ROME – Big moments on the Vatican beat are revealing on multiple levels, and certainly the release of a major new papal document is such a moment. Often, it’s not just what the document says that has something to teach us, but also who helped the pope say it and present it to the world.
On that front, Monday was highly instructive indeed, in that it introduced 64-year-old Italian Archbishop Angelo De Donatis, the pope’s Vicar of Rome, as a rising star in the pope’s personal galaxy.
For a veteran observer of the Vatican scene, the first thing that seemed striking about the news conference held by the Vatican on Monday to present Gaudate et Exsultate, the pope’s new apostolic exhortation on holiness, was the absence of a single official from any Vatican office in the line-up of presenters.
The people charged with presenting Gaudate et Exsultate, in addition to De Donatis, were Paola Bignardi, head of the widespread lay movement Azione Cattolica, and Gianni Valente, a well-known Italian journalist and personal friend of Pope Francis.
In the past, it would have been unthinkable for a major papal teaching document to be released without someone from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, usually its cardinal-prefect, on hand to provide theological context. Generally, the head of the department that most helped the pope in shaping the document would be there too.
Even in the Pope Francis era, at least that second custom has been honored. When his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium was released in November 2013, Archbishops Rino Fisichella, Claudio Celli, and Lorenzo Baldisseri (subsequently named a cardinal) all had a bite at the apple in the Vatican news conference. When his other previous apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia was presented in 2016, although most of the heavy lifting was performed by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, at least Baldisseri was on hand.
Francis, however, has a well-demonstrated penchant for working around Vatican departments as much as he works through them, and Monday’s press conference seemed a case in point.
Instead of a Vatican heavyweight, there was De Donatis. When he was rather bluntly asked what he was doing there, De Donatis smiled and conceded that “it was a surprise” to him too when Francis called to ask him to deliver the presentation.
Vatican spokesman Greg Burke largely brushed off the question about why De Donatis was present, saying, “He is the Vicar of His Holiness, after all.”
In all honesty, it’s not as if key Vatican dicasteries were completely sidelined in the preparation of Gaudete et Exsultate. Archbishop Luis Ladaria, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was involved in reviewing drafts, and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development under Cardinal Peter Turkson helped organize Monday’s presentation.
That said, it should have been clear by now that Pope Francis likes what he sees in De Donatis, whom he first met early in his papacy during a lunch with ten well-known Roman priests hosted by Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the “substitute,” or number two official, in the Secretariat of State.
Born in 1954, De Donatis is actually a native of the southern Italian province of Lecce, with his family coming from a town called Casarano. In 1983, however, De Donatis was incardinated into the Diocese of Rome, where he began working as an archivist in the office of the Secretary of the College of Cardinals.
In 1990, he was appointed director of the Office for Clergy within the Vicariate of Rome, the structure that runs the Diocese of Rome in the name of the pope. He also became the spiritual director at the Major Roman Seminary, where he earned a reputation as a gifted former of future clergy.
The real turning point for De Donatis came in 2014, after that chance lunch meeting with the pontiff, when Francis tapped him to lead the annual Lenten retreat of the Roman Curia held in Arricia, outside Rome, on the theme of “Purification of Hearts.”
“Maybe on that occasion, a deep sharing [of outlook] was born,” De Donatis said on Monday with respect to his experience of the pope on that 2014 retreat.
Francis was impressed with what he heard, including De Donatis’s emphasis on the need to eliminate “false images of God” for the heart in order to undertake an authentic spiritual path – an idea, of course, which also figures prominently in Gaudate et Exsultate.
From that point forward, De Donatis’s rise has been swift. Francis named him an Auxiliary Bishop of Rome in September 2015 with special responsibility for the formation of clergy, a position which was created especially for him. In June 2016, the pontiff asked De Donatis to lead the reflections for a special “Jubilee of Priests” celebrated that year.
He’s also seen as having a strong rapport with youth. De Donatis used to lead a prayer vigil in Rome’s Basilica of San Marco, located in the central Piazza Venezia, and packed in 300 to 400 young people each time, many of whom actually brought their own chairs for the event.
An attentive reading of De Donatis’s writings show clear resonance with many of Francis’s key themes. In a 2016 essay on mercy, for instance, De Donatis wrote, “Certain triumphalistic visions of the Church and of God must give way to the courage [of a choice] in favor of weakness and humility.”
In May 2017, Francis once again showed his favor, naming De Donatis to succeed Cardinal Agostino Vallini as Vicar General of Rome.
(Under another pope, the fact De Donatis hasn’t been made a cardinal might have been considered a semi-snub, since it’s been more than 500 years since the Pope’s Vicar of Rome hasn’t also been a Prince of the Church. Given the love/hate relationship Francis has with ecclesiastical honors, however, the fact he hasn’t yet given De Donatis a red hat could well be, if anything, a further sign of esteem.)
Although it depends a bit on the occupant, the role of Vicar of Rome can be an important one indeed. When it was held by the legendary Cardinal Camillo Ruini in the St. Pope John Paul II years, the vicar was a key architect of papal strategy, and Ruini dominated the Italian ecclesiastical scene for a generation.
Ironically, one key part of Ruini’s legacy was an emphasis on valori non-negoziabili, “non-negotiable values,” meaning certain social priorities, usually in the realm of bioethics, which were seen as more important than others – precisely the sort of single-issue approach rejected in Gaudate et Exsultate, especially its crucial paragraph #101.
Some Italians today may be wondering if, in De Donatis, Pope Francis has found his Ruini – and, however apples-and-oranges that comparison may seem, the mere fact that question would occur to anyone is proof positive this is one prelate worth keeping an eye on.