Pope Francis’ Appointments: A Key Measure of His Pontificate


National Catholic Register, 20 March 2019

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s choices have been much less impactful than the diverse range of Church luminaries St. John Paul II appointed early in his own papacy.

The death of Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels last week, the day after the sixth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, drew attention to the importance of appointments in defining a pontificate.

Cardinal Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, was appointed to the post by St. John Paul II in 1979 — and created a cardinal in 1983 — and remained there for 31 years, until his retirement in 2010. He was the grandest of the European liberal prelates and in the early 1980s was entrusted with key assignments under John Paul.

Over time, he would come to see himself as a leader of the faction opposed to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The infamous “St. Gallen Mafia” — as Cardinal Danneels described it — began meeting in 1996; it was a loose collection of self-styled progressive cardinals and bishops determined to influence the conclave after John Paul’s death.

They had their candidate in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, but they could not prevent the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005, which came as a disappointment to Cardinal Danneels. But he would experience a “personal resurrection” when Cardinal Bergoglio was elected in 2013.

Pope Francis interrupted his Lenten retreat to immediately send a condolence telegram upon the death of Cardinal Danneels, a telegram that highlighted what amounts to a footnote in the Belgian cardinal’s long service, his papal appointment to the twin synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. It was the Holy Father’s way of signaling that the cardinal’s day had come with his own election, particularly in seeking to change the Church’s teaching on the admission of those in invalid marriages to Holy Communion.

Appointments matter more than most things that a pope does. The appointment of Cardinal Danneels reflected that John Paul often appointed the leading bishops of stature in their respective countries, even if they were of a different theological or pastoral approach. John Paul, who was accused by his critics of insisting upon a narrow line in the bishops he nominated, appointed not only Cardinal Danneels in Brussels, but Carlo Maria Martini in Milan, Joseph Bernardin in Chicago, Roger Mahony in Los Angeles and Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann in Germany.

And John Paul was inclined to surround himself in Rome with men of great stature, recognized as such even by those who did not agree with them.

By his sixth anniversary in October 1984, John Paul had appointed the following key cardinals: Agostino Casaroli as the secretary of state, Joseph Ratzinger as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Bernard Gantin as the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and William Baum as the prefect for the Congregation for Catholic Education. He had also appointed Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a layman, as his chief spokesman. All were men of the highest caliber who will be remembered long after their deaths.

And at his side from the first day to the last was his secretary, Father Stanisław Dziwisz, who would become archbishop of Kraków after John Paul’s death in 2005 and is now a cardinal.

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