Monday, February 26, 2018

Whither The Reform? – Amid a Move to Korea, Aftershocks in Rome

As the news-cycle already begins to immerse itself in the coming fifth anniversary of Francis' pontificate in two weeks' time, this Monday brings another inflection-point for one of the Pope's key projects – and yet again, one that leaves more questions than answers in its wake.

Topping today's batch of appointments, Papa Bergoglio named Msgr Alfred Xuereb (above left) – the 59 year-old Maltese best known for his years as deputy secretary to Benedict XVI – as Nuncio to South Korea and Mongolia, elevating him to the rank of archbishop. Yet while the pick's history with the Pope-emeritus has garnered no shortage of sentimental headlines, the move's real ramifications lie elsewhere, reaching right to the heart of both the reigning Pope's foreign policy, not to mention Francis' attempts at reform within the Vatican itself.

First, given the current drama surrounding North Korea's nuclear ambitions, even if the Nunciature in Seoul is long accustomed to being a global hotspot, in the present moment it's arguably one of the most critical postings in papal diplomacy. As the Holy See has no bilateral relations with the Communist North, Xuereb now becomes Francis' de facto legate to the whole of a divided peninsula facing the threat of an epoch-defining war, but the irony is that the new Nuncio has never served in the diplomatic corps, his career spent instead as a nuts-and-bolts administrator.

All that said, Xuereb's closeness to Francis – who inherited the Maltese as his top personal aide upon his election – portends an effectiveness of a different sort, and the archbishop-elect's background in organization could well come in handy for humanitarian efforts. Still, as each prior Nuncio to Korea since the South's democratic rebirth in the mid-1980s had come to the posting with decades of experience around the globe, the break from convention is conspicuous, all the more amid the region's backdrop today.

Beyond the fluid situation with the North, the incoming legate will face two other notable aspects in the role. First, for just the second time, South Korea's head of state – and the lead figure on any talks with Pyongyang – President Moon Jae-In, is a Catholic, part of a fold whose extraordinary rate of conversions has seen it come to comprise some 15 percent of the South's population within a matter of decades. And with the Korean Church's profile as a dynamic, mission-based outpost – its emergence into the mainstream coming in tandem with a remarkable run on building institutions of education and social service – Xuereb's arrival comes months before the 75th birthday (and hence the succession) of Seoul's Cardinal Andrew Yeom. Ergo, it'll fall to the new Nuncio to lay the groundwork of Francis' first choice to a seat that hasn't merely become one of Asian Catholicism's top pulpits, but one of the global church's most sensitive ones, to boot; with the North almost hermetically sealed off from the outside world, the last several archbishops of Seoul have likewise been tasked with pastoral oversight of the church's small, heavily-monitored remaining presence above the DMZ.

Significant and full as the Korean plate is, on the internal front, the one Xuereb leaves behind is even more charged.

After Francis took note of the Maltese's adeptness at management, by the end of 2013 the pontiff dispatched his then-secretary to undertake the studies which quickly culminated in the creation of the Secretariat of the Economy – and, with it, a seismic upending of the many-headed financial apparatus which had long been the proverbial "800-lb gorilla" of Vatican scandals.

Having tapped the Australian Cardinal George Pell to lead the new organ as the Holy See's first-ever "CFO," armed with a sweeping mandate to wrest all its fiscal, budgetary and personnel operations under his control, Francis named Xuereb as his deputy. And now, after a four-year turf-war saw no shortage of wrenches thrown into the works, both are literally gone: while still holding the title of Prefect, Pell has been in Australia since last July after he was charged there on decades-old allegations of unspecified "sexual offenses," which are slated to come to trial in his home-state of Victoria next month.

Regardless of the outcome of the court process, the hostilities aroused by the famously hard-charging Pell's full-on battle for financial supremacy, combined with the stain of the abuse claims and the 76 year-old Aussie's prior complaints of difficult health, have virtually assured that the cardinal won't be returning to Rome. To avoid the appearance of a rush to judgment by the Vatican, however, any successor to him as Prefect for the Economy ostensibly wouldn't be named until after his trial concludes.

Meanwhile, no successor in Xuereb's Economy role was named today, either, leaving Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – the chair of the 15-person Council which supervises the office – as the last man standing of the three main figures to whom the reform was entrusted, the other lead posts (and only full-time ones) now lacking functioning occupants.

Again, today's move brings more questions than answers... but as Francis' 5th comes increasingly into focus and the assessments abound, one of his marquee attempts at a Roman shakeup was just dealt a sizable blow, and maybe even a fatal one.

Together with another diplomat elevated today – Msgr José Bettencourt, 54, a Portuguese-born immigrant to Canada named a Nuncio without posting (thus to remain in Rome) – Xuereb is expected to be ordained a bishop by Francis on March 19th: St Joseph's Day, and with it the fifth anniversary of the Pope's inauguration as the church's Universal Pastor.