The young, humble diplomat named as Francis’ right-hand man

From 15 October the Vatican’s new Secretary of State will be the present 58-year-old papal nuncio to Venezuela, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, a highly regarded diplomat and negotiator who is well known to Pope Francis.

pietro-parolinThe Secretary of State is sometimes described as the Pope’s right-hand man, his ‘prime minister’, or his Chief of Staff —  although none of these analogies quite captures the role. The Secretariat of State has a dual role, coordinating the Holy See’s foreign relations and overseeing the Vatican’s civil service.

The move is possibly the most important yet made by Pope Francis. The outgoing Secretary of State,  79-year-old Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was widely blamed for failing to get to grips with the mishaps and scandals that dogged the Curia during the last period of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

Bertone has defended his record, pointing out that the Secretary of State is not as powerful as some think. And it could become less powerful under Francis. There are indications that among the reforms to be studied by the ‘G8’ group of cardinals named by Pope Francis earlier this year will be a restructuring of the Secretariat, decentralising some of its functions and making it a more streamlined operation.

But no one doubts that this is a crucial appointment and that Parolin will be key to the success of the Franciscan reforms.

Diplomat and man of dialogue

Although he is an Italian — from Vicenza in north Italy — Parolin knows Latin America  well from lengthy stints in Mexico and Venezuela. In March, shortly before the conclave, he suggested that the time was ripe from a pope from that continent.

Born 1955 to a devout Catholic family, Pietro was  raised with two siblings by his mother alone after his father died in a car crash when he was just 10. He entered the seminary at 14,  was ordained in 1980, and completed his doctorate in canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1986.CNN

Spotted as a high flier, he entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service at the age of 36, serving in Nigeria and Mexico.  In 1992 he was called back to Rome to work in the Secretariat of State. Ten years later, in 2002, he was appointed under-secretary for Relations with States, one of the highest offices in the Vatican in the area of foreign relations, which saw him travel widely on sensitive missions in the Middle East, China and North Korea. In 2009 he was named the Holy See’s representative in Venezuela, a sensitive post which required him to negotiate the troubled relations between the Church and the government of the charismatic dictator Hugo Chávez. He speaks Italian, English, French, and Spanish.

Parolin2According to John Allen, Parolin has been “on the front lines of shaping the Vatican’s response to virtually every geopolitical challenge of the past two decades”.

Twenty years ago he had a decisive role in paving the way for two state visits by John Paul II to Mexico, a country which until 1992 had some of the most hardline anticlerical constitutional clauses in the world.

As under-secretary he was responsible for a thaw in relations between the Holy See and China, where a state-controlled ‘patriotic’ Church co-exist with an unofficial, ‘underground’ Church. After re-establishing direct negotiations with Beijing, Parolin kept relations on track in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. He also advanced talks with Israel over the 1993 ‘Fundamental Agreement’ on the Church’s legal status there, took a lead role in pushing nuclear non-proliferation, and was key to freeing 15 British navy personnel captured by Iranian forces in the Arabian Gulf in April 2007.

The Cardinal Archbishop of Caracas, Venezuela, said it was a “stupendous” appointment, and that Parolin had been an energetic peace-builder in that country. “While being always prudent and discreet, he played an important role in the rapprochement of Church and state”, said Cardinal Jorge Urosa.

Commentators have been quick to see in Parolin’s effectiveness, humility and bridge-building abilities a Secretary of State perfectly suited to Francis’s papacy.

on horsebackHis appointment is “in keeping with Francis’ pastoral governing style”, according to Marco Impagliazzo, leader of the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, sometimes described as the Vatican’s “unofficial diplomatic corps” because of its international contacts and conflict-mediation work.

Impagliazzo, who has worked closely with Parolin, describes him as a “man of patient dialogue, an exemplary priest, who has been formed in the great diplomatic tradition of the Holy See”, and who is ideally suited to the “pastoral style which Pope Francis is impressing on the government of the Church”.


thaibinh4According to Allen, Parolin “fits the profile many Vatican-watchers had regarded as the ideal candidate to become Francis’ Secretary of State: Someone who knows the system from the inside but who isn’t associated with the perceived dysfunction of the Bertone years.”

Though Parolin served under Bertone and moved up the ladder on his watch, he was already a fixture in the Secretariat of State before Bertone was given the top job by Benedict XVI in 2006. When he was shipped off to Caracas in 2009, some took it as a sign that Parolin had fallen out of favor with Bertone – a perception seen as damaging then, but ironically helpful now.

Italians with long memories are reading the appointment as a sign that Francis wants to take the Secretariat of State back to its perceived glory days, under powerful and über-competent figures such as Giovanni Benelli, who served Paul VI, and Agostino Casaroli, who held the same position under John Paul II.

Allen also makes three points about what the appointment tells us about the coming Francis reform.

First, Francis does not appear determined to dismantle the bureaucratic structures of the Vatican, but rather to make them work. If he wanted to blow things up, Francis would hardly have reached out to a career Vatican official, as well as an Italian churchman who hails from the Veneto region – two strong indicators of continuity.

In effect, this outsider pope has acknowledged he needs some insider help. In that sense, his reform shapes up not as a wholesale rejection of previous ways of doing things, but rather as a sort of “system restore” operation.

Second, by naming a veteran diplomat, Francis has signaled that he doesn’t want the church’s political and cultural relevance to dim while he puts out fires and fixes internal problems.

In Parolin, Francis didn’t just hire a CEO but also a statesman.

Third, Francis has also confirmed the moderate and pragmatic stamp of his papacy. Parolin profiles as basically non-ideological, a classic product of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps who prizes flexibility and realism.

Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican agrees that the appointment is an attempt to ‘reboot’ and ‘purify’ curial governance rather than revamp it.

In choosing Parolin, Pope Francis is making clear that he wishes, almost in the way of the old Jesuits, to draw upon all of the learning, all of the faith and all of the experience of the old Roman system (in which Parolin was trained), and to draw upon all of the experience in the Vatican’s highly (and rightly) respected diplomatic corps in order to bring that learning, faith and experience to bear on extremely delicate, dangerous political and social problems, problems of war and peace, problems of justice and injustice, problems of poverty and oppression, so that the Christian witness and message of the Church can shine forth in a troubled world which seems in danger of losing its way.

What is “out” under Francis, as this appointment makes clear, is any idea or suggestion that high Church office be exploited for personal interest of any sort, including for personal careers building a “current” or “lobby” of any kind whatsoever. The appointment means that service in the Church is service of the Church, not a vehicle for personal influence or financial gain.

Parolin in his own words

In Parolin’s last interview, published 4 August in a Venezuelan newspaper and translated by the National Catholic Reporter, Parolin commented on, among other things, liberation theology and radical free-market capitalism.

On the first, he noted that “things are much clearer now”: the Church, he says, “has a preferential option for the poor, and it’s a choice the church has made at the universal level. But it’s also always clarified that it’s not an exclusive option, or one that excludes anyone.” This means that “the Church offers the Gospel to all, but with a special attention to the poor because they are the Lord’s favourites, and also because we’ve learned anew that the Gospel can be embraced only with an attitude of poverty.” Pope Francis, he added, “is moving in this direction. The attention that he’s shown from the first moments of his pontificate puts this fundamental option at the centre of the Church — an option for everyone but with special attention to the poor.” He adds:

The Church must not assume Marxist categories, or class struggle. One of the points among the different problems that arose [with the Theology of Liberation] was the use of Marxist categories and the idea of class struggle that was proclaimed. The church always proposes, as the first step, the education of persons in the idea of solidarity, a solidarity that allows the problems of society to be overcome both personally and structurally. On the subject of poverty, the church has an enormous heritage in its social doctrine.

Parolin3Asked about “savage capitalism”, Parolin describes it as “worrying”.

The Church continues to ask that in whatever needs to be corrected, human imperatives should take precedence over economic ones, the ethical and moral dimension. The human person must take precedence over the laws of the market. From there, a sense of love for the poor, of solidarity, of a truly human economy that helps people develop and doesn’t humiliate them or damage their dignity, is born. This is a fundamental concern for the church, and we’ve got all the papal encyclicals from Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII in 1891 up to Caritas in Veritate of Benedict XVI in 2009.

Asked to interpret events since Francis’s election, Parolin says:

What’s struck me, and I consider it a miracle of the election of Pope Francis, is the sudden change of climate that was felt immediately. Before, there was pessimism – unjustly, I would add, because Pope Benedict XVI did everything possible to reform the church …. All of a sudden, after the election and the first pronouncements of the pope, the situation changed completely and a new climate of hope took hold, of renewal, of a future that beforehand seemed irreparably blocked. I truly consider this a great miracle. The courage and the humility of Benedict XVI to take a step back moves in the same direction as the courage and humility of Francis to accept the papacy, and the new air that he’s brought.

What’s struck me is that the perception of the church has been completely changed. From a church under siege with thousands of problems, a church that seemed, let’s say, a little sick, we’ve passed to a church that has opened itself up …  and now it’s looking with great confidence towards God’s future. That seems to me the most beautiful thing that’s happened.

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