THE Pope's new right-hand man was scheduled to start work this
week, and, despite sick leave that will delay his arrival for a few
weeks, the signs are that Francis's plans for reform of the Vatican
are moving into a higher gear. Archbishop Pietro Parolin is the new
Secretary of State at the Vatican, a post that has in the past
involved being the chief executive of the Roman Catholic Church and
also the head of the Vatican diplomatic corps.
The Secretariat of State is the key office in running the Church
of Rome. Its new head is seen as one of the brightest of his
generation, a skilled diplomat regarded as a man of personal
humility. The resonances with Pope Francis are clear.
The Pope's de facto prime minister has worked inside
the inbred Roman bureaucracy enough to know how it works, and how
it doesn't; but he has also seen from the outside the malign impact
of its dysfunction on the wider Church. Most of his career has been
as a papal diplomat all round the world. But he also had a few
years in the secretariat of the Vatican diplomatic service. He did
not fit in with the prevailing culture there, under his
predecessor, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and was exiled to be nuncio
The wilderness proved a fruitful place for him. Using quiet
behind-the-scenes diplomacy, he calmed the inflamed relations
between the country's bishops and the firebrand President, Hugo
Chavez. And he also appeared on the radar of the Argentine cardinal
who is now Pope.
At 58, he will be the youngest Secretary of State since 1930.
But that is not the only contrast with 78-year-old Cardinal
Bertone, who came to the same job with no proper experience beyond
being a trustee of Pope Benedict XVI. He was clearly out of his
depth, and was party to many of Benedict's unworldly blunders,
which was why Pope Benedict was repeatedly lobbied by cardinals
saying: "Bertone must go."
He has been replaced by someone in sympathy with Francis's
reformist agenda. Moreover, Archbishop Parolin has always seen
himself as a priest before being a church functionary, and he
shares Francis's humility. On being appointed, he said: "This call
entrusts to me a difficult and challenging mission, before which my
powers are weak and my abilities poor. For this reason, I entrust
myself to the merciful love of the Lord."
His abilities are far from poor. In post-war Rwanda, he was
vital to the reconciliation process. He has built contacts between
Palestinians and Israelis, and improved relations between the
Vatican and Iran, North Korea, and China. In Communist Vietnam, he
secured the right for Rome to approve the appointment of bishops.
Elsewhere, he has worked to sustain the Church in oppressive
countries. He has also built dialogue with Muslims. In 2007, he was
instrumental in the release of 15 British Navy personnel, who had
been seized by Iranian forces in the Gulf. At the UN, he has
focused on poverty, peace, and the environment.
Unlike his predecessor, whom many saw as a "deputy pope",
Archbishop Parolin is likely to function more as a chief of staff,
although the function of his post is part of the reform brief
currently being reviewed by the Pope's new advisory Council of
Cardinals. Already, he has raised eyebrows with his talk of
modifying the position on priestly celibacy.
For a pope who has signalled that he wants a Church for the
poor, a Church that looks to the outside world rather than in on
itself, and a Church that will reform its own malfunctioning
bureaucracy, the appointment of Archbishop Parolin is a key
indicator of intent.