September 23, 2020

A sneak peek at some of Pope Francis' lesser known decisions

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Gentlemen of His Holiness welcome Queen Elizabeth at the Vatican, Oct. 17,, 2000 - credit smomembassyslovenia.org
Gentlemen of His Holiness welcome Queen Elizabeth at the Vatican, Oct. 17,, 2000 - credit smomembassyslovenia.org

The devil, the saying goes, hides in detail. To understand the things in the Vatican,  details are essential. Without the details, there is no possibility of understanding the overall pictures. Among these details, there is Pope Francis' decision to appoint five new Gentlemen of His Holiness. The appointment took place on July 7 and became known in Sep. 4. It is not the kind of decision that goes published in the Holy See Press Office's bulletin.

Perhaps precisely for that reason, it is the sort of thing that can be revealing. 

For those who are not familiar with the title, the Gentlemen of His Holiness are, according to Canon Law, “lay dignitaries of the Pontifical Household.” Paul VI established the title of Gentlemen of His Holiness in the motu proprio Pontificalis Domus issued on March 28, 1968. With that motu proprio, Paul VI reformed the Pontifical Household, streamlined the list of titles and generally overhauled the whole structure and ethos of the papal court. 

The Gentlemen of His Holiness are under the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household. They are summoned to receive and accompany the Pope's meeting, the head of State and governments, the ambassadors to the Holy See, and other prominent international personalities. 

There is not a path to getting the title of Gentleman of His Holiness. The Apostolic See makes the picks personally, at its total discretion. There are families of the Roman nobility that have traditionally been part of the pontifical family for years. One can join the pontifical family, however, after getting some recognition from the Holy See. The Gentlemen are not chosen according to their nationality. There is an international criterion of selection, emphasizing those who are part or recognize and appreciate the language and the Ceremonial of the Vatican world. 

Who are the new five Gentlemen of His Holiness? Here are the names: 

- Massimo Sgrelli, who led the Ceremonial of the Italian government from 1992 to 2008; 

- Eugenio Ficorilli, who led the office of the Ceremonial of the Italian State to the Presidency of Council;

- Gerardo Capozza, who comes from the Italian office for the Ceremonial of State; 

- Roberto Sorbello, who worked at the Ceremonial of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and now collaborates at the Capitol's Ceremonial that is Rome's Town Hall;

- Igino Rugiero, who served in the Ceremonial of the Italian Presidency of Republic and now leads the general secretariat of the Military Affairs Office and the Supreme Council for the Defense. 

The appointment of these gentlemen of His Holiness is food for thought, for many reasons. 

First, all of the new gentlemen are Italian and come from the Italian State Ceremonial. This gives the impression that the two banks of the Tiber got close.

Recently – and after some years of internationalization - the Vatican has been becoming once again more Italian in many fields. There is a sort of comeback of the Italian influence within the Sacred Walls. The appointment of five Italians, all coming from the Ceremonial of State, might show that the Vatican’s Italianizing trend did not happen by chance. 

The second piece of food for thought: Pope Francis' modus operandi. Pope Francis has shown until now a certain intolerance towards titles like that of Gentlemen of His Holiness. Rumor had it that the Pope wanted to abolish these titles and the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household, since both recalled the Papal Court. 

In the end, both the structure and the titles stayed. The Pope changed the way of  managing them. In the particular case of the Gentlemen of His Holiness, observers noted that some of the noble families traditionally associated with the Papacy are not represented among the Gentlemen. At the same time, the latest appointments choose State officials without many connections with the Vatican world. 

The third reason: although one could find these issues to be of secondary or even less importance in a complex Vatican world, they are not. The Vatican speaks through its tradition, and its language is the protocol refined in centuries of history. Titles are not just for the titles' sake, in the Vatican. 

Pope Paul VI knew it very well. Many said that, with his reform, Paul VI shut down the papal court. This is not true. He simply transformed it. 

In the past, the papal court was divided into the Pontifical Chapel, that assisted the Pope in his functions of the spiritual father of the Catholic and Church, and the Pontifical Family, that helped the Pope in his temporal role as sovereign of the Church and head of State, but also his daily activities.

The court itself was rooted in history, and it was the expression of the spiritual reality around the Pope. Every gesture, every action had to be linked to religious meaning. That is why the Pope had a “family” helping him in his temporal functions, not State officials. 

Here comes the fourth thing: what are the criteria to choose the new members of the pontifical family? 

The impression is that the current criteria are more worldly. There were new members of the Pontifical Household appointed because of worldly motives or to express a particular interest in the past. There are known cases of Gentlemen of His Holiness who never should have been. 

On the other hand, the fact that five people with similar profiles joined the club makes one think that there was a worldly, rather than a purely spiritual calculus at work in the choice. 

If this seems like inside baseball, that’s because it is. The point is that these little details really can help us understand where the Pontificate is going. 

Pope Francis is accepting to expand the papal court, after he was supposed to be of more than half a mind to shut it all the way down. All the new members come from the Italian environment. The criteria for selection suggest external factors can influence the pontificate.

If this can be the case in little things, it might be the case in big ones, too. So it seems, at least. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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