Civil Administration Building, Vatican City
For many Catholics, when we think of the Vatican, we imagine St. Peter’s Basilica with its giant plaza out front, or we think of the Pope, or perhaps the Sistine Chapel. We seldom think of the Curia - the warren of offices and departments, and the 5,000 people who make up the administrative arm of the church universal. If we think about it at all, the Curia seems far away and out of touch, and has little to do with us.
Currently, something big is happening to the Curia, about which most Catholics are oblivious.
Our ears may have perked up when we heard that Pope Francis had a video call with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to discuss the war in Ukraine, but his revamp of Vatican administration is not exactly front page news.
Our lack of interest in how our church runs reminds me of a scene from the movie, The Devil Wears Prada. An apprentice, played by Anne Hathaway, is caught snickering, as her diabolical magazine editor of a boss, played by Meryl Streep, chooses between two nearly identical blue belts to use in a fashion shoot. Streep’s character responds to the snicker this way:
“Oh, Ok. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet, and you select that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back...It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”
For years, I have been one of those Catholics who talks about how I love the fact that I can go to any country in the world, walk into mass, and feel at home. That’s “vacation Catholic” mentality. My “everyday Catholic” mentality often snickers at the universal church, which keeps those masses up and running across the globe. To paraphrase Streep’s character, it’s comical how I think that the choices I make around my faith are exempt from a connection to the global church.
I have become a big fan of the independent Catholic news website Crux (crux.com) and the podcast, Last Week in the Church.
Both are produced by John Allen, who also hosts the podcast. Every Tuesday, with a combination of wit and professional reporting, Allen’s podcast reviews what has been going on at the Vatican and around the globe in the Catholic Church. As our culture continues to invite us to think more globally, Crux helps us remember that we already belong to a global community, the Catholic Church.
So back to that big change in the Curia. On March 19 Pope Francis set into motion an overhaul of the Curia. The result of eight years of planning, his new constitution contains two important pieces of information we Catholics need to know.
First, for all you Words with Friends and Scrabble fans, henceforth each of the sixteen departments of the Curia will be referred to as a dicastery. The Pope wants the personnel is each dicastery to be diversified. For centuries, the Curia has had a pronounced Italian character. Pope Francis wants people from different regions of the world to work at the Vatican in order to better reflect the reality of the world the church is serving.
Second, the new constitution states that lay members of the faithful can head a dicastery if the Pope decides that a lay man or woman is qualified, and he chooses to appoint him or her. Previous to this in church history, only priests and bishops could legally hold these top Vatican positions.
Pope Francis started nudging the church in this new direction last year when he appointed three religious women to important Vatican leadership positions.
Sister Alessandra Smerilli was appointed interim secretary of the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. This appointment makes her the highest-ranking woman in the Roman Curia, and with this new constitution there will no longer be a need for her appointment to be interim.
Sister Raffaella Petrini
was appointed the first woman to hold the office of Secretary General of the Governate of the Vatican City State. She now oversees the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandolfo, and several office buildings and residences across Rome.
Sr. Nathalie Becquart was finishing up her licentiate in sacred theology at the Boston College School of Theology when Pope
Francis tapped her to be co-undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops,
making her the first women to have the right to vote in a Synod of Bishops.
All politics is local, so the saying goes. I used to think that way about the church too, especially a decade ago when I was commissioned along with other lay women and a deacon by Cardinal Mahony to be a Pastoral Associate in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The years that followed saw many of those commissioned women leading parishes as Parish Life Directors.
But watching as Los Angeles’ current Archbishop allows the Pastoral Associate and Parish Life Director programs to dry up and atrophy, I can now look to the universal church for some reassurance. Administration matters. I just had to stop and notice.