Observing the Changing of the Guard at the Vatican

ANALYSIS: The sudden departure of a secretary shows that the Pope does not have a team; he has a small number of longtime friends.

Pope Francis makes a point in his homily during the Mass for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica June 29 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis makes a point in his homily during the Mass for the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica June 29 at the Vatican. (photo: Vatican Pool / Vatican Media/Getty Images)

During the month of July, Pope Francis was not expected to have audiences, with some exceptions. But, in the last part of the month, he had meetings with young pilgrims who passed through Rome before going to World Youth Day.

Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, the regent of the Papal Household, who in recent years has always been a faithful guardian of every meeting of Pope Francis, was not present at these meetings.

Msgr. Sapienza was not there because he was rightfully on vacation, knowing that the Pope would not hold audiences. But the fact that Pope Francis has decided to keep audiences anyway, without communicating it, also has a meaning. It means that the Pope is saying that he can manage things independently, without guardians.

Perhaps we are speculating too much about this, yet there are clear indications in recent times. One is the sudden departure of Msgr. Gonzalo Aemilius, the Pope’s secretary from Uruguay, who arrived just two and a half years ago and was replaced by a priest from Argentina whom the Pope had known for some time.

The personal secretaries, for Pope Francis, are not essential. The Pope has always kept two agendas: the official one, and that of his own meetings, hidden from everyone, even from the secretaries. The Pope did not go on suddenly scheduled visits at the beginning of his pontificate because he had other private, personal engagements that no one knew about. A legend was also built on these absences, which spoke of a Pope who dismissed mundane events. There was a more practical truth.

And, of course, precisely for this reason, the sudden departure of a secretary cannot fail to be noticed. This departure shows that the Pope does not have a team; he does not have a fixed number of people to trust, except for some longtime friends.

One of these friends is the soon-to-be-Cardinal Victor Fernández, whom the Pope has appointed prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. And perhaps it is no coincidence that the Pope called him to Rome in the end. Because Fernández is a person who is faithful to the Pope and whom the Pope trusts, he will need to have him close in this period which probably promises to be the most revolutionary of the pontificate.

In addition to the change of secretaries, the Pope appointed Cardinal Matteo Zuppi his special envoy to Ukraine, Russia, then the United States and now probably China.

Although special envoys are part of regular diplomatic activity, Pope Francis also uses the special envoy as a signal. It means that the Pope has his diplomacy and his diplomatic line and that it is not necessarily that of the Vatican Secretariat of State. The Pope certainly has diplomats he consults.

But his decisions are his own, and he wants them to be carried out by people reporting directly to him.

Does this mean that the Secretariat of State could be increasingly marginalized? In some way, it is already happening because Pope Francis also decided to deconstruct the Curia as we knew it. He has always said that he assumes the reform of the Curia as a mandate. He established a Council of Cardinals, which initially did not even include the secretary of state, and he removed the Vatican secretary of state from the board of the Institute for Works of Religion (Vatican Bank) after removing him from the presidency. Finally, he also pulled away from the Secretariat of State the administration of the patrimony.

Judicial processes in the Vatican exhibited a fierce attack on the Secretariat of State’s government methods. The Vatican promoter of justice even suggested that the Secretariat of State should have referred to Vatican justice instead of maintaining autonomy, as if a government body of any state should have the justice bodies as its first reference and as if a government body of any form should not have autonomy, a budget, and discretion in the management of funds.

Of course, there may have been at times a too personalistic management, even a perpetuation of power, as it happens. But an alleged personalist management does not justify a direct attack on the institution. It is not the institutions or procedures that create the occasion but the people who decide whether to mismanage. They can be relocated, and a way can be found to contain them, but the problem will not be solved by attacking the government structures.

In this, too, the Pope wants to demonstrate that he can do without the typical government structures. There is a Pope, and the Pope is the central government that makes the decisions. There are no councilors; there are no departments that can have weight. The downside is that if only one person is in charge, this person can easily be manipulated. The Pope does not think he can be instrumentalized, but he needs friends like the soon-Cardinal Fernández to help him carry on his ideas. Fernández will be called upon to give a theoretical framework and an explanation of the actions that Pope Francis will take from now on.

What awaits us, apparently, is a massive change of the Vatican guard, facilitated by the Praedicate Evangelium rules, which limits holding top positions to only five years, renewable only once.

Therefore, absences and attendances will have to be carefully weighed as the pontificate reaches its crucial phase. The financial malfeasance trial in the Vatican is moving towards a verdict, and the decisions of the president of the Tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, will reveal whether it will be a political verdict or a just verdict. But if it were political, it would demonstrate once again that the Pope wants to set an example, and to deconstruct, destroy and rebuild in his own way.

Currently, everything can change at any moment. At the same time, many seem to have understood the Pope’s modus operandi by now and are trying to defuse it or let time pass until things change. The Pope wants to secure his legacy. He doesn’t know if he will succeed, and it is a difficult endeavor. The theological-theoretical succession could be guaranteed. But to do so, he will have to have many of his own active on the field, with new department heads and new people in key posts. The changing of the guard seems to be close at hand.