Pope Picks Highly Credentialed Diplomat for Vatican Secretary of State

Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the youngest secretary of state since 1930, has more than 25 years of experience in Vatican diplomacy.

Archbishop Pietro Parolin
Archbishop Pietro Parolin (photo: Osservatore/ Wikipedia)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has chosen an accomplished Italian Vatican diplomat as the new Vatican secretary of state, replacing Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who is stepping down on account of his age.

Archbishop Pietro Parolin, who currently serves as the Pope’s representative to Venezuela, will become what is considered to be the closest equivalent of a Vatican “prime minister,” presiding over the running of the Curia, the Holy See’s diplomatic service and relations with states.   

At just 58 years of age, he will be the youngest secretary of state since Eugenio Pacelli, who was appointed in 1930 at the age of 53 and later became Pope Pius XII. Archbishop Parolin will take over from Cardinal Bertone on Oct. 15.

In a statement released by the Vatican Aug. 31, Archbishop Parolin expressed his “deep and affectionate gratitude to the Holy Father” for the “unmerited trust” he had shown in him.

He assured the Pope of his “willingness and complete availability to work with him and under his guidance for the greater glory of God, the good of the Holy Church and the progress and peace of humanity, that humanity might find reasons to live and to hope.”

Archbishop Parolin said he felt “very strongly the grace of this call” and “the full weight of the responsibility placed upon me.”

“This call entrusts to me a difficult and challenging mission, before which my powers are weak and my abilities poor,” he said. “For this reason, I entrust myself to the merciful love of the Lord, from whom nothing and no one can ever separate me, and to the prayers of all.”  

Archbishop Parolin, whose episcopal motto is “What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), also thanked those who have helped him and will assist him in his new position.

He said he was sorry to leave Venezuela, where he has been stationed since 2009, and paid tribute to his family, friends, Benedict XVI, Cardinal Bertone and others to whom he owes “a great debt.”

“It is with trepidation that I place myself in this new service to the Gospel, to the Church and to Pope Francis,” he said, but added he would do so “with trust and serenity — disposed — as the Holy Father has asked us from the beginning — to walk, to build and to profess.” He ended his statement invoking Our Lady of Monte Berico, Guadalupe and Coromoto, to give him the courage to “walk in the presence of the Lord, with the Lord’s cross.”


A Credentialed Diplomat

Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Parolin after a lengthy period of reflection and widespread consultation with cardinals whom he trusts, such as Honduran Cardinal Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, John Paul II’s long-serving secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, and Cardinal Bertone.

The Vatican diplomat is well regarded in Rome. He earned respect within the Vatican principally as undersecretary for relations with states between 2002 and 2009. Although the post is regarded as the Holy See's "deputy foreign minister," it has considerable influence.

During that time, he became known for cementing ties between the Holy See and Vietnam that laid the foundations for advances in religious freedom in the communist state. He improved relations with China, helping to re-establish direct contact with Beijing in 2005, and tried to keep relations on track in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. He visited China twice, and his time as undersecretary was said to mark a real turning point in Church relations with Beijing.

Further, he has earned a reputation for being well connected yet humble, with an unassuming, modest personality. He was responsible for advancing negotiations with Israel to fulfill the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, on tax and property rights for the Church, even though the agreement is still yet to be signed. He was personally at the forefront of Vatican efforts to approve and implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As undersecretary, he was also involved in handling sensitive relations with Iran. Diplomatic sources say he was largely responsible, while working closely with the British Embassy to the Holy See, for the liberation of 15 British navy personnel captured by Iranian forces in the Arabian Gulf in April 2007. He is also credited with playing a key role in Vatican efforts to revive dialogue between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The Holy See diplomat took further interest in combating human trafficking, promoting and protecting religious freedom and safeguarding the environment.

During his time as undersecretary, the Holy See also worked to resolve tensions in a variety of trouble spots, from East Timor to the conflict between Ecuador and Peru over rights to the Amazonian territories along their disputed borders. The Vatican also pushed international efforts to ban cluster bombs and helped resolve a serious institutional crisis that had broken out in Zaire.

His subsequent time as apostolic nuncio to Venezuela, during the presidency of Hugo Chavez, was never easy. In 2010, Chavez ordered a review of Venezuela’s ties with the Vatican amid tensions between his government and the country’s bishops. It is said to be partly because of Archbishop Parolin’s skillful diplomacy that relations did not deteriorate further before Chavez’s death on March 5 this year.

“He is a man of patient dialogue, an exemplary priest, formed also in the great diplomatic tradition of the Holy See,” said Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Sant’Egidio Community, adding that Archbishop Parolin “appears to have a personality best suited” to work with the Pope in his upcoming tasks. The lay community, which worked closely with Msgr. Parolin in the 2000s, said his appointment is “a sign of the pastoral style Pope Francis is impressing on the governance of the Church.”


His Earlier Years

Pietro Parolin was born in 1955 in Schiavon, Vicenza, in northern Italy, to a devout Catholic family. He experienced tragedy at the age of 10, when his father died in a car crash, leaving his widowed mother to bring up Pietro and his two siblings. He entered the seminary at the age of 14 and studied during the social turbulence of the late 1960s.

He was ordained on April 27, 1980, after which he took up graduate studies in canon law. Though he appeared to be headed for service on a diocesan tribunal dealing with family pastoral care, his career took a turn when he was summoned to work for the Holy See instead.

In 1986, at the age of 36, he graduated from the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Holy See’s institute for training diplomats, and then he entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service. He served in the nunciatures of Nigeria and Mexico; the former gave him valuable experience with Christian-Muslim relations, while the latter post gave him a chance to work on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Mexico.

In 1992, he was called back to Rome to work as an official in the Secretariat of State. While there, he was country director for Spain, Andorra, Italy and San Marino before being appointed undersecretary to relations with states in 2002. He speaks Italian, English, French and Spanish.


The Task Ahead

Archbishop Parolin’s personality is likely to fit harmoniously with that of the Holy Father, and he is said to share the same concerns as Pope Francis with regards to “careerism” in the Roman Curia.

His diplomatic skills and relative youth, meanwhile, have stirred up expectations that he will be a proactive and dynamic secretary of state. This is particularly important given criticisms in recent years of poor communications and a perceived lack of direction coming from the Secretariat of State.

The big question is whether he will make the Holy See’s most important dicastery a force for evangelization. As pope, Benedict XVI would frequently remind the Holy See’s diplomatic corps that they were priests first, diplomats second. For Archbishop Parolin, serving the Holy See has always been a way to exercise his priestly spirituality while at the same time taking a realist view of global diplomacy. His administrative competence and linguistic abilities are also expected to improve the Church’s image and, in turn, have a positive impact on evangelization.

Cardinal Bertone had a difficult seven years as secretary of state, especially during the Vatileaks scandal, which prompted him to offer Benedict XVI his resignation and which the former pontiff refused to accept. He was neither a diplomat nor a linguist, and many felt he was out of his depth. But when he addressed the Italian media Sept. 1, he said he took a “positive view” of his time as secretary of state.

“Of course, there were problems, especially in the last two years,” he said, and he blamed “a mix of crows and vipers.” But he added, “This shouldn’t overshadow what I believe to be a positive assessment.”

“I’ve always given everything,” he said. “Certainly I have had my faults, and if I think back now, I would have acted differently. But this does not mean I haven’t tried to serve the Church.”

Cardinal Bertone, who turns 79 in December, has some scheduled pastoral duties to complete before he steps down, including a pilgrimage to Fatima on Oct. 12, shortly before the transition takes place.

On Oct. 15, Pope Francis will receive in audience superiors and officials of the Secretariat of State “in order publicly to thank Cardinal Bertone for his faithful and generous service to the Holy See and to introduce them to the new secretary of state,” the Vatican said.

Pope Francis confirmed Aug. 31 the positions of Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu as sostituto for general affairs at the Vatican (the Vatican’s chief of staff), Archbishop Dominique Mamberti as secretary for relations with states (the Vatican’s foreign minister), Archbishop Georg Gänswein, as prefect of the pontifical household, Msgr. Peter Wells as assessor for general affairs, and Msgr. Antoine Camilleri as undersecretary for relations with states.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.