The trip to Portugal for World Youth Day, and the press conference on the plane, are the Vatican news with the most significant exposure in the media. Yet, last week, a rumor, an appointment, and a data point, showed how Pope Francis is directing a definitive change of pace, once again centralizing control on himself.
The first is the appointment, on 1 August, of the new Rector Magnificus of the Lateran University. As in the case of the appointment of the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the news does not lie in the person chosen, Father Alfonso Amarante, but in the letter that the Pope sent to accompany the nomination. Furthermore, Father Amarante will be appointed Archbishop. This decision demonstrates how Pope Francis uses the episcopate as a form of government. In practice, the dicastery heads of the Roman Curia need not be bishops, but those whom the Pope considers his direct collaborators, and those who must be faithful to him, must be.
The letter to the new rector includes several sobering details.
First, the appointment of a management director to help the new rector “in administrative and economic management, and in the elaboration of a development plan that makes the Lateran University a protagonist of the ecclesiastical and civil university system.”
In practice, the Pope severs the administrative management of the university from the rector’s, takes control of it, and asks the rector to involve “the competent university bodies” so that “they support the educational and management changes that will prove necessary.”
But – and this is the theme – the rector will also be supported “by the Superior Coordination Council, which I set up with the Rescript of 21 August 2021, which, in addition to the persons already envisaged, will include other qualified exponents of the Roman Curia and the university world, to also institutionally express the special bond between the Lateran University and the Apostolic See.” Pope Francis, with the letter, implements the rescript, adds the presence of representatives of the Curia in the council, and underlines the need to express in a concrete way that this is the Pope’s University.
It means, in short, that everything passes to the direct control of the Pope. And this in the context – Pope Francis explains again – “of the process, which I wanted and coordinated through the Dicastery for Culture and Education” taking place “in view of the reorganization of the Roman Pontifical Academic Institutions.”
Therefore, the Pope heralds a sort of “revolution” for the organization of the pontifical universities in Rome. To be determined is if this will mean a change of courses and objectives, a radical break with the past, an adjustment to the new challenges of culture, or even an adjustment to culture itself as the Pope sees it.
Finally, in 2018, Pope Francis promulgated an apostolic constitution, Veritatis Gaudium, which already outlined four criteria for a cultural revolution. The approach, according to Pope Francis, must be multidisciplinary. The idea is to abandon the idea of a “culture war” and instead have a new approach to dialogue with the world.
In 2018, this idea was reflected in the new Vatican dicasteries already established in the reform process of the Curia (the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development and the Laity, Family, and Life Dicastery). Five years later, Pope Francis wants to make it effective, so much so that not to condemn but to dialogue is also one of the rules of engagement given to the new Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
What arrives now, therefore, is the end of a long journey, which Pope Francis has been thinking about for some time. The appointments did not come before with letters from the Pope, but now they do, signaling that the Pope has personally taken the reform process into his own hands. Everything must be reported to the Pope, who has his trusted confidants.
This, too, is part of his way of governing. For the Vicariate of Rome, his point of reference is the vicegerent Baldassarre Reina, called from Sicily as an auxiliary, whom the Pope uses to override his vicar, Cardinal Angelo de Donatis, whom the new apostolic constitution Ecclesia in Urbe equates to an auxiliary bishop. Another reference point will be another priest from the outside, Michele Di Tolve, who Pope Francis called to become rector of the Roman seminary and appointed bishop with the same criteria with which the rector of the Lateran will be Archbishop.
In short, everything falls under the Pope, which can only mean one thing: the Pope does not trust intermediaries. He wants trusted people but wants to control all the processes. It is time for Pope Francis to implement a cultural change, and he can only do this by destroying what has gone before. We can discuss whether this is good or bad. In the history of the Church, there has never been a break from the past because everything is part of a continuum. Pope Francis, however, has an opposite approach.
And if this is the concrete news, a rumor that has been circulating for a few days, if confirmed, would be further proof of this turning point in the pontificate. Speaking of the absence of Monsignor Sapienza, regent of the Papal Household, at the last papal hearings, rumors are circulating that Sapienza himself is destined to leave the Papal Household, after having served there for several decades, to make room for a new generation.
The Papal Household is currently without a prefect. For years, however, it was governed by the Regent because Pope Francis had sidelined Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, the previous Prefect, without however ever removing him from his post, only to later let him go with a retroactive decision just two months ago.
At the beginning of the pontificate, it was thought that the Pope wanted to eliminate the Papal Household, considered by some as an anachronistic institution. In fact, the Papal Household organizes state and private visits to the Pope, according to an ancient tradition in which the Pope receives the heads of state not with the protocol of the Secretariat of State but with his family. Indeed, in state visits, the almsgiver of the Papal Household sat to the left of the Pope, testifying that the Pope considered as part of his family also those who performed charity in his name.
Now there is no more almsgiving, as it is merged into a dicastery of the Roman Curia and therefore “secularized,” equated to a ministry. There may no longer even be the Prefecture as we understand it today. It is unlikely that the Pope will entrust everything to the protocol of the Secretariat of State, which instead works on other official visits and relations with the embassies. It is more likely that the Pope will create his light structure, entrust everything to the newly chosen personal secretary from Argentina, and abandon the notion of official visits to the Pope.
Pope Francis is careful not to appear as a politician, although many of his statements are political. And Pope Francis is keen to show that he wants to break with the past of the Holy See, that he wants to remove all the superstructures, to make himself available beyond the papal court.
Yet, the papal court was there to protect the Pope, not to create privileges. And not understanding it means not knowing the history of the Church. But, above all, it will create a paradox: the Pope who wants to set aside the institution is the Pope who wants to show a way of doing things in dialogue, and then it is also the Pope who, more than anyone, has centralized every power on him.
Thus, the restructuring of universities could go hand in hand with reorganizing the Papal Household. And perhaps, subsequently, also of the Liturgical Celebrations Office, considering that even the master of ceremonies, Diego Ravelli, was made a bishop by the Pope and assigned a (for now) light administrative role.
Pope Francis is dismantling the papal court. But, by putting everything under his control, he is creating a court of the Pope. Indeed, a court of Pope Francis. His image could benefit from it. Certainly, the Vatican organization will need to rebuild itself, with a new pontificate, in order not lose two millennia of history.