In late April, Bishop Nunzio Galantino visited the southern Italian town of Lamezia Terme in the region of Calabria, one of the most impoverished and mafia-infested zones of the country, to consecrate a new church.
Galantino, 67, told the small crowd that there’s something ironic about dedicating a church building under a pope whose repeated call is to get out of the sacristy and into the street, meeting people where they are.
“Woe to those who close themselves up in church and don’t hear the cry of the least among us, those who suffer, those who can’t make it on their own,” he said.
“It’s almost paradoxical that a church is being built here in order to teach us to stand outside it, to stand with the people and next to those who are forgotten, as Pope Francis always exhorts.”
It would be tempting to regard such a declaration as hardly newsworthy outside of southern Italy, except for the following: If you’re seeking the prototypical “Pope Francis bishop,” you need look no further than Nunzio Galantino.
Francis stunned the Italian clerical establishment in December 2013 when he named Galantino, at the time the shepherd of the obscure diocese of Cassano all’Jonio in Calabria, as the secretary of the über-powerful Italian bishops’ conference, known by its acronym of CEI.
At the time Galantino had only been bishop in Cassano all’Jonio for two years, and nobody ever confused that job with a launching pad to prominence.
Earlier in 2013, Francis had asked the president of CEI, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, to poll the bishops about candidates for the secretary’s position. Bagnasco offered a complete list of all the Italian bishops and whom they had flagged. A few men emerged as consensus candidates, while Galantino reportedly had only one vote from almost 500 prelates.
Nevertheless, Francis bypassed the advice he himself had requested and decided Galantino was his man, taking the unusual step of writing to the people of the diocese to “ask permission” to borrow their bishop. Four months later, Francis named Galantino to a full five-year term.
Italy is the only country in the world in which the president and secretary of the bishops’ conference are appointed directly by the pope, reflecting the intimate connection between the papacy and il bel paese. Further, because Francis’ grandparents were Italian immigrants and Italian is really the only language in which he’s truly comfortable beyond Spanish, he takes Italian affairs extraordinarily seriously.
Galantino, in other words, wasn’t an accident – he was a carefully considered, symbolically charged personal choice by the pope.
What did Francis see that he liked?
Well, probably for one thing the fact that when Galantino was named a bishop in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI, he asked that whatever money people would have spent buying him gifts for the occasion be used instead to serve the poor.
For others, Galantino opted to live at the diocesan seminary rather than the bishop’s palace in Cassano all’Jonio, he didn’t want either a secretary or a chauffeur, and he asked people to call him “Don Nunzio” rather than “His Excellency.”
In other words, he was the “Pope Francis of Calabria” before Francis was even elected.
Since Galantino stepped onto the national stage, he’s stirred the waters repeatedly.
In May 2014, he riled conservatives by saying, “My wish for the Italian Church is that it is able to listen without any taboo to the arguments in favor of married priests, the Eucharist for the divorced, and homosexuality.”
Prior to the pope’s first Synod of Bishops on the family, Galantino appeared to align himself with progressives seeking to open the door to Communion for the divorced and remarried, saying, “The burden of exclusion from the sacraments is an unjustified price to pay, in addition to de facto discrimination.”
Galantino irritated cultural conservatives again in June 2015 by appearing to throw cold water on a lay-organized rally called “Family Day,” staged to protest a draft civil unions law.
Two months later, Galantino was forced to pull out of a scheduled appearance in Trent at the last minute due to controversy over his sharp rhetoric on immigration. In an interview with Vatican Radio 10 days before, Galantino had complained about politicians who act like “peanut venders … who in order to get votes say extraordinarily stupid things.”
In a different interview, Galantino had accused the Italian government of lacking a coherent strategy for integrating immigrants: “It’s not enough just to save migrants at sea in order to soothe the national conscience,” he said.
Naturally, many of the country’s politicians, who feel that Italy is already doing far more than its fair share to shoulder Europe’s refugee crisis, weren’t pleased.
In other words, Galantino is very much like his sponsor, Pope Francis – highly visible, ever-quotable, and often controversial. Like Francis himself much of the time, Galantino comes off as a plain-spoken country pastor with a big megaphone.
He’s become a go-to figure for interpreting Francis. Last week, he and the left-wing, non-believing Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari, who’s had a series of chats with Francis, were on stage at Rome’s Teatro Eliseo for a conversation about the pontiff sponsored by the Italian edition of the Huffington Post.
The evening’s host, Lucia Annunziata, framed things this way:
“Nunzio Galantino is the living proof of the Bergoglio method,” she said, using Pope Francis’ given name. “[Galantino] was the last on the list of bishops indicated” for the secretary’s job, she said, “and the pope chose him.”
Recently, there’s been speculation that Galantino’s lighting-rod status may be wearing a bit thin, even with his mentor. When a second “Family Day” rally was staged in January, the perception was that Galantino dialed down his antipathy because Francis sent signals of support, and Galantino also seemed concerned to be perceived as on the same page with Bagnasco during Italy’s debate over its new civil unions law.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt on one point: Without Pope Francis, few people outside of southern Italy probably ever would have heard or seen Bishop Nunzio Galantino, while today he’s become one of the most consequential Catholic prelates in the world.
In that sense, to find the “Francis effect” in action, he’s about as clear an example as we’ll ever get.