Will Cardinal Zuppi lead Italy’s bishops’ conference in a new direction?

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, Italy. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, Italy. | Francesco Pierantoni from Bologna, Italy - Premio Colombe d’oro per la pace via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Cardinal Matteo Zuppi’s election as president of the Episcopal Conference of Italy is, at one level, unsurprising. For at least two years, he was spoken of as a frontrunner to succeed outgoing president Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti. And everyone pointed to Zuppi as the only figure who could lead the bishops’ conference in the direction desired by Pope Francis. Yet, on another level, the appointment was somewhat unexpected.

Zuppi’s election was announced as Italy’s bishops met for their plenary assembly at the Hilton Rome Airport Hotel. In the corridors of the hotel near Rome’s Fiumicino airport, there was a somewhat defiant air.

Some bishops, who asked to remain anonymous given that the ballot took place in secret, suggested that the pope was “forced” to select Zuppi, the archbishop of Bologna, because he received the most votes among the three candidates sent to him for a final decision. It was evident, they said, that the pope would have preferred Cardinal Paolo Lojudice of Siena, who, they indicated, would be appointed as the new vicar of Rome.

Presidents of Italy’s bishops’ conference have a five-year term. At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis had asked for the statutes to be modified so that the bishops would elect the president themselves. But they preferred to keep the existing arrangement whereby the pope, as Bishop of Rome and Primate of Italy, chooses the president.

A compromise was reached: the bishops would settle on three names and the pope would either choose one of them or appoint his own candidate.

Shortly before the latest election, Pope Francis said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he preferred that the next president was a cardinal. After this, the three candidates were narrowed down to Zuppi, Lojudice, and Bishop Antonino Raspanti of Acireale, Sicily.

The bishop made the final three for two reasons. First, two other cardinals were ruled out of the running: the current vicar of Rome Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, who no longer seems to enjoy the pope’s favor, and Cardinal Giuseppe Betori of Florence, who is heading for retirement. Second, there was a need for a “weak” name to better highlight the two real contenders.

Zuppi received by far the most votes from his brother bishops and Pope Francis had to take this into account. Rumors had previously suggested that the pope was wary of the great publicity that surrounds the “papabile” Zuppi and was leaning toward a different candidate. The pope was also said to have been negatively surprised when Zuppi applied the motu proprio Traditionis custodes in the Bologna archdiocese in a benevolent way.

The rumors that constantly circulate in the Vatican, aiming to scuttle or promote candidates, have always carried a lot of weight. Those cited are, in any case, sensitive issues for the pope.

“The bishops were courageous in voting for Zuppi and giving a signal to the pope,” a participant in the Italian bishops’ assembly told CNA. “Now it will be necessary to see who will be the secretary general [of the bishops’ conference] to understand the line.”

In his interview with Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis said that he wanted the new president to choose the secretary general, so that he would be “someone willing to work with and for him.” But the pope did not specify how this choice should take place.

In formal terms, the pope also chooses the secretary general, based on a list of names suggested by the bishops’ conference.

When he picked Bishop Nunzio Galantino in 2013, he selected him though he did not appear among the initial three names presented by the then bishops’ conference president Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco. In 2018, the pope chose Bishop Stefano Russo from a list of seven offered by Cardinal Bassetti.

That Pope Francis was unhappy with the work of the bishops’ conference presidency over the past five years could be seen from a series of details.

The most striking was that Russo ended his mandate as secretary general a year in advance. Moreover, his appointment as a residential bishop was announced a week before the bishops’ plenary assembly, effectively delegitimizing him.

A tense climate could also be seen during the closed-door meeting that the pope held with the bishops on May 23. Nobody other than bishops was allowed to attend, not even their secretaries. The pope reportedly joked about Russo’s appointment to the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri–Segni, saying that the 60-year-old had been “sent on vacation to the Castelli Romani,” a hilly area serving as a popular leisure destination for Romans.

The pope also reportedly told the bishops that he had not sought to highlight the idea that the next president should be a cardinal in his Corriere della Sera interview. Rather, he said, he had simply emphasized his preference when the journalists suggested that Archbishop Erio Castellucci of Modena might be a candidate.

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Other topics of discussion included the pope's health and the Vatican’s China policy.

Pope Francis reputedly said that he did not want an operation to resolve his knee problems and would prefer to resign rather than undergo general anesthesia again.

Regarding China, Pope Francis praised the diplomatic approach of Cardinal Pietro Parolin. He spoke about the “martyrdom of patience,” a phrase attributed to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who served as Vatican Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and is the architect of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik.

The future direction of Italy’s bishops’ conference now hinges on the choice of the secretary general, the body’s real engine. Will it be someone who will work with Zuppi to forge a new line that goes beyond the pope’s indications?

In his first comments after his election on May 24, Zuppi said that he would be guided by three criteria, which he named in order of importance as “obedience to the primacy of the pope, synodality, and collegiality.” How he puts these into practice will be closely watched in the coming months.

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