Many Catholics have a gut instinct that something revolutionary is afoot in the Church under Pope Francis, but for many, its precise contours remain a bit unclear. Perhaps one way to phrase it is that Francis is leading a “Pastoral Revolution.”
The pontiff has insisted that he has no intention of altering traditional Catholic doctrine, but he wants a more compassionate and merciful application of that teaching at the pastoral level, meaning in parishes and other local venues in the Church.
He also wants a socially engaged Church on a wide set of issues, rather than a narrow focus on what Americans know as the wars of culture.
That was the spirit, for instance, in which a recently concluded Synod of Bishops treated the contentious issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics – upholding traditional doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, but also appearing to leave a cautious opening for discernment about handling Communion privately on a case-by-case basis known as the “internal forum.”
Tuesday brought two more major steps in Italy for this “Pastoral Revolution,” as Francis tapped ideologically center-left clerics known for their social activism to head two of the country’s most important archdioceses in Bologna and Palermo.
Around the Catholic world, bishops’ appointments in Italy often are read as tone-setting moves for the entire Church, since pontiffs generally take a greater-than-average interest in their own backyard.
From a political point of view, the transition in Bologna is especially striking.
There, Francis replaced Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, 77, a longtime champion of the Church’s conservative wing and a leading opponent of an opening for the divorced and remarried, with 60-year-old Matteo Maria Zuppi, well-known in the city of Rome as a fixture in the center-left Community of Sant’Egidio, known for its work in ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and conflict resolution.
Zuppi sometimes has been dubbed the “Bergoglio of Italy,” a reference to the given name of Pope Francis.
For observers of Italian Catholic affairs, the move may be seen as tantamount to what happened in Chicago in September 2014, when Francis replaced the late Cardinal Francis George, who led the US bishops in their standoff with the Obama administration over contraception mandates, with the moderate Archbishop Blase Cupich.
Over the years, Zuppi has also been involved in some of Sant’Egidio’s best-known efforts at diplomatic troubleshooting, including playing a key role in negotiations that led to the end of a bloody civil war in Mozambique in 1992.
For his part in the peace talks, Zuppi was made an honorary citizen of Mozambique.
Zuppi also has organized a series of efforts in the city of Rome to provide care for the elderly, the poor, gypsies, and drug addicts, much of it centered in the Trastevere neighborhood where Sant’Egidio has its headquarters.
In Palermo, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Paolo Romeo, also 77, and tapped 53-year-old Corrado Lorefice, another figure well known in Italian ecclesiastical circles for his anti-Mafia activism, his efforts on behalf of the victims of prostitution and human trafficking, and his writings on the Church’s “option for the poor.”
Lorefice is known as a great admirer of the late Sicilian priest the Rev. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, who worked in a tough Palermo neighborhood called Brancaccio trying to keep young people out of organized crime and was shot to death by Mafia hitmen in 1993.
Puglisi was beatified, the final step toward sainthood, just two months after the election of Pope Francis in March 2013.
A teacher of moral theology, Lorefice has also written approvingly of the late Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, who was seen as a progressive leader during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Both Bologna and Palermo have traditionally been dioceses whose leaders automatically become cardinals. Pope Francis, however, appears to prefer to lift up new cardinals from traditionally neglected areas, so there’s no guarantee that either Zuppi or Lorefice will necessarily be inducted into the College of Cardinals.
However, given their relatively young age for senior churchmen (60 and 53, respectively), Zuppi and Lorefice are positioned to be points of reference on the Italian Catholic scene for some time to come, regardless of whether they receive the “red hat” designating them as cardinals.
The outgoing bishops, Caffarra and Romeo, were required under Church law to submit their resignations at age 75. (Many stay longer until the pope is ready to name a replacement.) As cardinals, they will remain active members of the College of Cardinals, eligible to enter a conclave and vote for a new pope until age 80.