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When the phone rings

/ 10:04 PM September 02, 2013

His phone stopped ringing late March. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 79, knew then it was only a question of time before he would be ushered out of the secretary of state’s office, Italy’s La Stampa reports. Days earlier, the Rome conclave of cardinals scuppered all forecasts by electing a Latin American Jesuit as 266th pontiff since Peter the Fisherman.

Friday, Pope Francis reached beyond today’s 217 cardinals into the Vatican diplomatic corps. He named 58-year-old Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin as the new secretary of state. Parolin served as the papal nuncio to Venezuela. He has helped craft the Church’s response to virtually every geopolitical challenge of the past two decades: nuclear disarmament, dialogue with Iran and North Korea, to the fight against human trafficking.

The Pontiff thanked Bertone but closed the exit door for a “divisive figure” in the Vatican corridors of power. Bertone, for now, retains his place in the Vatican Bank’s supervisory council. He will stay on the job until a report on the bank is submitted to Francis.


Critics blame Bertone for a management breakdown exemplified by the VatiLeaks scandal, New York Times noted. Disclosed infighting suggested cronyism. “Archbishop Pietro Parolin’s appointment ends the era of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone,” the Guardian pointed out. Known for his frugal lifestyle, Parolin’s appointment is also the most significant appointment by Francis since March.

The secretary of state’s job calls for a cardinal’s red hat. And until the next consistory names new cardinals, an appointee is accorded the title “pro-secretary.” That’s what the rule books say. Francis will presumably elevate Parolin then to the College of Cardinals, along with other appointees.

Francis always chafed at rules that he felt hobble his job as pastor, even if it upsets his staff. Like Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he hefted his own travel bags, preferred public transportation to chauffeur-driven limousines, and cooked meals for himself back in Buenos Aires.

Parolin’s appointment is the “first stage,” says communication specialist Greg Burke. Francis will lean on Parolin to oversee diplomatic relations with over 170 countries, when he takes the job mid-October. By then the second stage will have kicked in.

Eight cardinals are convening to advise on recasting Vatican bureaucracy, last overhauled by Pope John Paul II in 1988. None of the eight is a Curia “insider.” They reflect a worldwide geographical spread: Francisco Ossa, Chile; Oswald Gracias, India; Reinhard Marx, Germany; Laurent Pasinya, Congo; Sean Patrick O’Malley, United States; Oscar Maradiaga, Honduras; George Pell, Australia; and Giuseppe Bertello, Vatican.

“In a small world such as the Vatican, personnel is always policy,” veteran reporter George Allen writes. “Nothing says more about where a pope wants to go than the people he chooses to help get him there.”

Parolin had been on most short-lists for the job. “Many think he has the right stuff. But he may not wield quite the same power as his immediate predecessors: Bertone under Benedict and Cardinal Angelo Sodano under John Paul II. Francis is a pope who takes the reins of government into his own hands. That makes him less dependent on aides.”

Allen offers three insights. First, Francis is set, not to dismantle Vatican structures, but make them work. “If he wanted to blow things up, Francis would hardly have reached out to a career Vatican official, as well as an Italian churchman.” This outsider Pope needs some insider help in a “system restore” operation.


Second, by naming a veteran diplomat, Francis signaled he doesn’t want the Church’s relevance to dim while he puts out fires and fixes internal problems. “In Parolin, Francis didn’t just hire a CEO but also a statesman.”

Third, Francis confirmed the moderate and pragmatic stamp of his papacy. Parolin’s profile is basically nonideological. He is a classic product of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps that prize flexibility and realism.

Parolin’s four years in Venezuela coincided with the final years of Hugo Chávez. Yet, he never engaged in the testy back-and-forth with the leftist strongman associated with many of the bishops. He preferred to practice quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

“Though being Secretary of State is a prestigious gig, a mini-boom of speculation on the Internet back in 2006 had Parolin in line for an even higher position,” Allen recalls. A note posted on Wikipedia website speculated Pietro Parolin might be the Petrus Romanus in the papal prophecies of the medieval Abbot Malachy.

Abbot Malachy predicted Peter the Roman will be the last pope before the end of the world. “Whether Parolin will ever be elected pope, and whether that triggers the apocalypse, obviously remains to be seen,” Allen adds, “but already this particular Peter is now a very big deal.”

The phone rang in the Padua home of 19-year-old  information technology student Stefano Cabizza. “Ciao, Stefano,” the caller said. “It’s Pope Francis.”

Stefano earlier wrote the pontiff describing his hopes. It was the second call from the Pope. He could not reach Stefano on the first attempt because the student was out. Pope Francis told him to refer to him with the informal “tu.” “Do you think the Apostles would have called Christ your excellency? They were friends, just as you and I are now, and with friends I’m accustomed to using ‘tu’.”

“I couldn’t believe it. We laughed and joked for about eight minutes,” Stefano recalls. “He asked me to pray for him and then gave me a blessing. It was the most beautiful day of my life.” All because the phone rang.


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