The Other Curia of Benedict XVI. The Appointments, the Results
Museums, library, culture, music, media. They are the most visible face of the Vatican. And also most exposed to the judgment of all. Here are the pros and cons, case by case, name by name
by Sandro Magister
ROME, September 27, 2010 – The imminent promotion of Salesian Fr. Massimo Palombella as the new director of the Sistine Chapel choir is the latest in a series of appointments that have changed the visible face of the Vatican curia, in the five plus years of Joseph Ratzinger’s pontificate.
There are, in fact, two curias around the pope. There’s the one that the general public hardly sees, made up of the classical dicasteries: the secretariat of state, the congregations, the pontifical councils. The final decisions of this curia are made public, but little is seen or known of the toil that precedes these decisions.
But there is also a curia that, by its nature, is more outwardly projected and visible. It is that of the museums, the library, culture, the pontifical choir, the media. Much of the operation of this other curia is done in view of the general public.
In the first of these two curias, Benedict XVI has made highly significant appointments, year after year. The subsequent performance of some of these has been disappointing: such as as that of cardinals Cláudio Hummes and Ivan Dias at the congregations for the clergy and for the evangelization of peoples. Another of the highest influence but erratic in its results and criticized by many bishops and episcopal conferences: that of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at the secretariat of state. Still others, extremely recent, very promising but yet to be proven: those of Cardinal Marc Ouellet at the congregation for bishops and of Archbishop Kurt Koch in ecumenism.
But it is in the second curia, the more visible and public one, that the most evident changes have taken place. Here too with pros and cons.
In the area of the media, there has been in the first place the appointment of Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi as director of the press office of the Holy See. Fr. Lombardi is also director of the Vatican radio and television networks.
While his exuberant predecessor Joaquín Navarro-Valls’ direct connection to John Paul II meant it was never clear if he was speaking for himself or on behalf of the pope, with inextricably ambiguous results, Fr. Lombardi hews impeccably to the limits of his role. At the press office, his is always and exclusively the official voice of the Vatican authorities, while he speaks for himself on the radio. The words of Benedict XVI therefore resound with perfect clarity, never covered over or interpreted by the chatter of a presumed spokesman.
The clarity and moderation of Fr. Lombardi’s role have shone all the more in stormy times like recently, with the Church and the pope subjected to waves of vehement criticism. The communications disasters that have sometimes happened cannot be attributed to him, but only to the Vatican authorities, in particular to the secretariat of state, on which he directly depends. As has been seen, for example, with the Williamson case:
> Double Disaster at the Vatican: Of Governance, and of Communication (4.2.2009)
Another significant transformation has taken place at “L’Osservatore Romano,” with the appointment of Professor Giovanni Maria Vian as director.
With him, the face of the Holy See has changed. Indisputably for the better, as http://www.chiesa has repeatedly documented, for example in this article:
> “L’Osservatore Romano” Has Been Remodeled. Here Are All of the Changes (29.11.2007)
But with Vian as director, “L’Osservatore Romano” has also had its misadventures. Mainly two.
The first emerged from an article published on the front page on March 15, 2009, at the behest of Cardinal Bertone, written by the president of the pontifical academy for life at the time, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, on the double abortion performed on a very young Brazilian mother. The uproar provoked in the Catholic world by his apparent justifications of the abortion was not quelled even by a subsequent “clarification” from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith:
> Retractions. The Holy Office Teaches Archbishop Fisichella a Lesson (10.7.2009)
The second misadventure coincided with the case of Dino Boffo, the defamation campaign conducted by a conservative Italian newspaper in the summer of 2009, against the then director of the newspaper of the Italian bishops, “Avvenire.” The defamatory charges were shown to be false, but in that crisis Vian not only did not defend Boffo and “Avvenire,” but resumed criticizing them as he had done in the past, with his ultimate target the presidency of the CEI personified by Cardinal Camillo Ruini. A period of tension followed between the Italian episcopate and the Vatican secretariat of state, to which “L’Osservatore Romano” is very closely connected:
> Italy, United States, Brazil. From the Vatican to the Conquest of the World (11.2.2010)
In both cases, Vian has always claimed that his stance was correct.
Two other important appointments have been made in the curia in the area of culture, both taken from that institution of international renown which is the Ambrosian Library of Milan.
The vice-prefect of the Ambrosian, Monsignor Cesare Pasini, was called to Rome to head the Vatican Apostolic Library. And there he immediately embarked upon an ambitious project of renovation and technological upgrading of this, the most famous library in the world, splendidly reopened in September of 2010 for the enjoyment of scholars and visitors:
The prefect of the Ambrosian, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, a world-famous biblicist, was for his part called to the Vatican to head the pontifical council for culture:
> An Air of Appointments in the Curia – With a Gust of New Culture (9.8.2007)
And here, among the many promising initiatives, he is dedicating himself with special care to realizing the idea proposed by Benedict XVI of a “court of the gentiles,” for public dialogue between believers and nonbelievers. The first round of encounters will take place in Paris in March of 2011, and is at an advanced stage of preparation:
> The First “Court” of Believers and Atheists Will Open in Paris (24.6.2010)
It remains to be seen whether in the future the “court of the gentiles” will remain entrusted to Ravasi – who is said to be a possible candidate to be the next archbishop of Milan – or will become the prerogative of the new dicastery instituted in the curia this year for the “new evangelization” of the nations of ancient Christian tradition that are today dramatically secularized.
For now, this new dicastery is only on paper, without specific responsibilities. But its president has already been appointed: Archbishop Fisichella, moved there from the pontifical academy for life.
One appointment that has certainly been successful is that of Professor Antonio Paolucci as director of the Vatican Museums.
Paolucci is an illustrious art historian and expert manager. After arriving in Rome, he has dedicated all of his talents to offering the enjoyment of the immense artistic treasures of the see of Peter to the greatest number of visitors from all over the world. His efforts have been greatly appreciated, both in and outside of the Vatican.
But there are some who are trying to trip him up. One of these is his predecessor, Francesco Buranelli, now the secretary of the pontifical commission for the cultural heritage of the Church, the president of which is Archbishop Ravasi.
A dispute broke out between the two in recent days, all the more interesting in that it helps to expose the fundamental factors – which are highly “Ratzingerian” – behind Professor Paolucci’s work.
On September 10, in the Rome newspaper “Il Messaggero,” Buranelli criticized Paolucci’s decision to extend the opening of the Vatican Museums and of the Sistine Chapel beyond the current hours. It is true – he objected – that with more visitors “additional revenue can be taken in,” but this poses unavoidable danger to the frescoes, with more dust and more fluctuations of temperature and humidity: “If too many tourists do damage, two more hours make it worse.”
Paolucci’s reply came in “L’Osservatore Romano” on September 13:
“I’ve known about these things for forty years,” he writes. “It is evident, in fact, that the fewer people enter the Sistine Chapel, the less visible and dangerous the damage is. But I don’t intend to go down that road.” The road, that is, of reducing the number of visitors.
And he explains why:
“The Sistine Chapel, although it is part of a museum complex, is not a museum. It is a consecrated space. Moreover, it is the true and proper place of identity for the Roman Catholic Church. The great liturgies are celebrated here, the cardinals assembled in conclave elect the pontiff here.
“At the same time, the Sistine is the synthesis of Catholic theology. The history of the world, from cosmogony to the last judgment, is represented here together with the destiny of man redeemed by Christ. The Sistine is the history of salvation for all and for each one, it is the affirmation of the primacy of the pope of Rome, it is the time ‘sub gratia’ that absorbs, transfigures, and assimilates the time ‘sub lege’ of the Old Testament. It is the ark of the new and definitive covenant that God has established with the Christian people. It is no accident that the architect Baccio Pontelli was ordered by the pope to give the chapel the dimensions of the lost Temple of Jerusalem as they are related by the Bible.
“All of this to say that the Sistine is a place of art of absolute excellence, but is also a place of the highest catechesis, it is ‘Painted Word’, perfectly eloquent today just as yesterday. To keep it open for all so that all may see and understand is the duty and mission of those who administer the museums of the Holy See. To guarantee acceptable climatic conditions for the Sistine without thereby restricting the number of visitors. This is the objective I have set for myself.”
And in next part of the article, Paolucci explains the technical measures that he is already implementing to preserve the paintings in the Sistine as much as possible:
> La salvaguardia della Sistina. Stiano tranquilli i consiglieri troppo zelanti
One of the other new men called to the Vatican during the current pontificate has also encountered obstacles to his work of renewal: Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, appointed a year ago as president of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, an entity that as a rule acts in private, yet still operates in the world, with glaringly public repercussions like the legal incident of a few days ago:
> The Pope’s Banker Weathers the Storm (24.9.2010)
Finally, the last appointment of this curia “ad extra” reviewed so far, the brand new appointment of Fr. Massimo Palombella as director of the choir of the Sistine Chapel.
A baffling appointment, unlike the previous one.
Baffling because it is unclear how the task of accompanying the liturgies of the pope – and of a pope like Benedict XVI – can be met by someone whose musical credentials include only the well-intentioned direction of a choir made up of university students, and nothing else of significance.
> Musical Intermission. Noises from the Sistine Chapel (17.9.2010)
The Sistine was the most ancient and noble choir of great Roman liturgical music. But today it is a shadow of its glorious past. At this point only a miracle can save it.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.