Pope Benedict XVI’s unusual nomination Nov. 26 of an American curial official to be the new apostolic nuncio to Ireland has been widely welcomed by Catholics in Rome and Ireland.
Msgr. Charles Brown, a native of New York, has worked at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1994. A former student at the University of Notre Dame, Oxford University and the University of Toronto, he also has a doctorate in sacramental theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’Anselmo in Rome.
The newly appointed nuncio will be elevated to archbishop and given the titular see of Aquileia.
But unlike most nuncios, Archbishop-elect Brown, 52, is not a graduate of the Ecclesiastical Academy — the Holy See’s prestigious school for Vatican diplomats. As the Italian newspaper Il Foglio put it, Pope Benedict has effectively decided on a “technocrat” measure similar to the new technocrat government in Italy, making a highly unusual appointment to deal with an unprecedented crisis.
This underlines just how seriously Pope Benedict views the situation affecting the Catholic Church in Ireland, according to Michael Kelly, deputy editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper. “It is a sign, I believe, that the Holy Father is signaling that it is the Church’s own life and mission in Ireland that needs at this time the assistance of the Holy See, rather than the relationship between Ireland and the Holy See,” he said.
As an official at the CDF under its then prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Msgr. Brown worked closely with the future Pope, a fact which Kelly believes makes him “acutely aware of the Holy Father’s agenda for renewal [of the Church in Ireland] and well placed to see it through.”
This will be especially important when it comes to outlining the results of the apostolic visitation to the country. Brown’s closeness to fellow New Yorker Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is taking a leading role in the investigation, will also be an advantage.
The appointment of the new nuncio comes after Ireland-Holy See relations sunk to their lowest ebb over the summer following revelations of the Church’s mishandling of clerical sex-abuses cases, the latest disclosures published in the Cloyne Report in July. The dispute worsened further when Irish Prime Minister Enda Kelly strongly chastised the Vatican, accusing it of interfering with the investigation — charges the Holy See denies.
The former nuncio, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, was recalled to Rome for consultations when relations deteriorated and was not reassigned to Dublin.
Ireland has since said it will maintain diplomatic relations, but announced that it would close its Rome embassy to the Holy See, citing economic reasons. The country’s ties with the Holy See are Ireland’s oldest (the Vatican was the first to recognize Ireland as an independent state), making the move all the more surprising and painful.
Archbishop-elect Brown, affectionately known in Rome circles simply as “Charlie,” is described as “very responsible and hardworking” by those close to him and someone who will fully embrace his new role. Despite his lack of diplomatic experience, the popular scooter-riding official is known for his diplomatic skills but is wary of the media.
The new nuncio is reputed to be very knowledgeable about the situation of the Irish Church, involved in two ad limina visits to the Vatican by Irish bishops, as well as the 2009 emergency summit when Ireland’s bishops were summoned to Rome over the clerical sex-abuse crisis.
Msgr. Brown was also said to have been assigned to deal with Irish abuse cases under the leadership of the Holy See’s promoter of justice (the Vatican’s closest equivalent to an attorney general), Msgr. Charles Scicluna.
“In his letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March 2010, Pope Benedict noted that the scandals ‘have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing,’” said Kelly, adding that he believed the new nuncio will be “a key aide” to the Irish Church, helping it to “acknowledge the sins and crimes” of the past, the need for “healing of the victims,” and assisting the Church in moving towards a better future, more authentically in line with the Gospel.
Another advantage of Archbishop-elect Brown’s appointment is that, unlike previous nuncios, he is a native English speaker which, observers say, means he will instinctively understand the Anglophone Church in a way that eluded his predecessors.
Shortly before Msgr. Brown’s appointment, the Vatican announced the resignation of Bishop Séamus Hegarty of Raphoe Diocese, who stepped down on the grounds of ill health. But the timing of his resignation was unfortunate, coming just a week before the publication of the Raphoe Report on clerical sex abuse.
However, Kelly and other Church commentators have no doubt his poor health is the real reason, as he has been ill for a number of months.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.