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Pope picks new head for Congregation of Bishops

NCR Staff

By naming Italian Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re as the new head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, John Paul II has thrust one of his most senior aides into the thick of the undeclared contest to be his successor.

Re, 66, had already been widely mentioned as a candidate to become pope even though he is not yet a cardinal. Currently the sostituto, the No. 2 official in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State with responsibility for internal church affairs, Re has vast experience, speaks several languages (including English), and enjoys the clear support of the pope, who once called him “my close, very dear and very faithful collaborator.”

The Sept. 16 appointment means Re will soon receive a cardinal’s red hat and thus enter the select circle from which the next pope will almost certainly be drawn. Moreover, as the man responsible for naming bishops, he is now in a position to make some important friends.

For Catholics concerned with the future of the church, all this makes Re a very interesting person indeed.

It’s easier to peg Re as a candidate, however, than to get a fix on what kind of pope he might make. For a man near the pinnacle of Vatican power for more than a decade, there seems remarkably little consensus as to his core beliefs. Impressions careen from moderately left to far right.

Re (the name means king in Italian) entered the Vatican diplomatic service shortly after ordination, served briefly in Panama and Iran, and was then called to work in the Vatican in 1971. He has thus worked in the Rome curia for nearly 30 years, the last 11 as John Paul’s sostituto.

The job is widely seen as one of the two or three most powerful in the church, enjoying the greatest level of direct access to the pope after his private secretary. It has often been a springboard to higher office. Giovanni Battista Montini, for example, was the sostituto under Pius XII before becoming Paul VI.

Re gets universally high marks as a hard worker. Sources told NCR he often puts in 15- to 20-hour days, and even returns phone calls on Sundays. There’s no question of Re’s rapport with the pope. An ambassador to the Holy See told NCR that when his government wishes to know the mind of the pope, it’s Re he calls.

Several observers who have had contact with Re praised his ability to listen and his willingness to take action.

“Re has always been viewed in the Vatican as cautiously progressive,” one former curial official said, “not part of the hold-the-line crowd. He seems to be an open-minded person … a hard-working, intelligent career Vatican worker, not tied to any group or ideology.”

Others, however, color Re as much more conservative. A member of a women’s religious community with experience in Latin America described Re as a “terrible hard-liner” who has worked along with other Vatican officials to suffocate progressive Catholic movements in that part of the world.

In response to an NCR inquiry, a long-time collaborator of Bishop Samuel Ruiz García in the Mexican diocese of Chiapas said it is “common knowledge” Re was active in efforts to remove Ruiz from office. Ruiz, now retired, was controversial for his advocacy on behalf of Mexico’s indigenous populations as well as his progressive stances inside the church.

Re has played a similar “enforcer” role in other contexts. When an Italian priest took part in July’s pro-gay “World Pride” rally in Rome, it was Re who phoned his bishop demanding disciplinary action. In 1995, when a Kenyan priest openly criticized church leaders in a progressive Catholic journal, it was Re who asked his superior to remove him as editor (NCR, Feb. 10, 1995).

Sources sympathetic to Re interpret these as the acts of a loyal servant, not necessarily reflective of his own views.

In terms of what to make of these seemingly contradictory impressions, sources positively inclined toward Re speak of his flexibility and deftness in avoiding definitive commitments. “He knows how to keep his powder dry,” one said in appreciation.

Others, however, see Re as devoid of profound theological or ideological conviction, interested primarily in maintaining a bureaucratic career.

As for his chances of becoming pope, several observers say the same factors that recommend him also hurt him: his closeness to John Paul and his deep knowledge of the curia.

Fr. Richard McBrien, Notre Dame theologian, told NCR he regards Re as a remote prospect. “The only way a brand new cardinal would be elected is if all of the other likely candidates falter,” McBrien said.

Other Vatican-watchers suggested that even if Re falls short as a candidate, he could exert tremendous influence in a conclave, in part because he may wish to become secretary of state under a new pope.

In terms of what Re’s promotion means for John Paul, observers note that this is the sort of reward popes typically dole out to trusted collaborators near the end of their reigns. Comparisons are being drawn to Pope Paul VI’s decision in 1977 to make his sostituto, Giovanni Benelli, the cardinal of Florence. It was seen as an acknowledgment by the pope that things were winding down.

Re takes over at the Congregation for Bishops from Brazilian Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, 75, who is suffering from severe diabetes. Re’s replacement as sostituto is Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, 56, an Argentinean who most recently served as papal ambassador to Mexico.

John Allen’s e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000