When Benedict was first elected pope, there was a lot of interest around the question of whether he might be able to turn the tide of rising secularization in Europe. Countries that were once bastions of Catholicism had long been experiencing low Mass attendance and growing indifference to church teaching. Bishops faced a steady stream of rejection on public policy issues as well as empty pews in church and low enrollment in seminaries. Benedict cared deeply about Europe, and tried to win back the indifferent with his thoughtful writings and appeals to tradition. Eight years later however, by the time of his resignation, it was clear that Benedict had not reversed these trends.

When Francis was elected pope, the spotlight shifted to Latin America and the developing world. No one particularly expected him to have a significant impact on Europe. Yet Francis is changing the situation in Europe, step by step — not in a dramatic way, but by implementing a pastoral strategy to address some knotty problems, one knot at a time.

A good illustration of this can be seen in recent episcopal appointments in Spain. In September it was announced that Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra of Valencia (photo right) would replace Cardinal Antonio Ruoco Varela as Archbishop of Madrid (photo left). Osoro, in turn, would be replaced by Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera, who was then serving as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. U.S. press coverage of these changes was sparse, mostly noting the appointment of a “Francis moderate” in Madrid. These are deft choices, however, and – combined with new elected leadership in the bishops’ conference – they have opened up new possibilities.


The see of Madrid does not bear an easy analogy with any diocese in the United States. In addition to being the largest diocese in Spain (4.1 million people, 478 parishes), Madrid is politically important in a way no diocese in the United States can be, simply because Spain is a majority Catholic country. Furthermore, the close relationship between church and state that existed under the authoritarian regime of General Franco (dictator from 1939 to 1975) casts a long shadow, perhaps most especially when it comes to politics in Madrid. It has left behind both wounds and expectations, vestiges of power and feelings of resentment.

Cardinal Ruoco Varela ruled as Archbishop of Madrid for twenty years. During that time he also served as president of the Episcopal Conference of Spain for three terms, the last one ending in March of this year. So much influence did the Galician Cardinal wield in this dual role that he came to be known as “the Spanish Vice-Pope.” An article in El Mundo compared him to Cardinal Cisneros, the religious zealot, statesman and grand inquisitor of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, calling him “a man who accumulated more power than anyone in the Spanish Church of the past 50 years.”  A favorite of Pope Benedict, Ruoco’s personal evolution followed a trajectory not unlike Benedict’s own. As a young man he was a moderately progressive churchman, but with the passing years he grew more conservative and hardline. He was active in Rome as a member of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, as well as the Congregation for Education. At home he was a culture warrior and a polarizing figure. Much hated by the liberal press, he was vocal in politics and engaged in battle against the liberalizing policies of Spain’s secular government. At election time he was a force to be reckoned with, as he (like some American prelates) proposed it as a moral duty to vote a certain way.


Ruoco’s political involvement did not end with opposition to divorce, contraception, abortion, or gay marriage. He has also been a strong advocate for a unified state, opposing recent calls for Catalonian self-determination. As a non-binding referendum was being proposed to gauge the desire of Catalonian citizens for independence, he took an active stand in opposition. In January, as part of the run-up to N9, as the referendum was called, the Abbot of Montserrat, Josep Maria Soler, had opined in a public discussion that if Catalonia gained independence it would be recognized by the Holy See. In response to this, Ruoco went to Rome personally and met with Pope Francis, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and two Spanish cardinals (Cañizares and Santos Abril) to press Pope Francis to rebuke the abbot. Parolin, Ara.cat reported, was scandalized, and Francis, who enjoys cordial relations with bishops from all the regions of Spain, refused to be drawn. The result of the meeting was a note issued by the Nuncio to the effect that any statements made by church officials are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Holy See, a mild message indeed.

“The Pilgrim” Takes Charge

Such was the combative character and profile that Ruoco had built up over the preceding twenty years. Against this background, the appointment of Osoro gave a definite signal of a shift in priorities and tone. Periodista Digital described the appointment as one that “without doubt, best exemplifies the 'spring' for the Church in Spain.”

Osoro was dubbed “the pilgrim” by Pope Francis because of his penchant for going out to be with people in his diocese. In the press, he is referred to as “the Spanish Francis.” He works tirelessly and spares no effort to get close to his people. When he was appointed  to Valencia in 2009, he immediately undertook the task of learning the local language so that he could preach in Valencian. Low-key, non-confrontational, his initial statements upon assuming his new role in Madrid have been filled with references to dialogue and hope, the “globalization of the heart.” Commenters have remarked on the difference. He is by all accounts a moderate and is not about to alienate conservative Catholics, but he will be a far more conciliatory figure than the man he replaces. “We need everyone,” he said in the homily at his installation. This is a major knot untied.


The situation of Cañizares is more difficult to puzzle out. His tenure in Rome under Benedict had suggested that a bright future lay in store for the sixty-nine-year-old prelate. Before his appointment to Valencia, some had speculated that he might be sent to Madrid or Barcelona. But neither of these prestigious appointments was given to him. Cardinal Lluis Maria Martinez Sistach remains in Barcelona, past the retirement age but in good health and active, while Osoro was appointed to Madrid. Instead of being handed a “plum,” Cañizares was sent home to Valencia—a large diocese that benefited from the pastoral care of its previous archbishop, but also a city that suffered huge economic losses in the recent recession, and one that is plagued by political corruption. If he does take his pastoral responsibilities seriously there, he will have his hands full.

The first question is, of course, why did he leave Rome? Brought into the Congregation for Divine Worship during the former pontificate because of his traditionalist leanings, Cañizares no longer enjoyed the same mission or patronage in Rome under Francis. Things have been changing. By his own account, Cañizares asked to be returned to pastoral ministry, yet it is hard to see the move as anything other than a part of a larger re-configuration in the area of worship. His protégé on the staff, Fr. Juan Miguel Ferrer Grenesche, also sympathetic to the older rites and an expert in the Mozarabic liturgy, was let go too, shortly afterwards, as was long-time staffer Anthony Ward (rumored to be the author of Liturgiam authenticam, the instruction concerning the translation of liturgical texts). The point is this: whether Cañizares himself asked to leave or was invited to go, he evidently left willingly. Another knot untied.

The second question is, what will he do now in Valencia? Elections in the Spanish Episcopal conference, which took place in March, had already revealed a change in priorities for the Spanish episcopate, inspired by Pope Francis’s leadership. Archbishop Ricardo Blázquez of Valladolid, another moderate, was elected in March as president of the conference, with Osoro as vice president.

Now, with both Madrid and the Conference leadership in the hands of moderate bishops, it has been predicted that Cañizares—whatever his personal feelings—will adapt. And he seems to have done so. At his installation Mass there was no sign of traditionalist vesture, and his homily was full of references to mercy and serving the poor.

Confronting the Demons

The recent history of the Catholic Church has shown that no leader can claim credibility without addressing corruption and scandal within the Church itself. In addition to the strategic decisions discussed above, in recent weeks Pope Francis quickly intervened in two situations in the Spanish church where bishops have acted irresponsibly.



The first concerns money. A surprise “retirement” by Manuel Ureña, Archbishop of Zaragoza, “for health reasons,” turns out to have been a forced resignation after it was learned that he paid 105,000 euros to a young deacon who, it was decided, would not be ordained a priest. Ostensibly these monies were given to the young man so that he could train for a secular career once priestly ordination was denied him, but the payment was an unusually large one and the circumstances murky. According to ABC.es / Aragón, the payment was made on November 6. An informant leaked the information to the Vatican, and explanations were demanded. Ureña was told to resign immediately and was gone by November 12.

The second instance concerns the oversight of sex abuse cases. A twenty-four-year-old abuse victim in Granada, known only by the name of Daniel (and who identified himself as a supernumary of Opus Dei), wrote to the Pope concerning his experience. Francis phoned him, first on August 10, to apologize, a call in which he expressed great compassion for Daniel’s suffering and told him the process was underway to address the situation. Then, on October 10, he phoned a second time to urge him to ask that sanctions be enacted. Daniel then went to a public prosecutor. It appears that the Archbishop of Grenada, Francisco Xavier Martínez Fernández, had dragged his feet, doing no more than suspending three priests, a decision he defended, saying the young man had asked him to do no more than this. It has since emerged that others are involved in the scandal in Granada. As many as a dozen priests (10% of the secular clergy of the diocese) may now be facing sanctions in what is the first major scandal of its kind in Spain.

When the glare of publicity descended on Martínez Fernández, and it became evident that the pope himself was watching, he put on a great display of dramatic remorse, widely covered by the news media. But evidently the Pope is not impressed by theatrics. The archbishop, El Diario reports, will be removed from Granada after Christmas.

The swift responses to these crises suggest that damaging situations will not be allowed to fester. Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, Archbishop of Barcelona, in a tough interview with Catalunya Radio, put it bluntly: “The Pope wants zero tolerance in the cases in Granada. It is a very serious crime.”

Turning a Situation Around

Church attendance in Spain rose by a little more than 2% in the first year since Pope Francis was elected. That’s not a large increase, but it contrasts with the downward slide in recent years. Will the new leadership in Madrid and in the Conference of Bishops create a positive climate in which the Spanish Church will be able to build on this trend?

Several elements which seem to be at play could contribute to positive change. First is the strategic decision to step back from intractable, win-lose confrontations in the political realm. Everyone who has ever tried to untie a knot realizes that the harder you pull at one end of the thread, the more the knot tightens. By replacing Ruoco with Osoro, Pope Francis has introduced some slack in the thread; new, freer action becomes possible. Similarly, Catalan sovereignty is a fraught political question. Taking a strong stand in Rome on such an issue tightens the knot. Instead, Pope Francis has gotten out of the way so that those who are closest to the people can untie that knot for themselves. Indeed, Pope Francis seems to be positioning bishops to get closer to their people. Osoro, a Castilian, goes to Castile. Cañizares, a Valencian, goes to Valencia.

Finally, the situation in Grenada is possibly going to be a defining moment in Francis’s own evolving consciousness of the ecclesial dysfunction surrounding the sex abuse crisis. This time no spin doctors have stepped in to blame the media or the lawyers or the victim. Instead, Francis has directly confronted the facts: the victim’s pain, and the bishop’s inadequate response. According to the El Diario report, the Communion and Liberation movement, with whom Martínez Fernández is allied, tried to save face for the bishop by engineering his public drama of remorse, but it was already too late. Thus, paradoxically, Francis may have one of his own knots untied in Spain – the knot of uncertainty concerning the role of bishops in the continuing crisis of sex abuse. If this knot is untied, it will be good not only for Spain and for Europe, but for us all.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Pastoral Guide to Pope Francis’s Desiderio Desideravi (Liturgical Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

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