Vatican City — Pope Francis has replaced the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States just days after he was lauded by the country's bishops at their seminary in Rome during a posh annual honors banquet.
Italian Archbishop Carlo Viganò -- who has represented the Vatican in Washington since 2011 but came under scrutiny when his name surfaced last year in questions over how Francis came to meet controversial Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis during his September U.S. trip -- will be succeeded by French Archbishop Christophe Pierre.
The replacement of what is formally known as the apostolic nuncio to the United States, which had been rumored for months, was announced by the Vatican Tuesday. Viganò had turned 75, the traditional retirement age for Catholic bishops, in January.
Until his new appointment, Pierre had been serving as the Vatican’s representative in Mexico. In that role since 2007, he has previously served as apostolic nuncio in both Uganda and Haiti.
Pierre had helped organize Francis’ recent Feb. 12-18 visit to Mexico, when the pontiff stayed each night in the nuncio’s residence in Mexico City.
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Viganò was honored Thursday evening by the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. bishops’ seminary in Rome.
The former nuncio was lauded at the seminary’s annual $450-a-plate Rector’s Dinner alongside California lawyer Timothy Busch, who specializes in “high net-worth estate planning” and is also co-founder of the Napa Institute, which focuses on defending Catholic principles in the public arena.
In brief remarks at the honors dinner, Viganò encouraged U.S. seminarians studying in Rome to be “courageous in always defending the freedom to put our Catholic faith into practice without fear.”
Mentioning Francis’ U.S. visit last fall, the archbishop said that it was very significant for him that the pontiff began his historic address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress by describing America with the words of the National Anthem: “The land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“Perhaps more than ever, this phrase should be something we continue to live for and pray for,” said Viganò.
“That the United States of America will protect our freedom, especially our religious liberty, as well as respect the human right to conscientious objection, and that we will be courageous in always defending the freedom to put our Catholic faith into practice without fear,” he continued.
“Each one of us has a responsibility before God to bring a message of truth into this world, even if it means spending our lives for that very purpose -- sometimes silently, but very often today publicly,” said Viganò.
Besides his reported involvement in Francis meeting Kim Davis, Viganò also attracted controversy in early 2015 when he took part in the March for Marriage, a public demonstration in Washington against same-sex marriage.
Some critics said it was inappropriate for a church diplomat to attend an event meant to influence policy in the in the country of his posting.
Pierre is expected to take up his new role almost immediately. As apostolic nuncio he will represent the Vatican in the U.S. and will also advise Francis on selection and appointment of bishops throughout the country.
The new nuncio will be the second native French-speaker to represent the pope in the U.S., following Belgian Archbishop Jean Jadot, who served in the role from 1973-80.
Jadot was attributed with helping select a wide portion of the country’s episcopate during that time, including examples such as Washington Cardinal James Hickey, Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, and San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn.