VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has signaled his intention to reform the Roman Curia and possibly lessen the powers of the Secretariat of State by creating a consultative committee of eight cardinals.

The Vatican announced April 13 that Pope Francis has appointed a group — also likened to a miniature synod — to advise him on Church government and to study a plan for revising Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus (The Good Shepherd). The 1988 document instituted a number of reforms concerning the running of the Curia.

The Vatican stressed that the group, which was suggested in the general congregations preceding the conclave that elected Pope Francis, will advise on governance issues but not make decisions, all of which will remain the Pope's responsibility. The eight cardinals come from all five continents, representing the universality of the Church.

The panel is comprised of Cardinals Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston; George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia; Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India;  Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Giuseppe Bertello, president of the governorate of Vatican city state; Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago, Chile; Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany; and Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cardinal Rodriguez will be the group’s coordinator, and Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, will be its secretary.

All the appointees are either prelates whom the Holy Father knows well or whom he values for giving frank and impartial advice. The Vatican said the group’s first meeting has been scheduled for Oct. 1-3 but that, in the meantime, the Pope is “in contact with the aforementioned cardinals.”

In an interview with Corriere della Sera April 15, Bishop Semeraro said nothing has yet been decided, but that some work on Curial reform was carried out by Italian Cardinals Francesco Coccopalmerio and Attilio Nicora a few years ago.


Secretariat of State

Asked whether the Secretariat of State will have its powers curtailed, the bishop replied, “Let’s say it’s not ruled out.” He recalled that when the last major reform occurred, with the 1967 apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae, Pope Paul VI decided to make the Secretariat of State the supreme dicastery, over and above the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that had previously had that status.

It was an attempt to “translate” the teachings of the Second Vatican Council into the structural system of the Curia, Bishop Semeraro explained, perhaps because when Paul VI earlier was sostituto (deputy) in the Secretariat of State, he had trouble “with delays in dealing” with various congregations. “He put his secretariat above everything to make the link between the pope and the dicasteries,” he said.

But the bishop added that, over the intervening 46 years, the structures have become more complex.

“You have to readjust the structures to the needs of the Church today,” he said, and he alluded to Benedict XVI’s motives for resigning, namely the need to address the rapid changes in today’s world.

When asked what the main problems were, Bishop Semeraro gave as an example the poor levels of access from the heads of departments to the Pope and a drop in the number of audiences with the Holy Father. “The congregation prefects felt a more frequent and direct relationship with the Holy Father was necessary,” he said, adding that it might be better to return to how it was before, when the department heads had “greater autonomy” and didn’t have to go through the Secretariat of State.



Cardinal Pell said after the announcement that he hoped the committee would lead to greater discipline in the upper echelons of the Church after the Vatileaks affair. He also said he would like to see greater international representation in the Vatican.

“Most of the people who work in the Curia are fine people. There were one or two mishaps,” he told Australia’s ABC News April 14. “Quite a few Italians work in the Curia; [but] I think different perspectives will be useful, and I think a few English-speaking perspectives won't hurt.”

More internationalization was also advocated by Cardinal Errazuriz.

“There are more than 40 European bishops helping the Holy Father to govern the Church,” he told Corriere della Sera, “and only 12 or 13 from other regions of the world; this must be revised.” The Chilean cardinal recalled that the idea of a group of cardinals emanated from the pre-conclave discussions, when it was proposed that a “very small group” would “reflect on the Church’s governance.”

Bishop Semeraro, whose friendship with the Pope dates back to 2001, when he served as Cardinal Bergoglio’s special secretary at a Synod of Bishops on the Church in Oceania, stressed that the new group won’t “substitute the bodies of the Curia or any part of it.” Rather, it’s a “tool to aid the Pope, a small synod of communion, so to speak, that brings together bishops from all continents.”

He said it should be “read in parallel with the synod of bishops Paul VI wanted in order to consult the episcopates of the world.” It follows that vision, in a more “streamlined” manner, he said, with “more frequency, perhaps every two or three months.”

“Anyway, the Pope will decide,” the bishop said. “In the next days, we will know what issues we are to confront in October; we will have these months to deepen our preparation.”


Collegiality and Communion

Pope Francis has referred many times to two Fathers of the Church also recalled at the Second Vatican Council: St. Ignatius of Antioch, who said the Church of Rome “presides in communion,” and St. Cyprian of Carthage, who used the expression “the bishop and people.”

This approach is reflected in the nature of the consultative committee of cardinals. Bishop Semeraro also stressed that the new group differs from a commission, which has an office and staff.

Said the bishop, “There is not only collegiality, but also communion.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.