The Popes’ Secretaries, from Capovilla to Gänswein

Cardinal Loris Francesco Capovilla died on May 25, 2016, at the age of one hundred. He was the oldest living cardinal, but more importantly he had served as secretary for Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli—Pope John XXIII—from the latter’s appointment to the patriarchal see of Venice until his death on June 3, 1963. Capovilla was only made a cardinal at the consistory of February 2014, by Pope Francis, after John Paul II and Benedict XVI—who created two-hundred-thirty-one and ninety-three cardinals, respectively—had forgotten him. They had had their chances, especially after 1995, when Capovilla turned eighty, the age at which a cardinal loses the right to vote for pope and when such an appointment would have been electorally meaningless. It would have been a good way to thank him for his service to the global church in keeping alive the memory of John XXIII and of Vatican II.

As executor of Roncalli’s will and secretary of his archive, Capovilla played a critical role in helping establish the late pontiff’s legacy. Rather than jealously guard the personal diaries and other writings of Roncalli until the time was deemed right, Capovilla acted on Roncalli’s desire as a historian to have them published and made part of the reception of the pontificate and of Vatican II. Coupled with his efforts in the publication of Journal of a Soul just nine months after John XXIII’s death, this work not only helped in defining the perception of John XXIII’s spirituality, but also made possible the wave of scholarly research on Roncalli that commenced in the early 1980s. Capovilla had donated the personal archive to Paul VI, but only after having provided a photocopy of the entire contents to the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, where historians had access to it. The work they did proved crucial in the beatification of Pope John in 2000 and his canonization in April 2014. It was also instrumental in helping us learn more about Vatican II (especially the decision to call the council in the first place) and about the background of the John XXIII’s pontificate. Capovilla was averse to saccharine devotional portraits of “il papa buono,” and the letters, journals, and scholarly and spiritual writings he helped bring to light significantly impacted the work of scholars like my mentor Giuseppe Alberigo, Alberto Melloni, and Giancarlo Zizola. Thanks to this paper trail—which also included daily diary entries from the time Roncalli was a teenager in seminary—we know more about John XXIII than we do about any other pope.

But there is another important reason to remember Capovilla. As secretary of the pope succeeding Pius XII, who governed in almost total isolation, Capovilla had the delicate job of navigating the arcana of the Roman Curia, where many saw Roncalli as a dangerous and naïve outsider. Audiences and meetings that resulted in some of the most consequential decisions by John XXIII were made possible by Capovilla, who bypassed the obstacles put up by the Curia. This helped John XXIII do what John XXIII wanted to do. But Capovilla operated differently than did his successors—namely, the secretaries to John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

John Paul II elevated his personal secretary, Stanisław Dziwisz, to the episcopate in February 1998, when he appointed him Adjunct Prefect of the Papal Household. This role was created specifically for Dziwisz, who is the only person in the history of the Roman Curia to have held it. (At the same time, John Paul II appointed the American prelate James Michael Harvey Prefect of the Papal Household.). As the health of John Paul II deteriorated, Dziwisz’s influence grew enormously. And his rise did not stop with John Paul II’s death. Dziwisz was appointed Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, just two months later, and was made a cardinal less than a year after that. (A much longer post could be devoted to the way Dziwisz managed the writings left by John Paul II.)

Then there is Georg Gänswein, who joined Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s staff at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996, became professor of canon law at the Opus Dei’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome after that, and was made secretary to Benedict XVI in April 2005. In December 2012, just a few weeks before announcing his resignation, Benedict elevated Gänswein to the episcopate and made him Prefect of the Papal Household. Now Bishop Gänswein is the most visible member of the circle around Bishop of Rome emeritus Benedict XVI; last week he entered the spotlight once again by saying that Benedict XVI’s resignation transformed the papacy, creating an “‘expanded’ Petrine Office with ‘an active member’ and a ‘contemplative.’”

How different is the story of Capovilla? After the death of John XXIII, Paul VI kept him in the Roman Curia for four years and elevated him to the episcopate only in 1967, as a diocesan bishop. After four years in a small and conservative diocese in Abruzzo, he was at age fifty-five (still twenty years away from the retirement age of seventy-five for bishops) “exiled” and appointed prelate of the Marian sanctuary of Loreto, where he remained until 1988. But it’s not just this marginalization of Capovilla vs. the career trajectories of Dziwisz and Gänswein. It is also hard to ignore the corresponding growth in the importance of the “papal apartment” in the governance of the Catholic Church and the Roman Curia during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It is a transformation that has resulted not only in the personalization of the papal office (something that is typical of all the pontificates since the “mediatization” of the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-20th century), but also in the creation of an inner circle; it is the “bubble” that makes the pope impervious to the lived experience of the church, and that gives enormous power to those who have the trust of the pope when the pope is seriously ill. In this sense the decision of Benedict XVI to resign may be interpreted also as the attempt to correct—or at least to avoid for the church—what he saw happening around John Paul II during his last few years. Yet it didn’t burst the bubble entirely, as evidenced by the highly visible presence of his secretary and a circle of journalists favorably disposed to the pope emeritus within the Vatican walls—something we’ve never had to deal with before.

It is not clear yet where the reform of the Roman Curia is going. What’s more clear is that with Francis, the identification between the papal office and the papal apartment is over. This was the key aspect of Francis’s decision to live in Santa Marta instead. The centralization of the “papal apartment” fundamentally altered the function of the pope’s secretary—even more so in the case of Benedict XVI than John Paul II. And that is part of the larger crisis of the Curia in the last decade. Theologically, it must be said that John Paul II and Benedict XVI gave the impression that they were using the episcopal ordination to protect their secretaries. It is just one more argument against the proliferation of episcopal ordinations for members of the Roman Curia.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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