Diocese of Rome Shake-Up: Pope Francis Transfers Vicar to Vatican Post

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis has been appointed head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican announced on Saturday.

Cardinal Angelo De Donatis
Cardinal Angelo De Donatis (photo: Cardinal Angelo De Donatis / Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

Pope Francis has transferred the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, to a different post as head of the Vatican’s Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican announced on Saturday.

Cardinal De Donatis, 70, has overseen the administrative needs of the Diocese of Rome as cardinal vicar since 2017. His reassignment leaves the important post of vicar general of Rome vacant until the Pope appoints his successor.

The Vatican also announced on April 6 that one of Rome’s seven auxiliary bishops, Jesuit Bishop Daniele Libanori will be transferred to a new position as the Holy Father’s supervisor for Consecrated Life. The Jesuit bishop played a key role in uncovering alleged serial sexual, spiritual and psychological abuse of women religious by Jesuit mosaic artist Father Marko Rupnik. Bishop Libanori reportedly learned of the women's accusations while investigating the Loyola Community Father Rupnik co-founded in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Father Rupnik ultimately was dismissed from the Jesuit order and is currently under investigation by the Vatican.

The transfer of Cardinal De Donatis is the latest move in Pope Francis’ major reform of the Diocese of Rome. The Pope issued a decree last year that deeply diminished the role of the vicar of Rome and centralized the diocesan management under the formal control of the pontiff as bishop of Rome.

Apostolic Penitentiary

With his new role as major penitentiary, Cardinal De Donatis will serve as the head of the Vatican tribunal in charge of cases involving excommunication and serious sins, including those whose absolution is reserved to the Holy See. For this reason, the Apostolic Penitentiary is referred to as a tribunal of mercy.

Cardinal De Donatis succeeds 80-year-old Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, who is retiring as major penitentiary after more than a decade in the post. 

As major penitentiary, Cardinal De Donatis will have a unique privilege during a potential conclave. The head of the Apostolic Penitentiary retains his position sede vacante (after the pope has died or resigned) and is one of the only cardinal-electors who can communicate with people outside of the conclave to fulfill his duties — a privilege only shared by the cardinal vicar of Rome and the vicar general of Vatican City State.

Historic Appointment as Vicar

Cardinal De Donatis was born in the southeastern Italian town of Casarano in Apulia, Italy, on Jan. 4, 1954. He studied philosophy in Rome at the Pontifical Lateran University and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he received a licentiate in moral theology, before he was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Nardò-Gallipoli in southern Italy in 1980. 

Three years later, Father De Donatis was incardinated in the Diocese of Rome, where over the next three decades he served as a parish priest, director of the diocesan clergy office, and spiritual director of the Pontifical Roman Major Seminary.

In 2014, Pope Francis selected Father De Donatis to preach the Lenten spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia during their weeklong retreat in Ariccia. A year later, the Pope appointed and personally ordained Father De Donatis as an auxiliary bishop of Rome.

Walking around the interior of the elliptical amphitheater in the solemn procession of the Via Crucis 2024 in Rome, the cross was carried by different individuals, while Cardinal Angelo De Donatis (the Pope’s outgoing vicar for the Diocese of Rome), and several other prelates, followed closely behind. | Daniel Ibañez/CNA

With his papal appointment as vicar of Rome in 2017, Bishop De Donatis became the first man in centuries to be named vicar general of Rome while not a cardinal. Pope Francis made him a cardinal the following year in the June 2018 consistory.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardinal De Donatis closed all of Rome’s churches to the public on March 12, 2020, before reversing the decision and opening the churches one day later, at the request of Pope Francis

One year later, Pope Francis ordered an audit of the Diocese of Rome in June 2021 in which the auditor general of the Holy See sifted through the accounting books, registers and cooperative societies.

Cardinal De Donatis and the leadership of the Diocese of Rome also faced widespread backlash after issuing a letter in September 2023 praising the art and theology center founded by Father Marko Rupnik, the former Jesuit priest and artist accused of spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse of religious sisters.

The Vatican announcement of Cardinal De Donatis’ transfer came one day after Pope Francis visited a parish in Rome’s 11th prefecture for a closed-door conversation with Roman priests about pastoral issues facing the diocese. Vatican News described the meeting as part of Pope Francis’ “periodic visits to his diocese.”