Pope Francis’s appointment of Archbishop Pietro Parolin as his new Secretary of State and right-hand man didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts when it emerged that Archbishop Parolin would miss the ceremony for “minor but urgent” surgery.
However, those present at the proceedings probably sensed the collective sigh of relief that went around the Vatican’s musty corridors, as a line was finally drawn under the calamitous era of his predecessor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Francis has, in six months as pontiff, already encouraged new dialogue on subjects such as rights for gay people and divorcees, and the status of non-believers.
But pundits say that if he is to succeed as a reformer after taking over from his unloved and highly conservative predecessor, Benedict, he faces another big task. That is to shake up the Vatican’s corrupt and sclerotic administration – hence the interest in the 58-year-old Archbishop Parolin, whose job it will be to do this.
Francis welcomed Archbishop Parolin “in absentia” as he thanked Cardinal Bertone, 78, for his service, noting the difficulties and “thorns” the outgoing Secretary of State had endured.
The “thorns” were reference to the endless barbs aimed at Cardinal Bertone as he presided over one of the most scandal-struck and accident-prone Vatican governments in recent times. From the Holy See there were regular reports of a politically poisonous atmosphere as Cardinal Bertone concentrated power in his own hands and those of a few friends and cronies. He was blamed for failing to deal with financial scandals, for exiling a whistle-blowing monsignor and for the Vatican’s feeble response to the clerical paedophilia scandal.
Many pundits felt the “Vatileaks affair”, in which dozens of embarrassing documents were leaked to the press, was done to discredit him.
Cardinal Bertone was undoubtedly the victim of some snobbery, too. Regarded by many as unremarkable and lacking in the requisite diplomatic experience, his reputation sunk further as relations with Beijing and Dublin nosedived. But Benedict and his appointee, Cardinal Bertone, appeared to continue to rely on each other. Experts say that Cardinal Bertone’s replacement, who has spent the last four years as the Vatican’s ambassador in Venezuela, should fare rather better.
Robert Mickens, of The Tablet, has said the Pope’s appointment of Archbishop Parolin “could prove to be one of the most astute choices since 1979, when John Paul II appointed the now legendary Agostino Casaroli to this key position of Prime Minister of the Vatican. He said: “The soft-spoken and friendly priest possesses the right mixture of expertise, experience and personal character for… Francis’s project of reforming the Vatican bureaucracy.”
Francis is said to have picked Archbishop Parolin to be Secretary of State just days after his historic succession from Benedict in March this year, although they had only met on one occasion. This occurred when Archbishop Parolin was Deputy Foreign Minister under Cardinal Bertone – a job he held until he was stationed in Venezuela in 2009.