In Vatican shake-up, Pope Francis redefines the role of his second-in-command

March 13, 2014

(Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus prayer from the window of the Apostolic palace in Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 9, 2014. REUTERS/Max Rossi )

When he was elected a year ago, Pope Francis promised to shake up the bureaucracy of the world’s smallest country. He has started at the top – curbing the once-overarching role of the secretary of state.

The cardinal who oversees the Vatican’s relations with other countries has served as the top ranking official in the Holy See’s bureaucracy since the 17th century. And in recent decades the office accumulated increasing authority over finances and job hires, taking on roles analogous to prime minister and chief of staff in the papal court, as well as that of top diplomat.

During the reign of retired Pope Benedict, critics blamed then Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone for failing to prevent the missteps and scandals that marred the German pontiff’s eight years as Roman Catholic leader.

Now, however, Francis is reducing the power of the job, reshaping the department as one primarily involved in diplomacy like the U.S. State Department or foreign ministries elsewhere, stripping it of authority over finances and giving it a smaller role in internal matters.

He has chosen a frugal, publicity-shy career diplomat – Cardinal Pietro Parolin – who, according to those who know him, is the antithesis of his most recent predecessors in the post.

Bertone, and before him Cardinal Angelo Sodano, were driven around in limousines with their aides. Parolin walks alone in and around the Vatican.

In one of his first interviews, Parolin, whom a Catholic newspaper described as being “alien to clerical exhibitionism,” said Vatican bureaucrats should be “more evangelical”.

Redefining the secretary of state’s role is a central part of Francis’s agenda to clean up the Curia, the administration of the Holy See, following a series of scandals in 2012, the last full year of Benedict’s pontificate.

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