VATICAN CITY — The Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, said the summons to the Vatican Curia was like a call from God.

“The first thing I felt I should do was to begin to pray, to ask God to enlighten me, because for me the voice of the Pope is the voice of God and, therefore, it was necessary to say Yes,” Cardinal Claudio Hummes told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.

The 72-year-old Brazilian of German descent said his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy Oct. 31 came as a big surprise.

Auri Alfonso Hummes (he took the name Claudio when he became a Franciscan) was born in the archdiocese of Porto Alegre Aug. 8, 1934. He joined the Order of Friars Minor in his teens and was ordained a priest in his early twenties. He is known to be a champion of human dignity and particularly concerned about issues of social justice, abortion, the rights of the poor, the family and bioethics. 

As a priest and later bishop, he earned a reputation as a “progressive” figure, mainly due to speaking up for the rights of workers when he was Bishop of Santo Andre, an industrial city near Sao Paulo. It was there, defending the rights of the poor against a military regime, that he became friends with metalworkers union leader Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva, now Brazil’s president.

He also was drawn for a time to the liberation theology movement and remains friends with its chief proponents, Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto.

In 1996, the Brazilian prelate was named Archbishop of Fortaleza in the northeast of the country, and just two years later was chosen by Pope John Paul II to become Archbishop of Sao Paulo, possibly the largest archdiocese in the world with an estimated population of 10 million. In that position, he again worked to relieve the suffering of the poor. He was created cardinal in February of 2001 and has since taken an active role in Vatican affairs, assuming membership of, among others, the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and Divine Worship.

He has also worked to promote Christian unity and to improve Jewish-Catholic relations.  A keen advocate of dialogue with the world, he feels strongly that the Church should “propose not impose, serve and not dominate” wider society.  He is not a prelate who can be easily pigeonholed as a conservative or a progressive.

Initially there were concerns about Cardinal Hummes’ appointment owing to his associations with the now discredited liberation theology movement. However, Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the journal First Things, sees no cause for concern.

“The debates over liberation theology were many and complex, but that is mostly in the past,” Father Neuhaus told the Register. “It is obvious to me that the Holy Father would not appoint someone to such a critical position in whom he does not have great confidence, as we all have reason to have great confidence in the Holy Father’s judgment.”

The Brazilian will replace Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who is retiring at the age of 77 but remaining as president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, the body responsible for the pastoral care of former members of the Society of St. Pius X. Cardinal Hummes’ new role at the Congregation for the Clergy will be to help in the ongoing spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation of diocesan priests and permanent deacons and promote religious education through Catholic parishes.

In his Nov. 1 O Globo interview, the cardinal said he would like to see higher standards of selection and formation of priests so “we can have the moral certainty that they are going to be capable of living celibately, as asked by the Church.”

He also stressed that all cases of priests being accused of sexual abuse must be referred to the Holy See. That has pleased some Vatican officials who see his words as an indication that he would like to see disciplinary issues concerning priests returned to the Holy See. (Since the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002, such cases have been handled by Doctrine of the Faith.) Such a step would not only free up Doctrine of the Faith to deal solely with doctrinal matters but also help provide greater recourse for those many priests who have suffered false accusations. “At the moment they really have no one to appeal to,” said one official.

Curial Reform

Cardinal Hummes’ appointment is the latest in a series of changes which reveals the Holy Father’s determination to reform the Curia. Benedict’s aims are essentially threefold: to bring in those prelates who have non-Curial but pastoral experience; internationalize staff and remove its “eurocentricity;” and put in place leaders known for their holiness, intelligence and integrity.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that such new appointments — from Cardinal Hummes to Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Indian prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples — were also leading papabili during last year’s conclave.

Cardinal Hummes was also chosen because there are few Latin Americans in the Curia and no Brazilian as head of a dicastery, despite the country having the largest Catholic population in the world. Such a change was also considered especially necessary before the Pope visits Brazil next July for a meeting with the Latin American bishops’ conference.

More generally, officials see a natural “changing of the guard” taking place in the top ranks of the Curia. A significant milestone will be reached Nov. 21 when one of the last surviving cardinals to be appointed by Pope Paul VI, Cardinal William Baum, turns 80.

That said, the next generation is not so far behind. Most of the cardinals appointed to senior curial positions by Pope Benedict are already over 70. Cardinal Castrillon is also expected to remain as head of Ecclesia Dei until he reaches 80. It’s unknown whether this is because the Holy Father believes any cardinal under 70 is unable to be an effective Curial head, or whether he feels more comfortable working with those closer to his own age. As with all his decisions, Pope Benedict plays his cards very close to the vest.

But what is clear is that his appointments — clearly the fruits of his own profound deliberations — have been mostly very welcome surprises.

 Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.