Pope Francis narrows choice for next leader of Italy’s Catholic bishops

Pope Francis attends the Italian bishops’ plenary assembly in Rome on May 24, 2021 Pope Francis attends the Italian bishops’ plenary assembly in Rome on May 24, 2021. | Vatican Media.

In an interview published on Tuesday, Pope Francis narrowed down the field of contenders to be the next president of Italy’s influential Catholic bishops’ conference.

Speaking with journalists from the Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis stressed that the next president should be “an authoritative cardinal.”

His comments appear to exclude Archbishop Domenico Battaglia of Naples from the running, launching a two-way race between Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna and Cardinal Augusto Paolo Lojudice of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino.

Italy’s bishops will meet in Rome to choose a new leader on May 23-27. The pope will then make the final choice.

“Now the general assembly of the Italian Episcopal Conference will have to choose the new president,” the pope noted in the interview published on May 3. “I try to find one who wants to make a nice change. I prefer him to be a cardinal, to be authoritative.”

Zuppi and Lojudice are not, of course, the only cardinals in Italy. There is also Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the pope’s vicar for the diocese of Rome, among others. But he appears to be out of contention. Indeed, the possible appointment of Lojudice as president would represent a sort of revenge by Pope Francis against De Donatis.

It is widely rumored that the pope wanted Lojudice, then auxiliary bishop of the diocese of Rome, as vicar. But when the pope initiated a consultation of Rome’s priests, the great majority of clergy indicated that they favored De Donatis.

According to other rumors, Lojudice is favored over Zuppi. These assert that Zuppi lost some papal sympathy because of the way he applied the motu proprio Traditionis custodes, which effectively abolished the liberalization of the ancient rite of Mass admitted by Benedict XVI.

Unlike many other bishops, Zuppi offered a freer interpretation of the decree within his archdiocese, allowing celebrations of the traditional Mass with the only limitation of having to find a church that was not also a parish for the celebration.

While other bishops applied the pope’s provisions to the letter, the 66-year-old cardinal took a more conciliatory position. At the papal residence, the Casa Santa Marta, it is whispered that rumors that Zuppi was acting with an eye to a future conclave have reached Pope Francis’ ears. This is likely to have reduced the pope’s sympathy for the archbishop of Bologna, who is strongly linked to the influential Community of Sant’Egidio.

On the other hand, the pope’s sympathies for Lojudice are said to remain firm. The 57-year-old is considered an “archbishop of the least” and the pope made him a cardinal even though he does not lead an archdiocese traditionally associated with a red hat.

Unlike Zuppi, who makes appearances on Italian television programs, Lojudice has remained more secluded and less visible, which is believed to have increased the pope’s regard for him.

The Italian bishops’ conference does not ultimately elect its president since the pope, as bishop of Rome, is the Primate of Italy. Pope Francis had asked the Italian bishops to adopt a new statute that would allow them to elect the president themselves, but the bishops preferred to leave the choice ultimately to the pope.

Under a compromise arrangement, the bishops present the list of the three candidates with the most votes to the pope, who then chooses between the three or opts for another candidate entirely.

The pope’s indications in his interview will be interpreted as a guideline from which the bishops are unlikely to deviate. One bishop told CNA that “the election will go the usual way: the pope will clarify who he wants us to elect, and we will vote for them.”

In the interview, Pope Francis hinted that along with a new president, there would also be a new secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference. The pope said he hoped that the new president “will have the possibility to choose the secretary, that he can say: I want to work with this person.”

Therefore, the mandate of Bishop Stefano Russo, who has served as secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference since 2018, seems to have come to an end. His term is due to expire in 2023, but he could be dismissed as early as the end of the upcoming general assembly. Pope Francis could therefore assign him to the pastoral curia of a diocese. So, perhaps, also of the Archdiocese of Perugia-Città della Pieve.

More in Europe

The current archbishop of that archdiocese, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, is the outgoing president of the Italian bishops’ conference. Bassetti turned 80 on April 7 and his successor as president will emerge following this month’s general assembly.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.