US Catholics of all stripes should circle Feb. 9, 2016, on their calendars, because as of that date, the Vatican suddenly has become a much more difficult place for them to navigate.
Capping a long period of speculation, the Vatican announced Tuesday that American Monsignor Peter Wells, who has served in the Secretariat of State since 2002 and as assessor, or the No. 3 official, since 2009, has been named the new papal ambassador to South Africa and Botswana.
The appointment means that Wells has been raised to the rank of archbishop.
At one level, the move is clearly a promotion for Wells, who climbs the ranks of the hierarchy and becomes the Vatican’s point man in one of the most important nations on the continent where Catholicism is experiencing its greatest growth, and where many observers believe its future is being forged.
The Catholic bishops of Africa are entering a period of greater political and diplomatic assertiveness, working, among other things, toward observer status at the African Union, and Wells is well-equipped to support that effort.
They’re also becoming more assertive inside the Church, having played lead roles in each of the last two Synods of Bishops on the family, and Wells will be positioned to develop important lines of communication between the Africans and Rome. He’ll also help shape the next generation of African Catholic leaders by grooming future bishops.
All that said, Americans are going to miss Wells terribly in Rome.
As papal biographer and Catholic intellectual George Weigel put it to Crux on Tuesday, “He’s a very good priest and both South Africa and Botswana will be well-served by his ministry. But it’s also obvious that his departure will leave a very big American deficit at the senior levels of the Curia.”
Now 52, Wells was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and studied at both Saint Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and the Gregorian University in Rome before being ordained in 1991. Afterwards, he moved on to the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, obtaining a license in theology in 1992, and later would earn a doctorate in canon law from the Gregorian.
During that time, several things became clear: First, Wells has a facility with languages; second, he’s got a sharp mind and picks things up fast; and third, he’s got a stunning work ethic and the capacity to manage several complex projects at once.
On that basis, he was recruited into the Vatican’s diplomatic service. He put in a stint in Nigeria and then was recalled to Rome to work in the first section of the Secretariat of State, the department that deals with general Church affairs — meaning, pretty much, whatever’s bubbling at the moment. Since then, he’s held a series of progressively more responsible positions.
While that more or less covers his résumé, it doesn’t come close to capturing his role.
In reality, Wells has been the most important American in the Vatican for a long time, the official three straight popes would turn to when they had an especially thorny or complicated task. He’s also been the go-to contact for every American, for that matter every English-speaker, who washed up in Rome with a question to ask, a favor to request, or a cause to advance.
Need to get something to the pope? Talk to Wells. Need to enlist the Vatican as a co-sponsor in a project? Talk to Wells. Need to help somebody out of a personnel jam? Talk to … well, you get the idea.
To take a banal example, when a Chicago lawyer wanted to donate the Internet domain name “popefrancis.com” to the new pontiff, in 2013 he contacted then-Cardinal Francis George, who in turn called Wells. More substantively, secret cables revealed as part of the Wikileaks scandal show how much diplomats relied on Wells for readings of the Vatican’s take on sensitive issues, including the Church’s sexual abuse scandals.
I can testify from personal experience that I’ve had more conversations than I can count with American bishops about some problem they’re facing in the Vatican. Almost without fail, and irrespective of whether those bishops come off as liberal, conservative or something in between, the exchange would end in this phrase: “I guess I’ll have to talk to Wells.”
For Italians, speculation about who’s up and down in the Vatican is a favorite indoor sport, and today’s move may be read as a signal that Wells’ stock is down. Some may see it as a case of promoveatur ut amoveatur, a time-honored Latin phrase in Vatican circles that means “promoting in order to remove.”
There’s a perception that Francis has distanced himself a bit from the Anglo-Saxons in the system, and that power has shifted to Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state.
Yet there’s an interesting parallel, because more or less the same thing was said of Parolin himself when he was shipped off to become the papal ambassador in Venezuela in 2009. At the time, observers felt he had run afoul of the then-secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who was the right-hand man of Pope Benedict XVI.
After a new pope took over, Parolin was back and has become a steadily more key figure ever since.
Americans can dream that at some future point the same could happen to Wells, and he could become the first American to hold the secretary of state’s job, traditionally the Vatican’s “prime minister.”
In the meantime, Americans who have business in the Vatican will have to scramble to refill their smartphone contact lists, because for now, knowing who to call just became a whole lot more complicated.