January 30, 2020

Pope Francis, what is his project for the Church in Italy?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco at the end of an audience - credit: Vatican Media /  ACI Group
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco at the end of an audience - credit: Vatican Media / ACI Group

The selection of new bishops has been a central topic of discussion during the meetings of the C6 Council of Cardinals, tasked with drafting the reform of the Roman Curia. A new procedure being used to select a successor to the Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, could be a trial run for a new method. 

On Jan. 14, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, archbishop of Genoa, turned 77 and ended the twoyear prorogation of his mandate Pope Francis granted him. There will be no  further extension of his mandate. On Jan. 23, the Apostolic Nuncio to Italy, Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, , was in Genoa to deliver a lecture on “Pastoral Conversion in Pope Francis’ teaching.” It was expected that the nuncio would give some clue on who the next archbishop of Genoa would be. It was not so. Archbishop Tscherrig confirmed that Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Bagnasco’s resignation, and he then informed the audience of the Pope’s intentionto follow a new procedure for choosing the next shepherd for the Church in Genoa. 

According to standard – and long-established – procedure, the Apostolic Nuncio conducts the consultations before the appointment of a new bishop. The Nuncio sends questionnaires and letters to priests, lay people involved in the Church’s activity, and other interested people, in order to draft a profile of the possible bishops-elect. After this process, the Nuncio sends to the Congregation of Bishops a set of three potential candidates, and this set of three is then submitted to the Pope. The Pope can choose any person he wants, also outside of the set of three.

In Genoa, however, Pope Francis is using a different method this time. He sent a circular letter to the priests of the archdiocese, asking them to draft a reflection on the state of the Church in Genoa and to suggest their own short list of  three possible new archbishops. 

It is the first time this procedure takes place. It is yet to be seen whether Pope Francis will use it according to circumstances or if he will institutionalize the new method in the Curia reform.

Cardinal Bagnasco's succession is particularly crucial since it will begin a "domino" effect on the Italian dioceses. 

At the moment, Cardinal Bagnasco is the president of the Council of European Bishops' Conference. Above all, he served as president of the Italian Bishops Conference from 2007 to the beginning of 2018. 

The appointment of the president of the Italian Bishops Conference is different from any other selection of the kind of the world. As the Pope is considered the primate of Italy in his capacity as bishop of Rome, the Pope himself appoints the president. 

At the beginning of the pontificate, Pope Francis asked for a more democratic way to elect the president. The Italian bishops, after several discussions, decided that the president had to be appointed by the Pope anyway. 

The "no" to the appointment of the president was not the only negative response the Italian Bishops gave to the Pope. 

Pope Francis even asked the Italian Bishops to study a plan for the reduction of the 226 Italian dioceses (225 plus the Military Ordinariate). The bishops said that they were examining the issue, but there were no concrete outcomes. Pope Francis took over the issue personally in 2019. 

The 2019 shift was carefully prepared. 

In 2017, Pope Francis appointed new bishops for some of the Italian dioceses with less than 100,000 faithful: Trivento and Sulmona Valva, Melfi-Rapolla-Venosa, Teano-Calvi, Fidenza, Gubbio, Pinerolo, and Casale Monferrato. 

In 2018, the Pope appointed the new bishop of Camerino-San Severino Marche, a small diocese with less than 60,000 faithful. 

In 2019, the Pope began the reduce the number of dioceses by putting a group of them under the administration of one only bishop.

In February, the diocese of Palestrina was united to the diocese of Tivoli in persona episcopi (in the person of the bishop). In April, Bishop Stefano Russo, general secretary of the Italian Bishops Conference, left the administration of the diocese of Fabriano-Matelica. There was no successor appointed, and Bishop Francesco Massara of Camerino took over the administration of the diocese.

Also, in April, Bishop Valentino Di Cerbo of Alife Caiazzo resigned because he reached retirement age. No successor was appointed, while the bishop of Sessa Aurunca was appointed apostolic administrator of the diocese. 

In May, the bishop Roberto Carboni of Ales-Terralba was promoted as Archbishop of Oristano, to replace the retired archbishop Ignazio Sanna. 

Finally, in November, the diocese of Susa went under the administration of the Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin. 

Pope Francis is then reducing de facto the number of the Italian dioceses, not seeking anymore for the Italian Bishops’ green light or even their suggestions.

Italian Bishops also did not have a positive reaction to the idea of a possible Synod for the Church in Italy, either. The Italian Church periodically meets in an "Ecclesial convention," a big, week-longconference that takes place every ten years.

The proposal of a Synod for the Church of Italy would then be a "double" of this meeting, and more than one bishop was doubtful about the opportunity of doing it. 

Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, launched the proposal for a Synod of the Italian Church in an article penned in the number 4047 of the Jesuit bi-monthly magazine. Fr. Spadaro asked for "a real exercise of synodality within the Church" that would help to read our today history and to discern." 

In the number 4062 of La Civiltà Catholic, then, Fr. Bartolomeo Sorge relaunched the idea. He also stressed that "the hoped-for renewal of the Italian Church cannot but be the fruit of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. A mere national Ecclesial convention cannot be enough. Would not be then a Synod?" 

Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, seems to be among the bishops who are said to be against the project of a Synod. Cardinal Bassetti is now 77, and it seems he is willing to leave the leadership of the Italian bishops in advance – his five-year term  should end in 2022. 

Pope Francis might choose Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, as new president of the Italian Bishops Conference. Cardinal Zuppi was among those who backed the idea of a Synod.

Another possible new president of the Italian Bishops Conference is  Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, Pope Francis' vicar for the diocese of Rome. 

In addition, Pope Francis might put some of his more trusted collaborators at the helm of the most important Italian dioceses, so that they could carry forward his reforms of the Italian Church. 

For this reason, there are rumors about the possible appointment of Fr. Antonio Spadaro as Archbishop of Naples. Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the current archbishop, will turn 77 this year and will end his two years’ extension past retirement age. 

Another "bishop-to-be" might be Fr. Giacomo Costa, SJ, editor of Aggiornamenti Sociali, well known in the Vatican as secretary of the Commission for Information of the Pan- Amazonian synod. 

Pope Francis would then shape the Church in Italy with some new appointments and de facto merging of dioceses, thus doing something of an end run around the Italian bishops’ resistances.

In the end, the Popes have always had a strong relationship with Italy.

On the one hand, Pope Francis is seemingly desirous of reducing the Italian weight - trimming the fat - as shown also by the fact that he has often overlooked traditional  Italian Cardinalatial sees in consistories.

On the other hand, Pope Francis shows a particular interest in Italy, and especially to the Italian political scenario. Pope Francis does not avoid the particular bilateral relations with Italy. He fosters that. 

Some examples: the Pope chose Giuseppe Pignatone, an Italian former public prosecutor, as president of the Vatican Tribunal, and chose a former official of the Bank of Italy Carmelo Barbagallo, as president of the Financial Intelligence Authority. 

In the end, the Roman banks seem to be more significant when speaking of an ecclesial context and more narrow when it turns to a political context. With the next round of appointments, we shall see whether Francis seeks to strengthen bilateral relations even further, while he advances his overhaul of Italy’s ecclesiastical plant.

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