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VATICAN LETTER Sep-1-2006 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

New beginnings: Italian cardinal to take over as secretary of state

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's papacy opens a new chapter Sept. 15, when Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone takes over as secretary of state.

It's arguably the pope's biggest appointment to date, and it reunites him with a man who for many years was his No. 2 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Does that mean the Vatican is about to turn into one great big doctrinal congregation? An Italian journalist dared to pose that question to Cardinal Bertone in August.

The cardinal didn't really answer, but he suggested the doctrinal experience wouldn't hurt in the great task of announcing the Gospel "in its entirety" in every country of the world.

Cardinal Bertone, 71, is at the center of what might be the longest and most scrutinized transition in Vatican history. The pope offered him the position last December, he mulled it over and accepted earlier this year, and the pope announced the appointment in June -- three months before it took effect.

Since then, the cardinal has given multiple interviews to Italian media, detailing his path to the priesthood, his career at the Vatican, his more recent role as archbishop of Genoa, Italy, and his opinions on everything from "The Da Vinci Code" to the situation in Lebanon.

Much has been made of the fact that Cardinal Bertone has no diplomatic training, unlike most previous secretaries of state. The cardinal admitted this could be a handicap, but he pointed out that the job is more than international relations.

"I hope to be able to help highlight the spiritual mission of the church, which transcends politics and diplomacy," he told the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.

That doesn't mean he will ignore international relations, the cardinal said, because the church must use every means possible in its mission. But he said he sees himself more as "secretary of the church" than "secretary of state."

To some observers, that kind of talk signals a potential shift in Vatican priorities. They think Pope Benedict's papacy may make less use of the diplomatic machinery that has worked closely with the international community for several decades.

Some Vatican insiders see in Cardinal Bertone a man of action, but wonder if he will have enough patience to occupy himself with the nuances of international affairs.

"Diplomacy is complicated. We're not sure what we're getting," said one Vatican official.

The secretary of state heads two main sections, a larger division devoted to internal church affairs and a smaller one that tracks international affairs and coordinates with apostolic nuncios all over the world.

A special secretary who coordinates the work of the international section is also being replaced, but the pope hasn't named the new appointee yet. Italian Archbishop Fortunato Baldelli, currently the nuncio in France, has been rumored as a candidate for the job.

Cardinal Bertone has long been a favorite of the Italian press. He is tall, quotable and gregarious, describing himself as a "friend-maker." He prides himself on good relations with the media and even considers it part of his Salesian vocation.

While he has never worked in the Vatican's diplomatic sector, he has been employed as a type of roving troubleshooter: He flew to Havana in 2005 for talks with Cuban President Fidel Castro; in 2002, he convinced Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo to give up the idea of marriage and reconcile with the pope; and he met with a Fatima visionary, Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, when he coordinated the publication of the third secret of Fatima in 2000, another delicate task.

The archbishop also has traveled extensively, including one visit to China, so he is no stranger to foreign affairs of state or the universal affairs of the church.

Cardinal Bertone has made clear that he is not coming into the job with his own agenda. As he put it in one interview, the secretary of state should above all be "a man loyal to the pope," someone who executes the pope's projects and not his own.

One criticism of the Secretariat of State sometimes heard in Rome -- and strongly denied by those who work there -- is that in recent decades the office has become too autonomous. Especially in Pope John Paul II's later years, there were murmurings that the outgoing secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, was running his own diplomatic enterprise.

In his comments to date, Cardinal Bertone has not indicated any major shifts in Vatican foreign policy. He commented that the dramatic situation in Iraq, for example, had demonstrated that the Vatican's warnings against the war were prophetic.

On Lebanon, Cardinal Bertone said Vatican officials were right to press for an immediate cease-fire and that the delay in reaching it cost many lives and much suffering.

He has supported the Vatican's varied efforts to promote peace and justice in the world, emphasizing that the church's social and political work is part of its main mission: announcing Christ as savior to the world.

The cardinal's acknowledged "weak point" is that he doesn't speak English. He said he told the pope immediately about this shortcoming, and the pope told him not to worry -- that a lot of important people don't know English, including former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

And in any case, the pope added, the Vatican has an excellent team of translators.


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