The Vatican behind closed doors and “Hurricane Francis”: from a dizzying schedule to leaving aside the bureaucracy of the curia

There is a video on YouTube in which the then Vatican Secretary of State is seen Tarcisio Bertone untie the red ribbon, remove the adhesive with which they had been sealed, and open the doors of the pontifical apartments to Jorge bergoglio, just anointed as Pope. You can see how they turn on the light and walk through a corridor, a large office room with the meeting table, and then five or six cardinals begin to kiss each other’s hand. Francisco. It seems like a protocol act, a welcome from the Roman Curia to the exercise of the government of the Universal Church, so that the Pope begins his tasks.

“Look, this will be your house…” they seem to say to him, but, from his expression, it is quickly understood that Francisco will never go to work in that place.

Francis’ first revolutionary gesture was to decline the invitation to the Pontifical Palace and move to Santa Martaa lodging for bishops and cardinals in transit, and others who work permanently on the 44-hectare property of the Vatican State.

No pontiff had ever done it.

Pope Francis in the Santa Marta house, where he chose to live instead of the lavish Pontifical Palace (Getty Images)

That first gesture of Francisco was enough to leave the Roman Curia alone. It could even be said that before he found himself besieged by that bureaucratic machinery of dicasteries, congregations, pontifical commissions, prefectures in long corridors, he allowed it to consume itself.

If before, for any Pope, it was essential to resort to the organs of the Curia to govern, always centralized in the figure of the Secretary of State, and he ended up hitting their offices to find out how he should act with each issue, now Francisco, by leaving it in loneliness, emptied his springs of power

With his transfer, he illuminated the darkness of the Holy See and marched towards the periphery of the Vatican, to the house of Santa Marta, as if that physical place represented his message in the general congregations, before the Conclave of March 2013: for the Church to come out of its confinement and march towards the existential peripheries, like a missionary.

That was his first strategic decision, taken instantly, while touring the apostolic palace, so as not to be absorbed by the Roman Curia. It was his way of representing the autonomy of power.

The Curia lost its raison d’être, it ceased to be at the apex of decisions. Before, the signature of Joseph Ratzinger to take them. and although Benedict XVI He had been a Pope who was slow to digest when it came to signing papers —he would leave them by the side of his desk and reflect until he reached a serene judgment—, he showed himself impotent to intercede against a machine that had consumed his theological refinement and ended up consuming his pontificate.

During his tour of Brazil in July 2013, Francisco, in statements to Brazilian television, justified his move to Santa Marta. He said that he could not live alone, locked up, he needed contact with people rather than the solitude of the Apostolic Palace.

“That loneliness does me no good”summarized.

The Pope leaves aside the bureaucracy of the Roman curia, chooses direct contact with the people

Francisco gave the Secretary of State a dynamic —sometimes vertiginous— imprint, adding his personal contacts and knowledge.

During the morning, their audiences are official and are regulated by the Prefecture of the Papal Household. Some are held in the meeting room of his room at Casa Santa Marta and others in the Pontifical Library or in the Paul VI Room. In the afternoon, his acts are free and he can receive whoever he wishes in a private audience. These hearings are not reported in the government agenda.

In “hand in hand” meetings with world leaders, due to the respect his authority generates, he manages to capture the underlying sincerity of his interlocutor and reaches his heart with his word.

The Pope welcomes, listens and dialogues. It tends towards a system of government in which, in contrast to Benedict XVI, the filter and influence of Vatican officials is limited.

These new paradigms curtailed the power of the Roman curia.

At the beginning of his pontificate, Francisco pointed out to them in public, as no one else had done, their banality, their princely manners, their ways of dressing, their high-end cars, and in private, the waste and lack of transparency of their expenses, which placed them light years away from their tasks of service and evangelization. He was a critic of the hierarchical and feudal structure of the curia, a fertile territory for worldly ambition, in search of benefits and personal recognition, honorary titles, better salaries or better diocesan destinations. Even during his speech for the traditional 2014 Christmas greetings, he detailed fifteen “curial diseases”.

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The Pope tried to break that ecclesiastical tradition in the Vatican and demanded from his officials a pastoral and missionary conversion at the service of the poor and excluded (AFP)
The Pope tried to break that ecclesiastical tradition in the Vatican and demanded from his officials a pastoral and missionary conversion at the service of the poor and excluded (AFP)

In the curia, it counts more to serve the immediate boss in a dicastery than to serve God and the Gospel. The Pope tried to break that ecclesiastical tradition in the Vatican and demanded from his officials a pastoral and missionary conversion at the service of the poor and excluded.

During the early days of the Pontificate, there was no confirmation for heads of departments, nor were there new appointments when the five-year terms were completed. The Pope lengthened the times, left them in suspense. To the perplexity by the criticisms that he lavished on them, was added the confusion and bewilderment. Many lower-ranking curial officials wondered if it was worth continuing to pander to a precarious leader who recommended staying put until the “Hurricane Francis” pass or join the new pastoral direction outlined by the Pope.

Meanwhile, immersed in uncertainty, bishops and cardinals who lived in the comfort of apartments and penthouses of several hundred square meters and had offices in Via della Conciliazione, a few steps from the Vatican, began to test with more emphasis the ideology of Francisco –“mercy”, “periphery”, “social inequalities”—, to pretend that they had adapted to the new winds of the Church. They became supporters of the Pope from one month to the next, with a social and reform message that they had never been interested in before.

Casa Santa Marta, Vatican
The Pope had offices in Via della Conciliazione, a few steps from the Vatican, where he began to test with more emphasis his ideas of “mercy”, “periphery”, “social inequalities” (Getty Images)

For the Pope, the problem did not lie in imitating the speech but in making it officials of the curia will initiate a change of mentality.

But to what extent did the Pope need to use the Roman curia, apart from the support of the bureaucratic-administrative tasks that they could provide him, to carry out his government?

Francisco would not be able to change ecclesiastical customs rooted in comfort and personal well-being. At the same time that he constituted commissions to supervise the economic movements of the dicasteries, he created parallel structures of government.

For his government, the Pope did not depend on the reform of the Roman curia and did not allow it to condition him.

The functionaries of some dicasteries obeyed the Pope convinced; others, with more or less enthusiasm, adapted to his leadership; a third group, in passive resistance, remained outside the system, waiting for the “new direction” to be consumed over time. Similarly, some officials, disgusted by the Pope’s treatment of the curia, preferred to return to the dioceses of their countries.

control of communication

As soon as he took office as Pontiff, it was believed that his work in favor of the internal transparency of the Holy See would be worn down by the subtle bureaucratic mechanisms of the curiathat Bergoglio was unaware of, and that in the short or long term they would adapt it to the usual ecclesial customs.

The Pope broke with this theorem with a double standard of government. He used the traditional channel of the curia for certain tasks entrusted to him, and he also worked with alternative, private and very personal channels, which served him to verify, even, if what the curia informed him was true or legitimate.

The Pope made use of the curia but did not tie his government to it.

As if his Pontificate moved on two chess boards. One for the official game and another for more personal plays, which he then took care of communicating to the surprise of the world and the bewilderment of the Roman curia itself.

The Pope began to have control of the information and to grant interviews to different media around the world
The Pope began to have control of the information and to grant interviews to different media outlets around the world (Domenico Stinellis/)

Since he took over, Francisco tried to take direct and centralized control of communication. With many internal enemies within the curia —who aspired to an Italian or foreign Pope, arising from their own ranks—, it was proposed to order the information, so that it would be known at the moment in which the Holy See, through the official organs broadcast, or the Pope, in interviews or press conferences on international tours, gave it.

With the creation of this new model —communicating the facts once they have been completed, to prevent their internal processes from spilling over—, it was difficult for the Vatican press to capture sensitive or secret information from their government. In his long work for the reform of the curia, he tried to transcend the world of rumors, resistance and conspiracies that nest in it, to avoid subsuming his Pontificate to the burden of evils that the forces of Benedict XVI had already consumed.

Vatican, the best informed intelligence service in the world

The return of the Holy See to the international stages forced a more dynamic work of its diplomatic structure.

The giant moved again.

Perhaps there is no State in the world that has a better intelligence service than the Vatican. It centralizes a type of capillary information that can originate from a neighborhood, reach a priest and spread to the bishop, who, if he considers it necessary, transmits it to the nuncio of the Holy See in his country, and through him it reaches Rome.

The Vatican is present in each of the 179 countries with which it maintains full diplomatic relations.. The information that reaches the Holy See is processed at the Secretary of State and its officials analyze whether it is of sufficient value to transmit it to the Secretary of State, and the latter to the Pope.

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The Vatican is present in each of the 179 countries with which it maintains full diplomatic relations (REUTERS)
The Vatican is present in each of the 179 countries with which it maintains full diplomatic relations (REUTERS) (POOL New /)

The Vatican has a network that, if activated properly, allows you to know what is happening in the most remote place in the world, as long as there is a diocesan, religious, lay representative, or member of any community related to the Church.

The nuncios play a key role in this network. They represent the eyes and ears of the Pope in the world.

Benedict XVI knew them when they took office and then the Secretary of State continued the organic relationship with them. Benedict XVI reduced his ability to receive information.

Francisco, to show that he is interested in knowing what is happening in each country and in the Church directly, receives the nuncios once a year in a fixed audience. Since he assumed the pontificate from him, he perhaps did not go more than two or three days without having a dialogue with one. He required of them competence and skill, and not to focus on the curial career.

The Secretary of State once again activated its diplomatic-professional role. She ceased to be a beacon for the nine congregations —also called “dicasteries”— of the Roman curia, which ended up overshadowing the Pope himself.

This Secretariat is hierarchically structured with three visible heads: its secretary, Pietro Parolín, appointed almost in the fourth month of Francis’ pontificate, replacing Bertone. And below, two sections. The First Section, which deals with General Affairs. And the Second Section, which deals with Relations with States.

The Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin (REUTERS)
The Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin (REUTERS) (YARA NARDI /)

Of the 2,400 administrative employees dependent on the Vatican, around 300 work in the Secretariat of State. The majority are priests who deal with the relationship with a country or groups of countries —they were called “minutes”— and they create a dossier with the information they take from the Nuncio, which they collect through the press of that country and from his meetings with diplomats or personal conversations. In the case of the Argentine dossier, the person in charge until January 2023 was the Italian monsignor Giuseppe Laterzanow designated as Apostolic Nuncio in the Central African Republic and in Chad.

The same work is carried out by the Nuncio in each embassy of the Holy See in the world. They accumulate journalistic information, from dialogue with political, business or social leaders, from the Episcopate of the local church, from bishops or religious communities. The Nuncio constantly updates the ecclesiastical and sociopolitical information of a country and transfers it to the minutante, in his office on the first floor of the Secretary of State.

If the information is necessary, delicate or urgent, the Pope finds out through a single channel, that of his Secretary of State. Only he is authorized to speak with the Pope. However, the Pope can talk to whoever he wants about the entire diplomatic structure, even with the minuter, and ask for clarification of a report.

Benedict XVI was more respectful of bureaucratic mechanisms and hardly got involved in an issue without the mediation of the Secretary of State. Francisco felt freer to govern, as he had been doing as Provincial of the Jesuits or Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

How pastoral trips are gestated

The Pope decides his international trips based on a pastoral goal —of geopolitical and intra-ecclesiastical components— to carry their evangelical word and promote the faith, but also to mark a sign or a guide in a certain conflict in a country or region.

His speeches are prepared in advance until the final text is achieved. The events in which he will participate are prepared according to the programmed agenda: a street homily, a meeting with priests or an exhibition at the United Nations.

In the first instance, the bishops of the country that the Pope will visit propose a list of topics that they would be interested in being dealt with —according to local problems—, which arrive, through the Nuncio, at the minute in the Secretary of State.

Pope Francis greets people at the Ndolo airport during his apostolic journey, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, February 1, 2023 (REUTERS/Yara Nardi)
Pope Francis greets people at the Ndolo airport during his apostolic journey, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, February 1, 2023 (REUTERS / Yara Nardi) (YARA NARDI /)

From that moment on, a draft begins to be developed which is inspected by the officials of the curia and sent to the Pope, who can reduce it, expand it or claim other arguments for his speech. After the first pontifical review, the draft text returns to the local bishops, who review it and forward it to the Secretary of State.

The final approval can take many months, until the final content is translated into different languages ​​and delivered to the Vatican press a few days before the Pope pronounces it, with a promise of embargo.

However, this work can be relatively useful if the Pope suspends its reading at a certain moment —because based on prayer and his communion with God, he had another intuition and wants to announce it—, turns away from the speech and speaks “open heart”as he often does.

Marcelo Larraquy is the author of Pray for Him The Untold Story of the Man Who Defies the Secrets of the Vatican, and The Francis Code. How the Pope became the main global politician and what is his strategy to change the world. Both published by editorial Sudamericana

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