Veteran statesman tapped for key Vatican position

Pope Francis made the most important appointment thus far in his 6-month-old pontificate Aug. 31 by naming Archbishop Pietro Parolin, currently the apostolic nuncio (or ambassador) to Venezuela, as the new Vatican secretary of state. The 58-year-old Parolin succeeds Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 78, who has held the post since September 2006. Archbishop Parolin will assume his new duties Oct. 15 and will be made a cardinal probably next year. He is the youngest secretary of state since Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who was appointed in 1930 at the age of 53 and elected Pope Pius XII nine years later. 

Born at Schiavon, near Vicenza, Italy, Archbishop Parolin grew up in a devout Catholic family. Under the influence of his parish priest, he discerned a vocation to the priesthood and at the age of 14 entered the Seminary of Vescovile in Vicenza. He was ordained a priest for Vicenza in 1980 and, after serving in a parish for two years, was sent to Rome to study canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Diplomatic skills

While there, he gained the notice of Vatican officials for his intelligence and comportment and was invited to enter the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the training center for future Vatican diplomats. He joined the Holy See’s diplomatic corps in 1986 and served in papal missions in Nigeria (1986-89) and Mexico (1989-92).

In 1992, he returned to Rome to work in the Secretariat of State, rising to the post of under-secretary for the Relations with States in 2002. For seven years, he was the Holy See’s chief negotiator with Israel, Vietnam and China. Of primary significance was his negotiation of the historic visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with Pope Benedict XVI in early 2007 and his assistance in preparing for Pope Benedict’s trip to the Holy Land in 2009.  

On Aug. 17, 2009, he was named nuncio to Venezuela and ordained the titular archbishop of Aquipendium. His time as papal ambassador coincided with the last years of the presidency of Hugo Chavez, and Archbishop Parolin was a moderating and patient voice in the face of Chavez’s anti-Church rhetoric. From his post in Caracas, he also earned the esteem of then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio when the future pope was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Since the election of Pope Francis in March, Archbishop Parolin’s name had been mentioned as a possible successor to Cardinal Bertone. Beyond his personal connection with Pope Francis, he has a reputation in international diplomatic circles for his practicality, prayerfulness, fairness and humility.

As secretary of state, he will be Francis’ closest collaborator, second only to the pontiff in the Vatican and answerable to him alone. He will oversee the day-to-day functioning of the Roman Curia — the central offices of the Church — and his abilities as a negotiator and diplomat will position him ideally to direct the Holy See’s many peace-seeking initiatives at a time of global crisis, most so in the Middle East.

Archbishop Parolin’s prayerful and diplomatic temperament will be crucial in the reform of the Curia, as well. He knows how the Vatican functions — but just as importantly, he knows how and why it often functions poorly.

The last years of Pope Benedict’s pontificate were dominated by scandals and controversies, such as the Holy See’s slow adoption of modern norms for financial governance, reports of Vatican in-fighting and a supposed “gay lobby” and the embarrassing theft of some of the pope’s personal papers. Much of the blame was placed on Cardinal Bertone.

Implementation of reform

While Pope Francis is determined not to be too dependent on the Vatican bureaucracy — recall his appointment of a “kitchen cabinet” of cardinals from around the world to advise him, including the American Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston — he also recognizes the need for a competent secretary of state to implement reform and renewal of the central government from within and to ensure that it is properly assisting the needs of the pope in his service to the universal Church.

For this task, the pope desires a statesman. He has that in Archbishop Parolin. A veteran of the Vatican, he is nevertheless seen as someone who was away from Rome during the difficult last years of Cardinal Bertone’s tenure and is a humble worker in the vineyard who places the good of the Church ahead of his own career. This puts him squarely in line with Francis’ call for Church leaders to avoid placing careerism and ambition ahead of service and love of the Church.

As Archbishop Parolin said in a statement after the announcement of his appointment: “It is with trepidation that I place myself in this new service to the Gospel, to the Church and to Pope Francis, but also with trust and serenity — disposed — as the Holy Father asked us at the beginning — to walk, to build and to profess.”

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.