II after the two conclaves of 1978. This can be read as a mark of confidence in him, and perhaps of gratitude. Though never a very serious candidate for the papacy himself, Baggio gathered nine and ten votes in the first two ballots of the first conclave and transferred them to the eventual winner.
There was some apprehension, on the election of John Paul II, that Baggio would become Cardinal Secretary of State, a post for which he was not equipped. It was no doubt not literally true that he had not read a book in 20 years, but he excused himself from reading on the grounds that theologians were wrecking the Church.
Under Pope John Paul II the criteria for episcopal ordination began to change. Theological soundness was valued more than pastoral effectiveness. There was one curious exception to this principle: the appointment of the Jesuit Carlo Maria Martini to the prestigious see of Milan in 1979. Baggio 'let it be known' that he had come to favour Martini after reading his book on St Luke's Gospel - thus proving that he did read - and on discovering that Martini, as Rector of the Gregorian University, was spiritual director to a significant number of Italian bishops. It was also a way of saying that he had 'nothing against the Jesuits'.
This needed proving as Baggio was notoriously 'close to Opus Dei' and in 1981 had engaged in an epic battle with Fr Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit General, over the future of Central American policy. Baggio - and Pope John Paul - wanted a 'unitary policy' for Central America which the Jesuits and other religious thought impossible in view of the different situations: civil war in El Salvador, dictatorship in Panama, a post-revolutionary regime in Nicaragua, and a persecuting born-again General in Guatemala. Baggio, with the Pope on his side, lost the argument but won the battle.
Baggio was involved in Latin American events since the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops is also ex officio President of the Pontifical Council for Latin America. As early as the Synod on Evangelisation of 1974 he had spotted Karol Wojtyla as a likely ally against those who, in his view, were engaged on the dangerous flirtation with Marxists which went under the name of 'Liberation theology'. Thus he was able to help Pope John Paul on his first foreign journey to the Latin American Bishops' Conference Puebla in January 1979 where the aim was to 'correct the mistakes' of the 1968 conference at Medellin, Colombia.
Baggio also signed the 'declaration' of 27 November 1982, which changed the status of Opus Dei from 'secular institute' to 'personal prelature'. The effect of this was to remove the controversial and secretive Spanish movement from the Congregation of Religious and Secular Institutes, where it had many critics, and place it as a quasi-diocese under the protective wing of Baggio's Congregation of Bishops.
Born in 1913 in Rosa, a small town between Padua and Mantua, and ordained priest at 22, he finished his studies at the Pontifical Academy, the school for Vatican diplomats. He missed the war in Europe, holding diplomatic posts in El Salvador, Bolivia and Venezuela from 1938 to 1946. His future was foreshadowed in 1950 when he became assistant at the Consistorial Congregation (as the Congregation of Bishops was then known).
Baggio had a brief spell of 'pastoral experience' as Archbishop of Cagliari, Sardinia, in the 1960s. He chose as his episcopal motto 'Operando Custodire' which was rudely rendered as 'keeping things the way they are by being an operator'. As Prefect of the Bishops' Congregation he was known as 'Viaggio Baggio', though not all his journeys were successful: on a visit to Chicago in 1977 he failed to secure the resignation of Cardinal John J. Cody.
It will be interesting to see whether Pope John Paul appoints a younger man as camerlengo.
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