When Father Juan Antonio Guerrero was announced as the new head of the Secretariat for the Economy, a collective ‘huh?’ could probably be heard across Rome.

The Spanish Jesuit is not a Vatican veteran and has only been in Rome for about two years, where he oversaw the various Jesuit institutions located in and around the Italian capital. He had previously been serving in Mozambique.

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There had been speculation a layperson would get the role, with the name of Claudia Ciocca, the current Director of Control and Vigilance of the Secretariat for the Economy, being floated in the press.

Guerrero’s appointment came as a complete shock.

He arrives at the Secretariat at a time of disarray. It has been without an effective head for two years, since its former prefect, Cardinal George Pell, returned to Australia in 2017 to fight charges of historic child abuse. (Pell was convicted but has appealed his decision to Australia’s highest court.)

Even before Pell left the scene, Vatican watchers felt the cardinal was being increasingly side-lined, and that the Australian’s efforts to strongarm other Vatican offices into transparency and cost-cutting had failed.

Also in 2017, the Vatican’s first auditor general, Libero Milone, was fired after being accused of spying on the dealings of his superiors; he later claimed the Vatican’s “old guard” pushed him out to protect themselves from the effects of financial reforms.

This summer, a series of financial scandals have rocked the Vatican.

In October, the Vatican Gendarmes raided the offices of the powerful Secretariat of State. According to the Financial Times, the raid was connected to a $200 million shadowy property investment in London. When the Italian newsweekly L’Espresso leaked a memo from the Vatican police barring five employees from entering Vatican territory, it led to the resignation of the long-serving head of the gendarmes, Domenico Giani.

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The London deal was overseen by then-Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, at the time the pope’s “substitute,” or chief of staff. Becciu is now a cardinal, and the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The Vatican is also facing a huge budget deficit, made worse by a drop in donations from the faithful in response to the sexual abuse scandal.

In other words, it wasn’t too soon to finally get a hand on the rudder of the Vatican’s main financial office.

But the question is, how firm a hand will Guerrero be able to apply?

Pell, although not having served in the Vatican Curia before taking over the newly created Secretariat, was no stranger to Curial politics. As a cardinal, he was in Rome several times a year, and served on the Vatican’s main economic advisory board.

Most importantly, Pell was appointed to Francis’s powerful C9 Council of Cardinal Advisors.

Even with these credentials, many of Pell’s reforms were reversed – including a downsizing of APSA, the office that serves as the Vatican’s central bank and manages its vast real estate holdings, and the cancelling of a full external audit of the Vatican’s finances by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

It has been announced that Guerrero will not even be made a bishop, at the request of Father Arturo Sosa, the Venezuelan head of the Jesuit order.

Although a good case can be made that Vatican office heads don’t need fancy titles, the fact remains that the Church is hierarchical, and even bishops are a dime a dozen in Rome: Even the secretaries at Vatican congregations are archbishops.

This could be especially an issue at the Secretariat for the Economy. Since it has been without a permanent head, rumors have abounded of other offices just ignoring the Secretariat’s directives.

The announcement that a “mere priest” will be taking over the office could be seen as a signal that the office has been permanently cut down to size, and need not be feared by profligate officials.

For Guerrero to be able to do his job, he will need strong signs of papal backing – including frequent mentions in the Bulletino, which lists the pope’s meetings.

More importantly, the Spanish Jesuit needs a “win.”

Nothing will tell the world – and the Roman Curia – that the Secretariat for the Economy is once a gain a force to be reckoned with more than if it comes up on top on an issue of transparency or accountability, especially if it shows it can exert its authority over the seemingly all-powerful Vatican Secretariat of State.

The London real estate shenanigans could be a good place to start.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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