Who will be the next leader of Italy’s Catholic bishops’ conference?

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and Cardinal Augusto Paolo Lojudice Cardinal Matteo Zuppi and Cardinal Augusto Paolo Lojudice. | Francesco Pierantoni via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)/Pufui PcPifpef via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

There are four names in contention for the presidency of the Italian episcopal conference ahead of a vote in May.

The bishops will gather that month to choose their new president. The top three names will be passed to Pope Francis. The pope is free to choose one of the names or to appoint another bishop entirely to the role. For this reason, rumors about who is in the running are based more on the pope’s likely preferences than the indications of the country’s bishops.

So who are the four figures currently being mentioned?

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi has always been considered a strong candidate. The archbishop of Bologna since 2015 and a cardinal since 2019, the 67-year-old is closely associated with the influential Community of Sant’Egidio. Formerly a much-loved parish priest in Rome, Zuppi was also one of the negotiators in the peace process in Mozambique. The pope is believed to hold him in high esteem.

Pope Francis could, however, also look to the other cardinal at the helm of an Italian archdiocese: Cardinal Augusto Paolo Lojudice. The pope made him a cardinal in 2020 after he had named him archbishop of Siena in 2019. Lojudice is 57 years old and comes from Rome, where he was an auxiliary bishop from 2015 to 2019. As a parish priest, he was well known for his commitment to the poor.

Lojudice was already mentioned among Pope Francis’ favorites to succeed Cardinal Agostino Vallini as Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome in 2017. The pope ultimately chose another auxiliary, the current Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, who received an overwhelming number of endorsements from Rome’s parish priests in a survey that the pope himself had wanted to launch.

(As a footnote, the procedure used for the De Donatis appointment was later employed by Pope Francis for other Italian archdioceses.)

That the pope sent Lojudice to Siena and after that made him a cardinal, although Siena is not a traditionally cardinalatial archdiocese, was a signal: the pope esteems Lojudice and could assign him to new positions.

Pope Francis did something similar in 2015, when he decided to give the red hat to Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Città Della Pieve. Bassetti was then the vice-president of the Italian bishops’ conference. The pope’s move was a clear indication of who he wanted as conference president.

But Pope Francis might not necessarily choose a cardinal. Two archbishops are also in contention.

The first is Archbishop Erio Castellucci, who oversees both the Archdiocese of Modena and the Diocese of Carpi. The former dean of the Theological Faculty of Emilia-Romana, Castellucci led the Italian bishops’ doctrinal commission and has been a consultant for the Synod of Bishops since June 2021. The 61-year-old was mentioned among the possible candidates to lead the Archdiocese of Turin. (Ultimately, the pope chose Msgr. Roberto Repole.)

The real surprise could be represented by Archbishop Domenico Battaglia, who has led the Archdiocese of Naples since 2020. He is 59 years old and was known before his episcopal appointment as a priest close to the marginalized. The pope holds him in high regard. For example, the prayer for peace in Ukraine that the pope read during his general audience on March 16 was written by Battaglia. If the Naples archbishop was appointed president, he would be the first Italian bishops’ leader to come from a diocese south of Rome.

The reason that there will be a vacancy at all is that the current president of the bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, cannot have a second mandate. He will turn 80 on April 7, thus reaching the age at which a cardinal can no longer vote in a conclave or hold offices, either as a member of curial departments or at the helm of an archdiocese.

Why is the pope involved in choosing the president? Because the pope, the bishop of Rome, is primate of the Italian Church. Therefore, the Italian episcopal conference has always wanted to maintain a special bond with him. Indeed, in recent years, the idea of changing the conference’s statutes and defining the president as a “delegate president” was raised precisely to testify to this bond.

At the start of his pontificate, Francis had asked the Italian bishops to change the election procedure and discuss how to elect their president. This was not new. As early as 1983, John Paul II had asked the bishops to reconsider the election process. On that occasion, a large majority of Italian bishops voted in favor of the direct election of the president. But John Paul II informed the bishops that he preferred to keep his right to appoint the president and secretary-general of the bishops.

After Pope Francis’ request, the Italian bishops took a different view and eventually told the pope that they still preferred him to choose their president. To meet the pope’s requests, they thus set up a complicated electoral mechanism.

During the upcoming assembly, any residential bishops can be voted president. After that, the names of the three with the highest number of votes will be presented to the pope. But, as mentioned, the pope is also free to choose someone outside the three. That the pope has absolute power of choice will undoubtedly lead many to vote for candidates who are most likely to be preferred by him.

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The pope may also be called to choose a new secretary-general along with the new president. Bishop Stefano Russo, number two at the episcopal conference since 2018, could leave earlier than the end of his term, which is scheduled for 2024.

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