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VATICAN LETTER Sep-9-2005 (940 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

What's the buzz? At Vatican, officials wait for curial changes

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope Benedict XVI returns to the Vatican at the end of September, he'll find his "in" basket full and the rumor mill humming.

On the docket in coming months are a Synod of Bishops, an ecumenical trip to Istanbul, commemorations of the Second Vatican Council, an upcoming encyclical, five canonizations, several rounds of bishops' visits and a full slate of daily meetings with church groups, religious representatives and political leaders from around the world.

Meanwhile, the buzz around the Roman Curia has concentrated -- not surprisingly -- on possible changes in the Roman Curia. Murmurs of a clean sweep of several top Vatican officials and a major "shrinking" of Vatican departments have been echoing down the marble hallways for several weeks.

Like his predecessors, the pope chose to spend most of his summer at the papal villa in Castel Gandolfo. He returns to the Vatican Sept. 28, just fours days before the start of the Oct. 2-23 synod on the Eucharist.

Many observers believe the synod will help delineate the role of collegiality in Pope Benedict's governing style.

"He has to decide whether to hold a synod different from the past, in which bishops have the possibility not only of being listened to but of making decisions," said Italian church historian Alberto Melloni.

"This can be done in a thousand different ways, but the question is: Will collegiality have a turning point?" Melloni said.

The synod on the Eucharist was originally convened by Pope John Paul II, but already Pope Benedict has put his own mark on the assembly, shortening it by a week, reducing the speechmaking and opening it up to more free discussion.

But Vatican insiders cautioned against expectations of a major enhancement of the synod's status. Several years ago, they pointed out, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he saw little point in granting decision-making powers to the synod and thus creating a "second Roman Curia."

The real Roman Curia is awaiting the first wave of significant appointments in Pope Benedict's young papacy. The pope's only major appointment so far came last May, when he named U.S. Archbishop William J. Levada to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The speculation about wholesale curial changes has been fueled by the fact that seven cardinal heads of major Vatican departments are past age 75, the normal retirement age. They include Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the 77-year-old secretary of state, and Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, 76, head of the Congregation for Clergy.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who served for many years at the Vatican, was mentioned in one press report as a candidate for the secretary of state job. But in a radio interview in early September, Archbishop Martin seemed to dismiss the report, saying he was happy in Dublin and had a busy work program there for the foreseeable future.

Another tantalizing rumor making the rounds is that Pope Benedict, never a fan of big church bureaucracy, wants to streamline the Vatican's departments, which have mushroomed in number over the last 35 years. Today, there are more than 35 Vatican agencies employing 2,660 people.

Many at the Vatican remember a speech Cardinal Ratzinger gave at the 1998 Synod of Bishops for Asia, in which he warned that too many institutions could make the church immobile.

"The only institutional element always necessary for the church is what was given by the Lord, that is, the sacramental structure of the people of God," he said at the time.

It took Pope John Paul more than 10 years to devise a mini-reform of the Roman Curia. The expectation is that Pope Benedict may work faster and more substantially, combining some agencies when necessary. One scenario has the Pontifical Council for the Laity being elevated to a Congregation, absorbing the Pontifical Council for the Family.

The Pontifical Council for Culture could also be subsumed by the Congregation for Catholic Education. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace could be combined with the Pontifical Council "Cor Unum," which coordinates charity efforts.

And once again there is talk of creating a "superdicastery" that would oversee all Vatican communications, including Vatican Radio, Vatican publishing operations, and the Vatican's press office, Internet office and television station.

"Some Vatican agencies exist without a precise assignment, so it's a question of efficiency. It's also a question of cost," said one informed Vatican source.

"But if the pope does make the changes, it will be done in a way that doesn't injure people and upset things. People talk of an earthquake ahead, but earthquake is not Pope Benedict's style," the source said.

The pope will canonize five new saints in late October, and the announcement prompted some observers to predict another "saint-making" pope in the style of Pope John Paul. But that analysis was premature; Pope Benedict will simply be officiating at the canonizations set in motion by his predecessor.

The new pope, in fact, is gradually putting his own stamp on the papacy, and some at the Vatican believe the naming of a new batch of cardinals this fall would accelerate that process.

But many Vatican officials expect him to bide his time. At present, there are eight "vacancies" in the voting-age members of the College of Cardinals, which has a theoretical limit of 120. If the pope waits until next spring, the number of vacancies would increase to at least 12; by the fall of 2006, there would be at least 16 openings.

Whenever he does name new cardinals, a Vatican official said, one thing can be certain: The pope made the decision himself.


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