VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has appointed Archbishop Pietro Parolin, 58, a longtime official in the Vatican secretariat of state and nuncio in Venezuela since 2009, to be his secretary of state.
Although Pope Francis has not been afraid to break with convention during his brief pontificate, the appointment of a seasoned member of the diplomatic corps signals a return to a longstanding tradition.
On Oct. 15 Archbishop Parolin will succeed Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 78, who came to the post in 2006 after serving as archbishop of Genoa, Italy.
The secretary of state is the pope’s closest collaborator, coordinating the work of the entire Roman Curia, overseeing the operation of the Vatican press office and newspaper, coordinating the preparation and publication of papal documents, and supervising the work of Vatican nuncios both in their relations with the Catholic communities in individual countries and with their governments.
However, in discussions about the reform and the reorganization of the curia, many observers have mentioned the possibility of the secretary of state’s role changing as well. Because it is so broad — covering the internal workings of the Vatican, international church affairs and foreign relations — Cardinal Bertone often was blamed, at least by the press, when things went wrong during Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Archbishop Parolin was born Jan. 17, 1955, in Schiavon, Italy, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1980. He studied at the Vatican diplomatic academy and in 1986 began working at Vatican embassies, serving in Nigeria and in Mexico before moving to the offices of the Vatican Secretariat of State. He was named undersecretary for foreign relations in 2002.
Archbishop Parolin greeting well-wishers at the end of Mass in 2009. Pope Benedict XVI had just ordained him a bishop. (CNS/Paul Haring)
For years, Archbishop Parolin led Vatican delegations to Vietnam each year to discuss church-state issues with the country’s communist government, a process that that eventually led to Vietnam’s acceptance of a non-resident papal representative to the country. The move is seen as a step toward establishing full diplomatic relations.
While at the Vatican, Archbishop Parolin also represented the Vatican at a variety of international conferences on climate change, on human trafficking and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including leading the Vatican delegation to the 2007 Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md.
At a press conference in 2006, Archbishop Parolin said Vatican nuncios and papal representatives play an important role “in defending the human being” and in strengthening the local churches, especially in regions where Christians face poverty, discrimination or other hardships.
The Vatican’s presence around the world through its nuncios shows people that the church and the pope are always near, that Christians — no matter how small their numbers — are not alone in the world, he said.
In the current Vatican organizational framework, the secretary of state is the pope’s closest collaborator, the one who traditionally made sure that the pope’s policies and priorities became concrete in the work of Vatican offices. The secretary usually has been very close to the pope and meets with him often.
When Pope Benedict appointed Cardinal Bertone secretary of state in 2006 it was a reunion of sorts. Then-archbishop Bertone had been secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for seven years when its prefect was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The appointment raised some eyebrows because most of the time — although not always — the position was held by a prelate who had come up through the ranks of the Vatican diplomatic corps. Cardinal Bertone had a background as a Salesian pastor, an archbishop and as a Vatican official dealing with doctrinal matters.
While Cardinal Bertone had never worked in the Vatican’s diplomatic sector, he had been employed as a type of roving troubleshooter: He flew to Havana in 2005 for talks with Cuban President Fidel Castro; in 2002, he was charged with trying to convince then-Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo to give up the idea of marriage and reconcile with the pope; and he met with a Fatima visionary, Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, when he coordinated the publication of the third secret of Fatima in 2000, another delicate task.
In a series of interviews before taking over the helm at the Secretariat of State, Cardinal Bertone made it clear he was not coming to the job with his own agenda. As he put it in one interview, the secretary of state should above all be “a man loyal to the pope,” someone who executes the pope’s projects and not his own.