A Venerable Vatican: Many Current Curial Leaders Are Past Retirement Age

Almost half of the Roman Curia’s most important departments are currently led by prelates past the recommended retirement age of 75.

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, will turn 80 in August and is currently the oldest curial head at the Vatican.
Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, will turn 80 in August and is currently the oldest curial head at the Vatican. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA/EWTN News)

VATICAN CITY — On Jan. 18, Pope Francis’ pontificate exceeded that of Pope Benedict XVI's in duration, and as of Feb. 13, 2021, Francis had led the Catholic Church for 2,894 days compared to Benedict's 2,867.

When he was elected at the age of 76, few — including Francis himself — expected his pontificate to last this long. Francis appears to be as active as ever, about to embark on his first overseas papal trip in more than a year, and apart from his recurring bouts of painful sciatica, seemingly in relatively good health.

But that’s not necessarily the case for the Roman Curial heads he oversees. Although not quite as senior as Pope Francis’ 84 years, for the most part they are not far behind, with almost half the Curia’s most important departments currently led by prelates past the recommended retirement age of 75. The same also applies to a number of heads of pontifical academies and commissions. 

Of the 22 most important dicasteries of the Roman Curia (excluding pontifical academies, commissions and the Governatorate of Vatican City State), nine are headed by cardinals or bishops who could officially by now be in pensione (see full table below).

One of the most influential of them is 76-year-old Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has served as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops since 2010 and therefore fulfilled two five-year terms. That fact recently prompted speculation that the Pope might be planning to tap Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago as his replacement.

Another retirement-aged prefect is Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who turns 77 in April and has headed the once all-important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 2017. But Cardinal Ladaria is known to have a good rapport with Pope Francis, and so it’s quite possible the Pope will keep him on as prefect until his five-year mandate ends in July 2022. 

Less likely to remain in post as long is Cardinal Beniamino Stella, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. A close confidant of Pope Francis who raised him to “cardinal bishop” last year — the most prestigious rank in the College of Cardinals — the veteran Holy See diplomat will turn 80 in August. 

Similarly, Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, dean of the Roman Rota and also close to the Pope, will turn 80 at the end of March and expected to be replaced soon. 

Other prelates over 75 heading principal dicasteries include Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The Guinean cardinal, who has not always seen eye-to-eye with Francis, will be 76 in June, but could conceivably be kept in post until he completes his second five-year term in 2024.

Other senior curial heads include Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, the 77-year-old prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education; Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the 76-year-old prefect of the Apostolic Penitentiary; and Argentinian Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, who is just over a year away from fulfilling his third five-year term as prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches. Cardinal Sandri, a former sostituto at the Secretariat of State who announced the death of Pope St. John Paul II, will turn 78 in November. 

Among the heads of the Pontifical Councils, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi looks set for imminent retirement. Appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Culture by Benedict XVI in 2007, the Milanese cardinal will be 79 in October.  

But even beyond the important dicasteries, curial leaders tend to be past retirement age. The president of the Governatorate of Vatican City State, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, will likely be replaced this year, as he turns 79 on Oct. 1, the same day he completes two five-year terms. 

As for the pontifical academies, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the ebullient, outspoken and long-serving Argentinian chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, will be 79 in September, while Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the provocative and controversial president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, turns 76 in April. Elsewhere, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, will be 77 in June and so also possibly facing imminent retirement from the Curia and also as archbishop of Boston.

Lastly, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, president of the Fabric of St. Peter, which runs St. Peter’s Basilica but is not officially part of the Roman Curia, is 77, and so is also likely to soon vacate that position, which he has held since 2005.  

Other senior officials are also drawing closer to retirement age and include Cardinal Kevin Farrell, 73, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, and Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, also 73, and prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and secretary to the Council of Cardinals advising the Pope on curial reform. 

Such a relatively large number of prelates heading Vatican dicasteries past their retirement age is unusual and points to a significant turnover of curial leadership in the coming months or years. 

The Pope most likely views them as loyal supporters in varying degrees (he has said in the past, for example, that he’ll keep critics on until retirement age rather than “cut off [their] heads”) but the current seniority of senior officials is more likely to do with Praedicate Evangelium — the new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia that has been studied by the Council of Cardinals for the past eight years.

Among the changes proposed is the merging of the Congregation for Catholic Education with the Pontifical Council for Culture, as well as other significant reforms. 

The constitution is expected to be published before the end of year, according to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and it is quite possible that a significant number of high-level personnel changes will coincide with that reform, or follow soon afterward.


Senior Curial Officials Past Retirement Age:

Name

Dicastery

Appointed

Age

Cardinal Beniamino Stella

Prefect, Congregation for Clergy

9/21/2013

79

Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto

Dean, Roman Rota

9/22/2012

79

Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi

President, Pontifical Council for Culture

9/3/2007

78

Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello

President, Governatorate, Vatican City State

10/1/2011

78

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo

Chancellor, Pontifical Academy of Sciences

11/5/1998

78

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri

Prefect, Congregation for Oriental Churches

6/9/2007

77

Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi

Prefect, Congregation for Catholic Education

5/31/2015

77

Cardinal Angelo Comastri

President, Fabric of St. Peter

2/5/2005

77

Cardinal Luis Ladaria

Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

7/1/2017

77

Cardinal Marc Ouellet

Prefect, Congregation for Bishops

6/3/2010

76

Cardinal Robert Sarah

Prefect, Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments

11/24/2014

75

Cardinal Mauro Piacenza

Prefect, Apostolic Penitentiary

9/21/2013

76

Cardinal Sean O’Malley

President, Pontifical Commission for Protection of Minors

3/22/2014

76

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia

President, Pontifical Academy for Life

8/15/2016

75

Senior Curial Officials Close to Retirement:

Name

Dicastery

Appointed

Age

Cardinal Fernando Filoni

Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem

12/8/2019

74

Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz

Prefect, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life

1/4/2011

73

Cardinal Kevin Farrell

Prefect, Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life

8/15/2016

73

Cardinal Marcelo Semeraro

Congregation for the Causes of Saints

10/15/2020

73

Baldacchino altar and ornate frescoes inside Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

Vatican News and the Resurrection Film (March 27)

After the new Vatican decree limits Masses at side altars in St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the greatest and busiest churches in the world falls into near empty silence each morning. This week on Register radio we talk to Register Rome correspondent Edward Pentin about the new decree, plus we review Holy Week and Easter schedules at the Vatican and in Rome, and we check in on the controversies swirling around the Vatican’s statement on same-sex unions and blessings. And then, Register contributor Kathy Schiffer joins us to discuss the new film Resurrection that is out just in time for Easter.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

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“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]