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America on the Tiber

Bringing get-it-done spirit to the curia


What the Vatican and the rest of the Catholic world know of America is often forged by contact with Americans in Rome. Americans in the curia, in religious life, in pontifical universities, in the diplomatic corps, and in institutions such as the North American College serve as a bridge between two worlds. They bring the fruits of American culture to the universal church, while their Roman experience gives them a new perspective back home.

In this series, a kind of introduction to America on the Tiber, NCR offers a look at Americans who matter in Rome, what they do and what difference they make.

The number of Americans in the Vatican curia is at a historic high, and though they bring a new level of organization and a drive to get things done that is unusual in curial circles, none is expected to have near the effect on church operations as the two Americans many observers identify as the most consequential to have served in the Roman curia.

Ironically, those two more or less cancel each other out. One, now retired in the United States, created a financial mess; the other, still working in the curia, cleaned it up.

First, the mess.

No American ever cut a swath through the Vatican like Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, originally from Cicero, Ill., and today retired to a home outside Phoenix. In the 1970s Marcinkus was an intimate of Pope Paul VI and the organizer of the pope’s trips. Under the pope’s patronage, Marcinkus became head of the Vatican Bank. He presided over a mammoth financial scandal that ended with a $244 million Vatican payout to enraged creditors of the Banco Ambrosiano, an institution linked to Marcinkus that folded amid $3.5 billion in red ink.

At best, observers say, Marcinkus was guilty of naiveté; at worst, criminal misconduct. As a Vatican prelate, however, he enjoyed immunity from prosecution. (In Marcinkus’ defense, the Vatican Bank made money under his tenure, so it did not have to borrow to pay off the $244 million. But clearly the loss hit the institution where it hurts, as did perceptions of conniving and shady deals.)

“This was one of the darkest pages of Catholic history in terms of government and moral issues,” Italian church historian Alberto Melloni told NCR. “On that basis alone, Marcinkus is the most important American ever to work in the curia.”

The Marcinkus tragedy makes the impact of American Cardinal Edmund Szoka, formerly of Detroit, quasi-redemptive.

Aggravated by the Marcinkus crisis, from 1970 to 1992 the Vatican reported an unbroken string of 23 consecutive budget deficits, topped by a remarkable $87 million in red ink for 1990 (a staggering sum given that the annual operating budget of the Holy See is $200 million). Szoka, a tough-as-nails administrator with a reputation for running his archdiocese in the black, was brought to Rome in 1990 to clean house, a job he held until 1997. He is today the governor of the Vatican city-state.

Szoka’s impact was immediate. The Holy See had a balanced budget in 1992 and every year since. Szoka, 74, managed the turn-around despite granting pay raises and absorbing the costs of new nunciatures around the world. He pulled it off, observers say, by doing the unthinkable and the unheard-of -- he gave Vatican departments a budget and made them accountable for what they spent.

One could say Szoka restored American karma in the curia.

The Roman curia is, for all intents and purposes, the executive, judicial and legislative branches of church government all rolled into one. The cardinals and archbishops who run its nine congregations and 11 councils, plus the Secretariat of State and the various tribunals and other offices, are therefore heavyweights in the Catholic church. Below their level, the hundreds of monsignori, priests, sisters and even a few laity who do the day-to-day work are influential, if lesser-known, figures.

One way to measure the impact of a national church is by assessing the role of its personnel inside the Roman curia.

According to Vatican figures, there are some 1,800 employees of the Roman curia (excluding Vatican Radio, the Vatican library, and the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano). Curiously, neither the Vatican nor the American bishops’ conference maintains a list of Americans in the curia. By contacting each of the offices, NCR identified 46 Americans. (Several offices could provide only estimates, however, since they do not track employees by nationality.)

There is currently at least one American in every congregation except two, Evangelization of Peoples and Oriental Churches. There are Americans in seven councils.

The American contingent is at a historically high level. Archbishop John Foley said that when he arrived in Rome 17 years ago, there were 13 Americans living at the Villa Stritch, the residence for diocesan priests working in the curia. Today there are 26. The increase reflects an “internationalization” of the curia, breaking what had been a virtual Italian monopoly.

The majority of Americans are priests. In addition to the diocesan priests, there are two cardinals, two archbishops, and five religious order priests. There are also seven religious sisters, three lay women and one layman.

Two other American curial prelates, Cardinal William Baum of the Apostolic Penitentiary and Archbishop Charles Schleck of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, recently retired.

The priests come from 21 dioceses. Philadelphia has the highest number of curial personnel, with three priests, one archbishop (Foley), and one laywoman, Joan Collemacine-Parenti in the Council for the Family. Foley hosts an annual dinner for Philadelphians in Rome. The Lincoln, Neb., diocese, with just 88,000 Catholics, has two priests in the curia, Msgr. Michael Jackels in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Fr. Thomas Fucinaro in the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Beyond Szoka, today’s most powerful American curialist is Archbishop James Harvey, 52, originally from Milwaukee and now serving as prefect of the papal household. He was previously in the Secretariat of State, where he ran the English-language desk.

Harvey is the first American to hold his post, which makes him the keeper of the pope’s public schedule. When a head of state arrives to meet the pope, it’s Harvey who greets them. If a bishop wants front row seats for some VIP buddies at an audience, it’s Harvey he has to persuade.

Though the role is important, one should not exaggerate. Papal secretary Stanislaw Dziwisz is a more influential figure. It is Dziwisz who lives next door to the pope and controls access to his apartment. VIPs seeking face time with John Paul have to go through Dziwisz, not Harvey.

The other two American prefects in the curia are James Francis Stafford, 69, who heads the Council for Laity, and Foley, 66, who runs the Council for Social Communications. Neither is counted among the innermost circles of the curia. (Councils, such as those led by Stafford and Foley, advise and promote, while congregations have decision-making authority.)

In an interview in his office in Rome’s Piazza San Calisto, Stafford told NCR that one virtue of having Americans around is that some of the complexity of the United States can be explained to Europeans, who like to think of the New World as one big place called “America.”

“I come from Baltimore, then served in Memphis and Denver,” Stafford said. “I learned that the cultures, including church cultures, in each are remarkably different. If it took living there for me to get it, imagine how hard it is from over here.”

Among Americans below the level of prefect, observers speak especially highly of Immaculate Heart Sr. Sharon Holland in the Congregation for Religious. Holland, those sources say, has won respect through competence and loyalty, in the process diminishing some of the suspicion that has surrounded American religious women since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Among the men, insiders such as Stafford point to Msgr. Frank Dewane, undersecretary of the Council for Justice and Peace, as among the most impressive figures. Dewane worked for the Pepsi Corporation before entering the priesthood, and has represented the Holy See at international conferences.

Another up-and-coming figure is Msgr. Michael Banach, who is in the Vatican diplomatic service and who runs the desk for Central and Eastern Europe in the Secretariat of State. (Banach is also the administrator of the Villa Stritch.) If his career follows a normal pattern, he will eventually be named an archbishop and papal nuncio, as happened in March 2001 to American Timothy Broglio, a Cleveland native and now nuncio to the Dominican Republic.

Banach, who comes from Worcester, Mass., said one lesson curial service has imposed is patience.

“As Americans, we want to get things done right away, to clear the desk,” he said in an interview at the Villa Stritch. “Here you see the value of waiting a day or two. A situation might resolve itself.”

That’s not to say the get-things-done American spirit has not rubbed off a bit in the curia. Szoka, for example, talked Domino’s Pizza founder and conservative Catholic activist Tom Monaghan into financing the computerization of the Roman Rota, the main curial court. That act sped up response time and efficiency in notable ways.

Collemacine-Parenti said that over her 30 years inside the Vatican, she has seen a shift toward greater efficiency and informality, in part under the impact of “American ways of doing business.”

Yet, most observers concur that American curialists have not, at least in any dramatic fashion, pushed the Vatican toward a greater embrace of the characteristic values of American Catholicism -- democracy, say, or egalitarianism. This is in part because people chosen to work in the curia tend to have already exhibited key curial values, such as caution and loyalty.

“It is the price of admission,” said Giancarlo Zizola, the dean of the Vatican press corps who writes for the Italian daily Il Sole delle 24 Ore. “Especially with the Americans, appointments are informally screened, psychologically and theologically, to ensure a certain Romanità.”

“Most are already in some sense Roman,” he said. “That’s how they survive in Rome.”

John L. Allen Jr. is the Rome correspondent for NCR. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002