ROME — Pope Francis on Wednesday named Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti as the new president of the Italian bishops’ conference, marking the elevation of a figure widely seen as a prelate cut from the same cloth as the present pontiff.
This was the first year a new mechanism was put into place to choose the president of the conference – usually referred to as the CEI, its Italian acronym – in which the bishops vote on three names to submit to the pope, who is free to choose from the list or pick another bishop entirely.
Historically, since the pope is primate of Italy, he has personally named the president of the conference.
The president of the Italian bishops’ conference is probably the most powerful such figure in the world. This is due both to his direct appointment by the pope, and because of the vital role the Church still plays in public affairs in Italy.
In general, the head of the Italian bishops’ conference is seen as an authoritative interpreter of the mind of the current pope in a pastoral key. That was the role played under St. John Paul II by Cardinal Camilo Ruini, for instance, and by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the exiting president of CEI, under Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
Bassetti, who was the first name on the list submitted by the bishops to the pontiff, long has been rumored to be Francis’s personal favorite to take up the position.
The Archbishop of Perugia-Città della Pieve was named a cardinal by Francis in 2014, the first leader from the diocese to get a red hat in a century.
He was also chosen by the pontiff to write the meditations for the Via Crucis on Good Friday in 2016.
The pope also recently confirmed him in his position, after Bassetti submitted his resignation on turning 75 last month.
Bassetti said he was grateful to the pontiff for the “courage he has shown” in allowing him to take on the responsibility in the “twilight” of his life.
“It is a sign that he believes in the ability of old people to dream,” the cardinal said.
Bassetti is actually older than his predecessor, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa, who has served as the president of CEI for over 10 years. Bagnasco has strongly denounced abortion in the past, and his vocal opposition to same-sex marriage has given rise both to death threats and a police guard.
Bassetti is seen as someone in the mold of Francis, and has often spoken about the plight of workers (which was also a concern of Bagnasco), and built up the Church’s social services in Perugia. He also decried social ills such as prostitution, gambling, and drug and alcohol abuse.
While serving as the president of the bishops’ conference of the Italian region of Umbria, he worked to help migrants and refugees in central Italy.
Bassetti has also often quoted Francis’s line about shepherds needing to have “the smell of the sheep,” and encouraged clergy to get among the people.
“The pope has recommended that we use our time for sharing, listening, creating, and consolation,” Bassetti told his fellow bishops on Wednesday. “That’s what we will try to do together.”
Like many bishops, Bassetti is difficult to pigeonhole as a liberal or conservative.
Shortly after becoming a cardinal, he invited Italian Cardinal Velasio De Paolis to give a speech which strongly criticized the proposal to let divorce and remarried Catholics receive communion.
The cardinal also has good relations with Catholics attached to the traditional Latin Mass in Perugia, and has even occasionally celebrated the old rite.
After his election, Bassetti said he does not have a program for his time in office, noting that “from the time I was a boy scout and a young priest, I have always been improvisational.”