Pope Francis continued his moderate makeover of the senior leadership of the Catholic Church on Friday, announcing key appointments for two major European archdioceses. In both cases, the pontiff tapped pastorally-minded figures not seen as either political or theological conservatives.
In Barcelona, Spain, Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal Lluís Martínez Sistach, 78, and replaced him with 69-year-old Archbishop Juan José Omella Omella. In Brussels, Belgium, the pope accepted the resignation of Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard, 75, and put in his place Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, 68.
The move in Brussels will strike Church-watchers as especially significant, given that Léonard had carried the reputation of being one of the most staunchly conservative prelates to head a major European archdiocese. He was appointed in 2010 under Pope Benedict XVI, replacing Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who was seen as a leading progressive.
(Danneels’ term ended in controversy amid allegations that he tried to cover up sexual abuse allegations against a fellow Belgian prelate. He remains in good standing with Pope Francis, who named Danneels as a participant in the recent Synod of Bishops on the family.)
Léonard is known to be a devotee of the Latin Mass, often referred to as the “Tridentine Rite,” and a supporter of traditionally-minded Catholic groups that foster its celebration. He’s also known for his outspoken opposition to homosexuality, for instance, saying in 2010 that he regards HIV/AIDS as “intrinsic justice.”
On the basis of such comments, Léonard was investigated at one point for homophobia under a 2003 anti-discrimination act in Belgium, but a court held in 2009 that his statements weren’t severe enough to warrant prosecution.
In that context, De Kesel represents a clear change in tone.
Known as a protégé of Danneels, De Kesel told reporters in a Friday news conference announcing his appointment that “I’m for the separation of Church and state” – a reference to complaints against Léonard from secular critics that he sought to impose Catholic morality through the civil law.
At the same time, De Kesel said, “I’m not for the separation of the Church from society.” That will likely be seen as an echo of criticism of Léonard that he cut off lines of communication with Belgium’s strongly secular culture.
Asked about gay people, De Kesel said, “I have much respect for gays,” including “their way of living their sexuality.”
While that statement may be open to interpretation, it certainly will be seen as far more gay-friendly than Léonard.
It’s also worth noting that Francis decided to accept Léonard’s resignation shortly after his 75th birthday in May. Often archbishops of major dioceses are kept on for a few years after reaching the usual retirement age, suggesting the pontiff may have been anxious to make a change.
In Barcelona, Martínez Sistach did not carry the same reputation as a staunch cultural conservative, which may explain why he was left in place for three and a half years after turning 75. His replacement is seen as, if anything, slightly more moderate.
Some observers describe Omella as “the Maradiaga of Spain,” referring to Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, the coordinator of the pope’s council of cardinal advisors and a figure widely seen as progressive and social justice-oriented.
Omella shares much of Francis’ practical agenda. In his previous diocese of Calahorra, for instance, he set aside two church properties for the care of refugees, with 170 spaces in all. Early in his career, he spent a year as a missionary in then-Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Notably, Omella speaks fluent Catalan, the language of the region of which Barcelona is the capital, but he’s not himself Catalonian. As a result, some observers believe he may be able to keep his distance from the ongoing political debate in Catalonia on whether or not to assert independence from Spain.
In tandem with the October 2014 appointment of Archbishop Carlos Osoro Sierra in Madrid, Friday’s move means that the top two positions in the Spanish hierarchy are now held by men who share the pastorally-oriented and politically moderate outlook Francis appears to want in senior leaders.
Friday’s nominations also build on similar recent moves in Italy, where Francis tapped new leaders for Bologna and Palermo.
As in Brussels, the transition in Bologna involved a shift from a strong cultural conservative in Cardinal Carlo Caffarra to new Archbishop Matteo Maria Zuppi, well-known in Rome as a fixture of the social justice-oriented Community of Sant’Egidio.
As a rule, nothing any pope ever does is more consequential in terms of shaping the Church in his time than the appointment of bishops.
In terms of Francis’ hiring policy, the European twin bill on Friday added clarity to what had already seemed a fairly firm bottom line – cultural warriors, especially the sort who tend to be heroes to ardent Catholic traditionalists, need not apply.