Pope replaces divisive Vatican figure with top diplomat

(UPDATED) Pope Francis appoints a senior Vatican diplomat as his Secretary of State, ousting powerful and highly divisive cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as he looks to overhaul the Church's government

Photos by EPA and AFP

VATICAN CITY (UPDATED) – Pope Francis on Saturday appointed a senior Vatican diplomat as his new secretary of state, ousting divisive cardinal Tarcisio Bertone as he looks to overhaul the Church’s scandal-ridden administration.

His replacement for the “number two” position at the Vatican, Italian cleric Pietro Parolin, is currently the Roman Catholic Church’s envoy to Venezuela and has worked on improving ties with communist China.

“The Holy Father has accepted… the resignation of His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone,” the Vatican said in a widely-expected announcement, adding that the changeover would formally take place on October 15.

Young for top Vatican office

At 58, Parolin is seen as relatively youthful for top Vatican office and observers say he could help a process of renewal within the church, as well as making it more influential on the world stage.

Parolin is the youngest cleric to occupy the Vatican “prime minister” post since Eugenio Pacelli, another diplomat who was appointed secretary of state in 1930 at the age of 53 and went on to become Pius XII.

The Argentine pope has shown a strong reformist drive in his first few months in office and has set up a series of committees aimed at reforming the Vatican hierarchy, its economic affairs and its bank.

“I feel the full weight of the responsibility placed upon me: this call entrusts to me a difficult and challenging mission,” Parolin said in a statement.

He was previously a Vatican envoy to Mexico and Nigeria and has worked on sensitive issues for the Church, including diplomatic relations with Israel.

The secretary of state is considered the top political and diplomatic position in the Vatican and in some instances the incumbent can stand in for the pope.

Three secretaries of states have gone on to be popes.

Highly controversial figure

Bertone has held the post since 2006 when he was named by the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, and has proved a highly controversial figure in the hierarchy.

Leaks by Benedict XVI’s butler last year revealed infighting between pro- and anti-Bertone factions.

“Bertone, in the eyes of his critics, acted more as czar than diplomat-in-chief,” John Thavis, a Vatican affairs expert, wrote on his blog.

He was at Benedict’s side in a traumatic period for the church, shaken by revelations of widespread child abuse by priests and scandals involving its finances.

Francis has circumvented the Secretariat of State, effectively the central administration and foreign ministry of the church, on key recent decisions.

While some observers have seen signs of tensions, it is also common for new popes to replace some of the officials appointed by their predecessors and the 78-year-old Bertone was already over the usual age of retirement of 75 for senior church figures.

Archbishop Parolin was ordained in 1980 and his first foreign posting for the Vatican was in Nigeria in 1986, followed by Mexico in 1989 where he fought to gain legal recognition for the Catholic Church.

In 1992, he was called back to Rome to work for the Secretariat of State and was appointed to a position equivalent to a deputy foreign minister in 2002.

In 2009, he was appointed papal nuncio to Caracas.

Parolin “has been on the frontlines of shaping the Vatican’s response to virtually every geopolitical challenge of the past two decades,” said John Allen, who writes for the US National Catholic Reporter.

“By naming a consummate insider, Francis appears to want to ‘reboot’ the Vatican’s operating system”.

The Vatican also said it was confirming some top Secretariat of State officials named by Benedict, as well as the previous pope’s close aide Georg Gaenswein who will remain as head of the pontifical household.

Gaenswein is still secretary to Benedict, who lives in retirement in a former monastery inside the Vatican walls, and will therefore continue an unprecedented dual role serving both the pope emeritus and the pope. – Rappler.com

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