The Nuncio Cometh?

Yesterday, Sandro Magister reported that Pope Francis has sent the name of Archbishop Christophe Pierre to the U.S. government for approval, in advance of naming the archbishop as the next nuncio to the United States. Archbishop Pierre is currently the nuncio in Mexico.

Not all of Magister’s advance reports turn out to be true, but I have been hearing Pierre’s name as a potential new nuncio for months. The other candidate most discussed, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, currently the nuncio in Poland, made a lot of sense given his two prior postings in the U.S., as a counselor at the U.S. nunciature in the 1980s and later as nuncio to the United Nations in New York. But, +Migliore has been organizing a forthcoming papal trip to Poland this summer, and given the opposition to Pope Francis expressed by some Polish bishops during last year’s synod, making that trip a success is no easy task and might tax the talents of a brand new nuncio.

Nor could the Vatican wait. Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the current nuncio, hit the mandatory retirement age in January and his tenure has been somewhat controversial, most especially in the infamous decision to invite Ms. Kim Davis to meet with the pope during his visit to the U.S. last September. Given the incredible political atmosphere in the country, and the need to fill some key slots in the hierarchy, the Vatican wants a new man on the ground as soon as possible. +Pierre hosted Pope Francis last month during the pope’s trip to Mexico, so I am sure they had time to discuss his new post.

Whether the appointment does indeed go to +Pierre, it is worth taking a moment to explain why a new nuncio is so important. First, the nuncio is, like all ambassadors, charged with maintaining relations with the U.S. government. The Vatican and the U.S. government collaborate on a host of issues around the world, even when tensions exist between the local Church and the government. In the past seven years of Obama’s tenure, the Vatican maintained a much better working relationship with the administration than did the USCCB. And, the Vatican played a key role in facilitating the negotiations for restoring diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Early in his career, +Pierre had a posting in Havana so he is well acquainted with that country and can help smooth over any bumps in the road as the relationship develops.

Secondly, the Vatican is surely worried about the candidacy of Donald Trump. Vatican diplomats tend to be drawn from the same families, attend the same schools, and read the same magazines and newspapers, as their secular counterparts. It is no secret that the governments of Europe are appalled and frightened at the prospect of a Trump presidency, and that fright is surely shared at the Vatican. And, because opposition to immigrants is such a central part of Trump’s political rise, and concern for immigrants has been such a central focus of Pope Francis’ articulation of the Church’s social doctrine, it surely occurred to the Vatican leadership that an archbishop who has spent the last nine years in Mexico could be uniquely valuable at this point in time. As well, immigration is one issue on which the U.S. bishops are not only united, but on which they are totally in sync with the Vatican.

In addition to handling relations with the U.S. government, a nuncio is also charged with maintaining relations between the local church and the Holy See. Of course, every bishop has certain canonical rights to make an appeal directly to Rome, and the leadership of the USCCB makes an annual trip to the Vatican to meet with top officials. There are the ad limina visits as well. Still, a lot of routine and non-routine business is either handled by the nuncio or, if he fails for any reason, handled in the face of his opposition. For example, when the good people of St. Paul, Minnesota needed to express their frustration with their previous archbishop, the first person to whom they appealed was the nuncio. He would forward petitions and other information, but was free to comment thereon, and shape the Vatican’s response with those comments. In that case, the removal of Archbishop John Nienstedt was, I am told, accomplished against the nuncio’s wishes and would have been accomplished long before if the nuncio had viewed the situation differently.

Nowhere is a nuncio’s influence more obvious, and more enduring, than in the selection of new bishops. When a diocese becomes vacant, the nuncio is charged with investigating the needs of the diocese and then proposing the names of three candidates who could meet those needs. That list of candidates, a terna, is sent to the Congregation for Bishops, which can pass it along to the pope as is, change the rankings of the three names on the list, or even reject the list and ask for a new one. Different nuncios handle this task differently, with varying levels of attention to the actual needs of a given diocese. In the 1980s, Archbishop, later Cardinal, Pio Laghi, insisted on in-depth analysis of the needs of a given diocese and then went looking, as he put it, for the right saint for the right niche.   

+Laghi did not always get the results he wanted, and he famously went to Rome to complain that so many of his ternas were rejected or altered. Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, whom I came to know quite well, was a lovely man with a penchant for making bad appointments. Archbishop Pietro Sambi balanced the ledger, although his remedy for removing Archbishop Raymond Burke from St. Louis, promoting him to remove him, turned into a disaster as +Burke, now a cardinal, has proven to be a thorn in the side of Pope Francis. And, under the current nuncio, Archbishop Vigano, there was a series of major appointments in the latter years of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI, when Cardinals Burke and Justin Rigali were on the Congregation for Bishops, that set the culture warrior stamp on the U.S. Church. Only when Pope Francis removed both +Burke and +Rigali from that Congregation, replacing them with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, did the appointment of culture warriors to major archdioceses cease, most obviously in the appointment of +Blase Cupich to the archdiocese of Chicago. That appointment came direct from the pope who always maintains his own methods of collecting information about potential candidates for major dioceses.

Not every diocese is a Chicago, however, and in many smaller dioceses, no pope would know the names of the candidates. That is why the nuncio, who draws up the first list of potential nominees, is so vital. There are about a third of the U.S. bishops who are very supportive of Pope Francis, a third who harbor grave reservations about his leadership, and a third who are not sure what to think. Certainly, the manner and content of the pope’s words to Congress were different from some of the language about politics and culture that we hear from some of the U.S. culture warrior bishops. If the pope wants a bishops’ conference that will support him, he needs his new nuncio to name about twenty to thirty bishops who are with the program. It is telling, to me, that in the past couple of years, when reading the lists of appointments at the Vatican website each morning, the new bishops in Mexico have all been pastors. +Pierre got the memo and, if he is indeed coming to Washington, we can hope he will appoint pastors to lead U.S. dioceses too.

Currently, there are two major vacancies that need to be filled. The Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minnesota is being turned around masterfully by the apostolic administrator, Archbishop Bernie Hebda, but +Hebda is due to take the reins of the Archdiocese of Newark in July, which means St. Paul must be filled. As well, Rockville Center, New York, although not an archdiocese, nor of any special historical significance, is enormous, the sixth largest diocese in the country. In addition to these two major appointments, the USCCB is set to see two of its finest bishops, +Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, and +Jerry Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, hit the mandatory retirement age this year or next. And, beyond the need to fill particular dioceses, there is the overarching need to find Latino candidates for the episcopate. It was somewhat shocking to see three auxiliary bishops appointed in Los Angeles and all of them were Irish! The Church in the U.S. is fast becoming majority Latino and we desperately need to cultivate outstanding Latino priests so that they can assume roles of responsibility and leadership in the years ahead.

In much of the world, ambassadors do not play the critical role they once did in the conduct of foreign relations. Emails and air travel have allowed policy makers in national capitals to conduct relations directly. But, Holy Mother Church is often a bit behind the curve (and a good thing too!). Nuncios matter. Archbishop Pierre seems ideally suited to address the needs of the Church in this country. If he is indeed the choice, we should all pray for him as he begins his monumental and consequential tasks.



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