ROME – Generally speaking, only three things happen in Rome on Sundays: Mass, lunch and soccer. Thus it was a bit of a surprise last Sunday to see the Vatican announce a personnel move, in this case the pope’s nomination of a new cerimoniere, meaning an official who assists the pope in his liturgies and public events.
Monsignor Lubomir Welnitz of Slovakia, previously an official of the Apostolic Penitentiary (which, despite its name, is a court handling matters of conscience rather than a jail), was tapped as one of eight cerimonieri, also known as “masters of pontifical ceremonies,” who work under the direction of the pope’s Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations, presently Italian Monsignor Guido Marini.
At the penitentiary, Welnitz acted as secretary to Italian Cardinal Mauro Piacenza. He studied canon law at Rome’s Dominican-run Angelicum University, with a thesis in 2013 on the suppression and consolidation of parishes and the reduction of churches for profane use.
The new position isn’t terribly significant in itself, though it does imply some degree of proximity to the pope – and in the royal court of the Vatican, that’s no small thing. Drilling down, however, this relatively small step illustrates a few bigger points.
Welnitz becomes one of two Slovakians among the eight cerimoneri, with the other being Monsignor Ján Dubina, who, among other things, accompanied Francis in 2015 on his Holy Thursday visit to Rome’s Rebibbia prison to wash the feet of twelve male and female inmates. That same year, Dubina was also responsible for the fact that the pope’s Good Friday procession in the Roman Colosseum was illustrated by paintings from the Church of the Virgin Mary of the Seven Sorrows in Pohorelá.
Welnitz and Dubina thus may be candidates one day to become the new Cardinal Jozef Tomko, by far the important Slovakian in Rome during his long run from 1985 to 2001 as the head of the Vatican’s missionary department and later as the head of the Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses from 2001 to 2007.
Arguably, however, the Slovakian prelate with which Welnitz is more associated is Bishop Pavol Hnilica, a Jesuit like Pope Francis, who was consecrated clandestinely in 1951 during the Soviet era. In turn, Hnilica secretly ordained another Jesuit named Ján Chryzostom Korec, whom John Paul would eventually appoint as a cardinal. Korec spent 39 years of his life working as a priest in secret, either in prison or supporting himself as a laborer.
At the request of Pope Paul VI, now St. Paul VI, in 1968, Hnilica founded a lay association called the Pia Unione Pro Fratribus, with the aim of offering material and spiritual help to the persecuted churches of Eastern Europe under Communist rule. Later it would be renamed the “Family of Mary” and spawn a couple of religious orders, including “The Work of Jesus the High Priest” to which Welnitz belongs.
(Later, Hnilica would be convicted by an Italian court of fraud in 1983 related to scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, though that verdict was overturned on appeal with a higher court ruling that Hnilica acted under duress.)
Three quick thoughts about all this suggest themselves.
First, though Welnitz is not a Jesuit, through Hnilica and Korec he’s got a sort of Jesuit pedigree. Indirectly, he thus joins a growing group of the people close to the pope with Jesuit ties, from Father Antonio Spadaro at the Jesuit-edited Civilità Cattolica to Cardinal Michael Czerny on migrant and refugee issues, and from Cardinal Luis Ladaria at the Vatican’s doctrinal office to Father Juan Guerrero Alves heading the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy (and playing an increasingly central role in the next phase of the pope’s attempts at financial reform.)
Every pope over time tries to surround himself with people he can trust, and it’s probably natural that the longer Francis is in power, the more inclined he is to turn to people from his own networks.
Second, it’s striking to think about a pope turning to a cleric from Slovakia to work under an Italian, joining a team that contains five Italians, another Slovakian, and a Pole. All in, that’s nine Europeans to organize public liturgies for a pope from Argentina who leads a church with more than two-thirds of its membership hailing from outside the West.
With no disrespect at all to Welnitz, who seems abundantly qualified (if not over-qualified) for the role, it does suggest that the much-vaunted “internationalization” of the Vatican, which has been talked about since the era of Paul VI, remains a work in progress.
Third, Welnitz comes from a church where persecution and even martyrdom for the faith isn’t just a dusty artifact of history, though the first-hand witnesses of those chapters of history are slowly disappearing – Hnilica, for example, died in 2006, Korec in 2015.
When John Paul II traveled to Slovakia in 2003, I met a Jesuit priest in Trnava named Father Rajmund Ondrus, who was sent in 1950 for 40 months in a forced labor camp — called, in the euphemistic fashion of the Soviet system, an “auxiliary technical battalion.” In May 1960, he was sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in clandestine theological studies, and he was forced to work in a factory.
Ondrus was a beloved figure at his Jesuit parish in Trnava, yet when I met a group of active young Catholic there, none of them had ever heard him speak of his experiences, and most said it wouldn’t occur to them to ask because they saw the Communist period as “ancient history.”
In other words, there’s a generation of testimony from contemporary martyrs at risk of being lost – and if having a Slovak cleric with Jesuit connections close to the pope can help serve as a reminder of the imperative of preserving it, so much the better.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.