The death of Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels last week, the day after the sixth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, drew attention to the importance of appointments in defining a pontificate.
Cardinal Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, was appointed to the post by St. John Paul II in 1979 — and created a cardinal in 1983 — and remained there for 31 years, until his retirement in 2010. He was the grandest of the European liberal prelates and in the early 1980s was entrusted with key assignments under John Paul.
Over time, he would come to see himself as a leader of the faction opposed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The infamous “St. Gallen Mafia” — as Cardinal Danneels described it — began meeting in 1996; it was a loose collection of self-styled progressive cardinals and bishops determined to influence the conclave after John Paul’s death.
They had their candidate in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, but they could not prevent the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, which came as a disappointment to Cardinal Danneels. But he would experience a “personal resurrection” when Cardinal Bergoglio was elected in 2013.
Pope Francis interrupted his Lenten retreat to immediately send a condolence telegram upon the death of Cardinal Danneels, a telegram that highlighted what amounts to a footnote in the Belgian cardinal’s long service, his papal appointment to the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. It was the Holy Father’s way of signaling that the cardinal’s day had come with his own election, particularly in seeking to change the Church’s teaching on the admission of those in invalid marriages to Holy Communion.
Appointments matter more than most things that a pope does. The appointment of Cardinal Danneels reflected that John Paul often appointed the leading bishops of stature in their respective countries, even if they were of a different theological or pastoral approach. John Paul, who was accused by his critics of insisting upon a narrow line in the bishops he nominated, appointed not only Cardinal Danneels in Brussels, but Carlo Maria Martini in Milan, Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, Roger Mahony in Los Angeles and Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann in Germany.
And John Paul was inclined to surround himself in Rome with men of great stature, recognized as such even by those who did not agree with them.
By his sixth anniversary in October 1984, John Paul had appointed the following key cardinals: Agostino Casaroli as the secretary of state, Joseph Ratzinger as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bernard Gantin as the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and William Baum as the prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education. He had also appointed Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a layman, as his chief spokesman. All were men of the highest caliber who will be remembered long after their deaths.
And at his side from the first day to the last was his secretary, Father Stanisław Dziwisz, who would become archbishop of Kraków after John Paul’s death in 2005 and is now a cardinal.
Most evident with Cardinal Martini in Milan, John Paul did not insist on ideological conformity. Cardinal Casaroli, for example, was the architect of the Ostpolitik, the policy of accommodation and non-confrontation with the Soviet empire initiated under St. John XXIII and St. Paul VI.
John Paul shredded that policy on his first pilgrimage to Poland; his goal was not to find space to maneuver under communism, but to defeat it. Yet he entrusted Cardinal Casaroli with the highest office, confident in his skill and experience and knowing that he would not have to worry about his loyalty. John Paul did not keep an enemies list.
He was bold in making appointments that were unexpected, like appointing the Gregorian University rector, Carlo Martini, to the most prestigious diocese in Italy, Milan.
Also by his sixth anniversary, he made the astonishing decision to name Jean-Marie Lustiger, the son of Holocaust victims and a Jewish convert, as archbishop of Paris. Bishop Lustiger was so shocked he tried to change John Paul’s mind, but the Holy Father was firm. Archbishop Lustiger would become the most consequential residential cardinal in Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, a pioneer in the New Evangelization.
For the “capital of the world,” as he called it, John Paul did a similarly bold thing, naming John O’Connor, the former Navy chaplain who had only been bishop of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for nine months before his transfer to New York. It was another signature John Paul appointment, one that would reshape the Church in the United States.
Six years into his pontificate, Pope Francis has also made unexpected appointments, elevating parish priests quickly to the archbishoprics of Milan and Palermo, as well as the vicariate of Rome. In both Lima, Peru, and La Plata, Argentina, he elevated priests whose orthodoxy as Catholic professors was examined under previous pontificates. There is a decisive boldness in that.
Yet it is fair to note that Pope Francis has not named prominent conservative bishops to senior posts, with the exception of Cardinal George Pell as prefect for the economy and Cardinal Robert Sarah as prefect for liturgy. In both cases, though, he subsequently stripped them of key parts of their authority, weakening their positions.
Neither have his appointments been recognized as qualitatively as those of Ratzinger, Casaroli, Gantin, Martini, Lustiger and O’Connor. There is no equivalent to the operational efficiency brought by Dziwisz, nor the polished professionalism in communications brought by Navarro-Valls. The pontificate of Pope Francis is much more controlled by the Holy Father himself and a tight circle around him.
It is even the case in Brussels, where the now-eulogized Cardinal Danneels was far more consequential as a leading liberal than the current archbishop, a rather more pedestrian man appointed by Pope Francis.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.