Next on Pope Francis' agenda: Curia reform, personnel moves, a revamped synod

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Pope Francis told bishops attending the recent Synod of Bishops on the family to speak their minds freely and boldly during the two-week-long assembly. And so they did, at least a good many of them. (There were also some who held back, hedging their bets, perhaps as they wait in joyful hope for the coming of the next pontificate.)

This freedom of theological speech has been, until now, a faded memory in ecclesiastical Rome, and it opened quite a lively debate on issues that had long been closed off to candid discussion throughout the church. Now the debate has begun. And it will continue.

But there is a problem. A lot of bishops do not seem too pleased about this. Not one bit. Those that head dioceses, like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia or Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, Poland, could make it very difficult for people in their territories to have real discussion on the uncomfortable topics. For sure, they and like-minded bishops in all parts of the Catholic world have their allies. It's hard to calculate if they constitute a majority among those with miters, but the fact that the two recent predecessors of Papa Francesco appointed most of them to their current positions suggests that their number is not negligible. In fact, it could be legion.

No one should be scandalized or alarmed if a bishop of a local church takes issue -- or even disagrees -- with something the bishop of Rome says or does. It is only because of an imbalanced ultramontanism that so many Catholics believe every bishop should model himself after and become the spokesman of the pope. Actually, that is the job of the apostolic nuncio, not the local ordinary.

Pope Francis surely would agree. "Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow," he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. In this same document, he says there is an "imbalance" when "we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God's word." And he's said quite frankly that "little progress" has been made in rebalancing "papal primacy" with the "genuine doctrinal authority" that still needs to be elaborated for patriarchates and episcopal conferences.

Today's generation of bishops are not comfortable hearing a pope says such things. That's also true of those who work for him at the Vatican. But here's the problem. A local ordinary may have the right and sometimes the duty to oppose the bishop of Rome to his face, as Paul did to Peter at Antioch, but bishops and cardinals who are directly in his service do not.

And it seems Pope Francis has more than a few of these types meddling in the Vatican. The way he unleashed discussion in the synod seems to have been the last straw for many of them. It certainly smoked them out.

This is actually good, because as he moves toward the second anniversary of his election and begins to make final decisions for a total reorganization of the Roman Curia, he is going to have to begin making key personnel changes. Obviously, he must replace those who oppose his reforms with people who will help implement them.

His most visible critic in the Roman Curia, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, has been telling anyone that will listen that Francis is going to move him from his illustrious position as the head of the Apostolic Signatura (the church's supreme court) to the merely ceremonial post of cardinal-patron of the Knights of Malta. If true, this will be quite a bump for a man who is only 66 and still nine years away from retirement. Watch to see if Msgr. Alejandro Bunge replaces him or gets another important post. Pope Francis brought the 62-year-old canon lawyer over from Argentina to be a judge on the Roman Rota. He surprised many by putting him on the recently formed commission on streamlining annulments.

Another key Vatican official who has not been exactly singing in tune with the pope for some time now is Cardinal Gerhard Müller, also only 66 and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Francis has graciously tolerated the discordant notes the German, so often strikes regarding the pope's own beloved theme of God's mercy, seemingly because the doctrinal chief was appointed only about six months before Benedict XVI announced his retirement. It would have been a slap in the former pope's face to sack him. But that could change. Müller's home diocese of Mainz soon will need a new bishop to take over from Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who will be 79 in May. If the pope decides to name a new doctrinal congregation prefect, he could turn to Archbishop Bruno Forte, although conservatives would consider it a declaration of war after having publicly expressed their no-confidence in the Italian theologian at the recent synod.

As Francis heads toward the second anniversary of his election as bishop of Rome, the top officials on his support staff -- that is, the Roman Curia -- remain mostly those who were appointed by his German predecessor. He has named only four of the 24 cardinals and bishops that head secretariats, congregations, tribunals and pontifical councils. One of them was actually a lateral move, at best: Francis transferred Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, considered one of Benedict's most conservative allies, from the Congregation for Clergy to the Apostolic Penitentiary. He replaced him with a career papal diplomat, Archbishop Beniamino Stella.

Francis has also appointed a secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and a secretary for the economy, Cardinal George Pell. Both are also members of Francis' Council of Cardinals. The 73-year-old Pell is a blunt Australian who prides himself on being a staunch defender of doctrine and a supporter of the Tridentine Mass. His specific task at the Vatican is to overhaul financial management, but as a Council of Cardinals member, he was also called to help the pope govern the universal church and reform the Curia.

Last weekend, he and another Curia official -- Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of he papal charity office, "Cor Unum" -- were last-minute no-shows to events connected to a pilgrimage of Tridentine Mass supporters, Catholics who have publicly admitted their discomfort with Pope Francis' more open style. Although Pell said his absence was due to a sudden illness, some people understandably began speculating that either the pope or his secretary of state had urged the two cardinals to cancel their appearance. There was third Vatican cardinal, and he did not cancel. It was Burke.

Pope Francis will be calling together the Council of Cardinals in the second week of December for a seventh group meeting. Gathering for a few days every two months, this privy council has helped the pope complete and put in place a plan for restructuring Vatican finances, led principally by Pell. Now the Council of Cardinals will start discussing the Curia's reorganization, likely advising Francis to form a Congregation for the Laity that would incorporate the current councils on the family and the laity. Other offices, such as those dealing with justice and peace, migrants, health care, and charities, may also be combined. But no decisions are expected until spring or early summer.

This may delay the long-awaited replacement of a number of council presidents and congregation prefects who are already past the retirement age of 75 or have spent far too many years in Rome. The over-75s include Cardinals Zenon Grocholewski (Catholic Education), Angelo Amato (Saints), Antonio Maria Vegliò (Migrants), and Francesco Coccopalmerio (Legislative Texts). A leading candidate to replace the Polish cardinal at Education is Argentine Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, 52, rector of the Catholic University in Buenos Aires and the main ghostwriter of Evangelii Gaudium. He might even be a future doctrinal congregation prefect.

In addition to all this, Pope Francis is believed to be working with the man he appointed as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, in a continuing effort to transform the mechanisms and procedures of this collegial body in the run-up to its next assembly in October 2015.

There is one other major post in the Vatican that needs to be filled: the prefect's chair at the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. It has now been empty for an unprecedented two months since the pope sent the last officeholder, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, to be archbishop of Valencia, Spain. It's not clear why it's taking so long to name his replacement.

Probably the last time there was such a lengthy vacancy in a key Vatican office was after the 1944 death of Cardinal Luigi Maglione, the secretary of state. Pope Pius XII, who had also held that top diplomatic post before being elected supreme pontiff, decided to be his own secretary of state for the rest of the pontificate.

Don't lay any bets that Pope Francis would do the same at Divine Worship.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

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