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The Pope’s PM is a reformer, too

18 October 2013

Paul Vallely welcomes a new approach at the Vatican

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 to Venezuela.

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He has been replaced by someone in sympathy with Francis's reformist agenda.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.


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