Multiple reports suggest Pope Francis intends to name 58-year-old Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin to the key position of Secretary of State, traditionally the most important figure in the Vatican after the pope himself.
Although the pope is the head of state, the Secretary of State generally functions as the Vatican’s head of government, both for internal church affairs and for diplomatic relations, making him, effectively, the prime minister.
Currently the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela, Parolin is a career Vatican diplomat who’s been involved in shaping Rome’s response to virtually every key geopolitical challenge during the last two decades.
Parolin is also widely seen as a talented and efficient administrator who served from 2002 to 2009 as the undersecretary for relations with states, the No. 3 position in the Secretariat of State. In that role, he often functioned informally as the Vatican’s primary interlocutor with the outside world.
Assuming the reports are accurate, the choice would appear to confirm at least two important points about the direction Francis intends to set.
First, it suggests that though Francis is trying to engineer a reform in the Vatican, he doesn’t mean to start from scratch. Instead, Parolin would represent a sort of “reboot” — an effort to restore the Vatican’s operating system to a time when it was perceived to work effectively.
He’s a consummate insider, yet one not associated with the most notorious breakdowns in management that occurred on the watch of Benedict XVI’s Secretary of State, 78-year-old Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Those episodes included a 2009 controversy involving the lifting of the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, as well as the Vatican leaks scandal.
Taken together, they stoked dissatisfaction among senior churchmen around the world and helped set the stage for electing a Latin American outsider to the papacy.
The option for an Italian likewise would seem to confirm that Francis does not intend to completely upend the Vatican’s traditional culture.
On another front, the choice also suggests Francis does not want the church’s diplomatic capacity to dim while he deals with internal challenges.
Immediately, Parolin would become the church’s primary spokesman on pressing international concerns such as the current crises in both Syria and Egypt. He has background in the region, among other things having represented the Vatican at the 2007 Annapolis Conference on the Middle East convened by the Bush administration.
On the other hand, longtime Vatican-watchers caution that whoever becomes Secretary of State under Francis may not be quite as powerful a figure as in previous papacies for two reasons.
First, Francis is a pontiff who takes the reins of government into his own hands, making him less dependent on aides.
Second, the new council of eight cardinals from around the world announced by Francis in April may become his most important sounding board, as opposed to the Secretariat of State being the crucible in which key policy decisions are forged.
In that sense, the Secretary of State under Francis may function as more of a chief of staff rather than a kind of “vice pope.”
Born in Italy’s Veneto region, Parolin is fluent in French, Spanish and English in addition to Italian. At earlier points in his career, he served in papal embassies in Mexico and Nigeria, and also held the desk in the Secretariat of State for southern Europe.