An Italian prelate, who was at the center of a controversy in November 2015 for allegedly expressing a desire to see Pope Francis die, resigned on Wednesday and was replaced by a cleric known for his advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees.
Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara, who turned 75 last November, marking the age at which bishops are required to submit their resignations to the pope, had been named to head the northern Italian archdiocese, located in Lombardy, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
A veteran of the influential Catholic movement “Communion and Liberation,” Negri has long been seen as one of the leaders of the conservative wing of the Italian bishops.
In November 2015, a national controversy erupted when the Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano ran a front-page story based on what it described as eyewitness accounts of a conversation Negri was alleged to have had one month before aboard a train to Rome with his priest-secretary.
In it, the 74-year-old prelate supposedly said he hoped the Madonna would work a miracle and cause Pope Francis to die, referring to the example of Pope John Paul I, who died after just 33 days. Allegedly, Negri also had some harsh things to say about bishops’ appointments by Francis in the Italian dioceses of Bologna and Palermo. (In both cases, the pontiff tapped men seen as center-left to replace figures perceived as more conservative.)
None of the alleged eyewitnesses were named, and no one came forward to assert that he or she actually overheard the conversation. Negri initially denied the report strenuously, saying it was based on “inventions” so fantastic that the author needs “treatment for neuro-delusions,” and threatened legal action for defamation of character.
Later, Negri acknowledged having had the conversation, but insisted the “miracle” to which he referred was a reference to St. Pope John Paul II and the belief that the Madonna had redirected a bullet to save his life during the 1981 assassination attempt. Of the two bishops, he said he was making historical and cultural observations, not commenting on them personally.
Given Negri’s pedigree, however, many Italians found the sentiments expressed in the report at least plausible.
Negri was once the right-hand man of Don Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion and Liberation, which was launched in Milan in the early 20th century and at one time seen as sort of rival camp to the progressive leadership of the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. (When news of Negri’s alleged comments first broke, the movement issued a statement indicating he hadn’t held any position of responsibility in it since 2005 and professing its loyalty to “every gesture and word” of Pope Francis.)
In Italian politics, Negri is viewed as supportive of former conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He’s also among the most staunchly pro-life prelates in the country, declaring he would not give Communion to center-left Italian Catholic politicians who support civil unions for same-sex couples.
When Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia appeared in 2016, Negri was among those bishops who insisted it did not open the door to reception of Communion by divorced and civilly remarried couples, saying, “If he personally thinks that and hasn’t yet said it, let’s wait to see when he says it, but we can’t say he’s already said it when he hasn’t!”
Negri’s replacement in Cremona, by all appearances, is a bishop more in the Pope Francis mold.
Giancarlo Perego, 56, previously served as director of a foundation called “Migrantes,” which is the official agency of the Italian bishops’s conference designed to serve migrants and refugees. He’s also the editor of a magazine published by the foundation, and has been a consulter to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees that’s been absorbed by the new Dicastery for Integral Human Development.
Prior to that, Perego was a longtime leader in Italian Catholic charities, holding a series of positions with Caritas.
In Cremona, Perego inherits a region of Italy occasionally known for anti-immigrant sentiment. The archdiocese includes two small towns, Goro and Gorino, which made headlines in 2016 for putting up barricades against 12 refugees attempting to enter, including a pregnant woman and eight children.