Pope Francis’ Cast of Consequential Characters: 10 Figures Who Have Been Prominent Over the Last 10 Years
COMMENTARY: During his reign as pope, the Holy Father has attracted a cast of characters quite unlike any recent pontificate. Who has come to define the Francis era?
The 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Francis (March 13) is a propitious time to review what has been a very active decade. Over the course of the next days, I will look at the pontificate from different angles.
Today: Consequential Characters.
The recent death of Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the pontificate of St. John Paul II was one of titanic figures — Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger principal among them. Pope Francis has no titans — there are no equivalents to Cardinal Carlo Martini in Milan, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger in Paris, Cardinal Camillo Ruini in Rome or Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. Instead, a wide array of figures have had an outsize influence on his pontificate. Herewith then, for the 10th anniversary, are 10 examples.
Patriarch Batholomew of Constantinople
Relations between the Bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople — “first without equals” among the world’s Orthodox Churches — having been warming for nearly 60 years. Under Francis, though, the ecumenical patriarch has become a regular fixture, seeing the Holy Father far more often than some senior cardinals.
It began with Bartholomew’s historic presence at the installation of Pope Francis in March 2013, an ecumenical gesture of major significance. Since then, Bartholomew has visited the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with Francis, attended a peace summit in the Vatican Gardens with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and joined Francis in Lesbos, Greece, to highlight the plight of refugees — just to name the more important encounters.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
Pope Francis practices an ecumenism of encounter. He recently visited South Sudan on a joint visit with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, an unprecedented joint pilgrimage.
No ecumenical figure has loomed larger that Kirill, patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Pope Francis achieved the meeting with the patriarch of Moscow that had eluded his predecessors. The price, though, was high: It took place in an airport in Havana, not a holy place, did not include any liturgical prayer, and included a communiqué that denigrated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches that Moscow does not think should exist.
The desire for a second meeting with Kirill dominated the first six months of papal diplomacy after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The meeting never came off, but the Holy Father’s determination to pursue it cost him dearly in Ukraine and elsewhere, where he was seen to be reluctant to condemn Russian aggression.
Cardinal Konrad Krajewski
The role of papal almoner, the prelate responsible for the pope’s direct charitable works, had long become largely ceremonial. Given his rank in the papal household, the archbishop almoner would accompany the pope at public liturgical occasions, but the office itself was not very visible. Pope Francis changed that early on with his appointment of Polish priest Konrad Krajewski, a Curial monsignor previously best known for his role as one of the papal masters of ceremonies.
Later created by Francis as a cardinal and prefect of the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, Cardinal Krajewski has reinvigorated the office, having direct contact with the poor, homeless and refugees. He made multiple trips to Ukraine, spending Holy Week 2022 in the war zone. No other figure expresses the Holy Father’s priority for the corporal works of mercy better than Cardinal Krajewski, likely the pontificate’s most successful appointment.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò
Archbishop Viganò is one character that the Holy Father certainly wishes would not be so prominent. As with a great many other critics of Francis, his toxic rants against the Holy Father — and others upon whom he visits his vitriol — lack an authentic ecclesial spirit. Archbishop Viganò had a distinguished diplomatic career, rising to become the supervisor of nuncios in Rome, a senior official in the administration of the Vatican City State, and finally nuncio in the United States.
After accusing the Holy Father of mishandling the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick — a case in which his own role was inconsistent — Archbishop Viganò went into hiding. Gone, but certainly not forgotten, he pops up periodically to hurl internet grenades at a wide range of enemies.
Archbishop Viganò stands for a wider array of voices under Pope Francis, those who have let constructive criticism of this or that initiative become a generalized partisan opposition, often unhinged in its intensity.
Bishop Gustavo Óscar Zanchetta
Bishop Zanchetta was one the earliest episcopal appointments of Pope Francis, made just months after his election. Pope Francis had come to know Bishop Zanchetta when he worked as an official in the Argentine bishops’ conference.
The appointment as bishop of Oran went south quickly. By 2017, his resignation was accepted on “health grounds.” That turned out not to be true, as Pope Francis later revealed that it was because Bishop Zanchetta was a terrible manager. Nevertheless, Pope Francis arranged for Bishop Zanchetta a safe landing spot in Rome, creating for him a senior position in the Vatican office for management of finances and property — an odd assignment for one incompetent in administration.
Later, it became clear that Bishop Zanchetta was guilty of sexual misconduct, but Pope Francis was slow to act against his friend. The Argentinian state took over and charged him with sexual misconduct with seminarians. He was convicted and was sentenced to prison in Argentina (later permitted to be served under house arrest). Pope Francis has not yet concluded the Vatican process against him.
Bishop Zanchetta is the most egregious example, but he represents all the dubious characters with strong papal connections whose cases get favorable treatment. The recent case of Father Marko Rupnik appears to be another of those.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu
It was Pope Benedict XVI who appointed Archbishop Angelo Becciu to be sostituto, or deputy secretary of state — effectively the papal chief of staff. He served Benedict for 18 months in that role and then continued under Pope Francis. He would eventually be named prefect of the congregation for saints and created a cardinal.
He was the chief foe of the financial reforms of the late Cardinal George Pell, stopping the audit Cardinal Pell had ordered and firing the Vatican’s first auditor general. In September 2020, Pope Francis abruptly fired him and stripped him of his privileges as a cardinal due to allegations of financial corruption.
Since then, Cardinal Becciu has been at the center of a massive Vatican corruption trial now well into its second year. In anticipation of that, he secretly recorded a conversation with the Holy Father, attempting to bait him into providing help for his defense. For his part, Pope Francis appears to have retained his affection for the man he fired for corruption, celebrating Holy Thursday Mass at Cardinal Becciu’s home in 2021 and granting him — during the trial — a private audience.
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia is another holdover from Benedict who has come to define the Francis era. Benedict made Archbishop Paglia president of the Pontifical Council for the Family in 2012, one of his most inexplicable appointments. Even then, Archbishop Paglia had a long record of dubious financial dealings and, on the moral front, had commissioned a homoerotic fresco for his cathedral — in which the artist included Bishop Paglia himself.
After an undistinguished turn at the council for the family, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Paglia president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and chancellor of Rome’s John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences. Archbishop Paglia has set about systematically dismantling those two flagship initiatives of John Paul II.
Fathers Spadaro and Martin — Super Jesuits
Every pontificate needs ancillary interpreters, as, for example, Peter Seewald was for Benedict, serving as an interlocutor in several interview books.
Pope Francis has chosen two Jesuit writers, Father Antonio Spadaro and Father James Martin, for this privileged role. The Holy Father, considering the high profile and favorable treatment he has given to both, clearly wishes the wider Catholic world to see in these two “super Jesuits” his thought, style and pastoral priorities. There are other Jesuits too who are key figures in the pontificate, apparently on the premise that an entire Church more like the Jesuit order would be more effective at evangelization.
Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez
Cardinal Rosa Chavez represents all the curious cardinalatial appointments that Pope Francis has made, a very consequential characteristic of this pontificate. A friend of the martyred St. Oscar Romero, Cardinal Rosa Chavez was made an auxiliary bishop of San Salvador in 1982 as a way of honoring the murdered archbishop. Thirty-five years later, still an auxiliary, Pope Francis created him a cardinal to further honor Archbishop Romero. He retired last October at age 80.
Cardinal Rosa Chavez represents those cardinals created not for their personal qualities, but for what they represent. For him, it was his proximity to Archbishop Romero. Evidently, it was thought that Cardinal Rosa Chavez ought not be in charge of a diocese, so the highly unusual situation prevailed of the archbishop not being a cardinal, but his auxiliary instead. Francis has chosen many cardinals because they represent something — usually a geographically remote area.
During the Amazon synod of 2019, the “Pachamama,” a pregnant woman symbol of mother earth, was present for various prayer services and was displayed in a church near the Vatican. Strenuous objections were raised by those who considered this idolatry within the Vatican grounds. Vatican officials floundered about with competing explanations. The pachamama was not an idol, they insisted, but no one seemed to know that it was.
Pope Francis attempted to split the difference, saying that the pachamama had been displayed “without idolatrous intentions.” You only say that about an idol; a Catholic would never say that the Virgin of Guadalupe was displayed “without idolatrous intentions.” The pachamama is an idol, the Holy Father conceded, but was not being used for idolatrous purposes, just as pagan idols in a museum are not there to invite idol worship, but for cultural or artistic reasons.
Nevertheless, surely the pagan idol at a Vatican synod has been the strangest character of this pontificate.