After Pope Francis’ request, the Italian bishops took a different view and eventually told the pope that they still preferred him to choose their president.
There are four names vying for the presidency of the Italian bishops’ conference ahead of a vote in May.
The bishops will meet that month to choose their new president. The first three names will be forwarded to Pope Francis. The pope is free to choose one of the names or appoint another bishop entirely to this role. Because of this, rumors about who is in the running are based more on the pope’s likely preferences than on guidance from the country’s bishops.
So, who are the four characters currently mentioned?
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi has always been considered a strong candidate. Archbishop of Bologna since 2015 and cardinal since 2019, the 67-year-old is closely associated with the influential community of Sant’Egidio. A highly regarded former parish priest of Rome, Zuppi was also one of the negotiators of the peace process in Mozambique. It is believed that the pope holds him in high esteem.
Pope Francis could, however, also turn to the other cardinal at the head of an Italian archdiocese: Cardinal Augusto Paolo Lojudice. The pope made him cardinal in 2020 after appointing him archbishop of Siena in 2019. Lojudice is 57 and comes from Rome, where he served as auxiliary bishop from 2015 to 2019. As a parish priest, he was well known for his commitment to the poor.
Lojudice was already among Pope Francis’ favorites to succeed Cardinal Agostino Vallini as His Holiness’ Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome in 2017. The Pope eventually chose another auxiliary, the current Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, who has received an overwhelming number of approvals from the priests of Rome in an investigation that the pope himself had wanted to launch.
(As a footnote, the procedure used for the appointment of De Donatis was later employed by Pope Francis for other Italian archdioceses.)
That the pope sent Lojudice to Siena and then appointed him cardinal, although Siena is not a traditionally cardinal archdiocese, was a signal that the pope values Lojudice and might assign him to new duties.
Pope Francis did something similar in 2015, when he decided to give the red hat to Archbishop Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Città Della Pieve. Bassetti was then vice-president of the Italian episcopal conference. The pope’s decision was a clear indication of who he wanted as conference president.
But Pope Francis may not necessarily choose a cardinal. Two archbishops are also in the running.
The first is Bishop Erio Castellucci, who oversees both the Archdiocese of Modena and the Diocese of Carpi. Former dean of the Faculty of Theology of Emilia-Romanesque, Castellucci has led the doctrinal commission of Italian bishops and has been a consultant for the synod of bishops since June 2021. The 61-year-old was mentioned among the possible candidates to lead the ‘archdiocese. from Torino. (In the end, the pope chose Bishop Roberto Repole.)
The real surprise could be represented by Bishop Domenico Battaglia, who has led the Archdiocese of Naples since 2020. He is 59 and was known before his episcopal appointment as a priest close to the marginalized. The pope holds him in high esteem. For example, the prayer for peace in Ukraine that the pope read during his March 16 general audience was written by Battaglia. If the Archbishop of Naples were named president, he would be the first head of Italian bishops to come from a diocese south of Rome.
The reason there will be a vacancy is that the current president of the episcopal conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, cannot have a second term. He will turn 80 on April 7, reaching the age at which a cardinal can no longer vote in a conclave or hold office, whether as a member of curial departments or as head of an archdiocese.
Why is the pope involved in choosing the president? Because the pope, bishop of Rome, is the primate of the Italian Church. This is why the Italian Episcopal Conference has always wanted to maintain a special bond with him. Indeed, in recent years, the idea of changing the statutes of the conference and defining the president as a “delegate president” has been raised precisely to testify to this link.
At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis asked the Italian bishops to change the election procedure and discuss how to elect their president. It was nothing new. As early as 1983, John Paul II had asked the bishops to reconsider the electoral process. On this occasion, a large majority of Italian bishops voted in favor of the direct election of the president. But John Paul II informed the bishops that he preferred to retain his right to appoint the bishops’ president and general secretary.
After Pope Francis’ request, the Italian bishops took a different view and eventually told the pope that they still preferred him to choose their president. To respond to the pope’s demands, they set up a complicated electoral mechanism.
At the next assembly, all residential bishops may be elected president. After that, the names of the three with the highest number of votes will be presented to the pope. But, as mentioned, the pope is also free to choose anyone outside of the three. The fact that the pope has absolute power of choice will no doubt lead many to vote for the candidates most likely to be preferred by him.
The pope may also be called upon to choose a new general secretary with the new president. Bishop Stefano Russo, number two in the episcopal conference since 2018, could leave earlier than the end of his mandate, scheduled for 2024.