Pope Francis forms group to advise on reform

The assembly by Pope Francis of a “kitchen cabinet” is expected to wield considerable influence in the ultimate direction of changes and renewal of the Roman Curia, the central government of the Church. 

Though not a commission, committee or council, and though it does not possess any administrative or legislative authority, the group — made up of eight cardinals and a bishop — will “help” and “advise” Pope Francis “in the government of the universal Church,” according to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office.  

The group’s formation was announced April 13, on the one-month anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, and launches a much-anticipated reform of the Curia. According to a brief communiqué issued by the press office, it was formed in response to suggestions made during the General Congregations, the meetings of the cardinals in the days before the conclave that elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Benedict XVI’s successor. 

The group consists of the following prelates: Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State;Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, archbishop emeritus of Santiago de Chile, Chile;Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay, India;Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany;Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo;Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, O.F.M., archbishop of Boston;Cardinal George Pell, archbishop of Sydney, Australia; and Cardinal Oscar Andrés Maradiaga Rodríguez, S.D.B., archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, the group’s coordinator. Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, Italy, will serve as the group’s secretary. 

The new advisory group is the direct result of concerns of the members of the College of Cardinals that reform of the Roman Curia had to be a top priority for the new pope, the communiqué said.  

The Vatican offices have come under severe criticism in the last few years in the face of repeated scandals, including the theft of some of then-Pope Benedict XVI’s private papers and the trial of his butler Paolo Gabriele, press reports of Vatican in-fighting, and a seemingly chronic inability by the Holy See to meet new international standards for transparency and to prevent money laundering.

Geographical balance

Pope Francis’ group of chosen cardinals is notable for the fact that it consists of seven residential archbishops and the head of the Vatican City State (and one residential bishop as secretary). With no members from the Curia itself, the reform of the Holy See’s dicasteries, or departments, will be directed from outside of its precincts — although Cardinal Bertello, 70, is a longtime Vatican diplomat and has considerable experience with the Vatican secretariat of state.  

The secretary of the group, Bishop Semeraro, is known to Pope Francis, having served as the special secretary of the Synod of Bishops that gathered in Rome in 2001 on the topic of “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World.” Then-Cardinal Bergoglio served as general relator of the synod that year. 

The pope chose the rest of the group for its obvious geographical balance, with every continent represented. Each of the cardinal members is a highly respected leader in his country and region. Several, such as Cardinal Marx of Germany and Cardinal O’Malley of the United States, have been successful in the area of reform in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Collegial approach

The formation of the advisory board speaks to a genuinely collegial approach to reform by Pope Francis. Much as he declined to take up residence in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican in order to prevent becoming isolated, appointing advisers from across the whole Church indicates the pope’s desire to stay in touch with the pastors in charge of some of the world’s largest archdioceses. 

Pope Francis’ commitment to curial reform was made manifest in his own speech during the General Congregations leading up to the conclave, and he wasted no time in giving a signal of impending change soon after his election.  

By custom, the new pope immediately confirms the heads of the departments of the Roman Curia, all of whom had ceased to hold their positions at the start of the sede vacante. Pope Francis took an unusually long time to make the confirmation.  

Then the Vatican Press Office relayed the message that the pope had confirmed that Vatican officials would continue in their various positions donec aliter provideatur — “until otherwise provided” — a formal but unmistakable Vatican way of saying that reforms would be coming. If that was not plain enough, the second sentence of that announcement read: “The Holy Father, in fact, wants to take a certain time for reflection, prayer and dialogue before making any definitive appointments or confirmations.”

Next steps

The mechanism for reform will be a revision of the apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor Bonus (“The Good Shepherd”), issued in 1988 by Blessed Pope John Paul II. The promulgation of that document marked the last time that the Curia was reorganized and restructured.  

Additionally crucial to the Curia reform will be Pope Francis’ choice for the office of Vatican Secretary of State to succeed the much-criticized Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 78, in the post since 2006.

Importance of Curia

While Francis is aware of the need for reform, he also has stressed that the Curia is an important office at the service of the Petrine ministry and hence the Church.  

As John Paul II wrote in Pastor Bonus:  

“The Roman Curia is the complex of dicasteries and institutes which help the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office for the good and service of the whole Church and of the particular Churches. It thus strengthens the unity of the faith and the communion of the people of God and promotes the mission proper to the Church in the world.” 

In 2012, then-Cardinal Bergoglio spoke of this directly in an interview with the Italian website “Vatican Insider” when he described the Curia as “a body that gives service, a body that helps me and serves me. 

“Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal … ” he said. “The Roman Curia has its down sides, but I think that too much emphasis is placed on its negative aspects and not enough on the holiness of the numerous consecrated and laypeople who work in it.”  

As if to underscore that opinion, Pope Francis visited the offices of the Secretariat of State — the administrative core of the Curia April 12 and thanked its members for their hard work, especially recently.  

The group is scheduled to hold its first meetings Oct. 1-3, although Pope Francis already has been in touch with the members, and there almost certainly will be extensive preparatory work. 

Matthew E. Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.