ROME – Under ordinary circumstances, the sentence I’m about to write would be utterly unnecessary and, honestly, not just a little bit embarrassing: I want to tell you about the new bishop Rome got this week, who was nominated in late April and consecrated last Sunday.
Generally, when Vatican-watchers start talking about a new bishop in Rome, it’s because a new pope has been elected – and the idea that the world would be waiting several days for me, or anyone else, to fill in the biographical gaps is silly, because that’s not how an instantaneous, 24/7 news cycle operates. By now, you’d know everything there is to know about the new bishop, plus much more beyond.
In this case, however, we’re not talking about the Bishop of Rome, but a bishop, specifically the most recent Auxiliary Bishop of Rome serving under Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, the pope’s vicar for the eternal city: Bishop Benoni Ambarus, who’s almost universally known around town as “Don Ben.”
The selection of an auxiliary bishop in a diocese doesn’t really carry any direct consequences anywhere else, and even on the bishop’s home turf it can be hit and miss. Honestly, ask yourself: How many Catholics, even regular Mass-goers, in, say, Los Angeles, or Paris, or Rio de Janeiro, could actually name all their auxiliary bishops?
Nevertheless, any personnel move in Rome is important in two senses: First, one can assume the pope was personally involved, at least at the level of being informed and approving the choice; Second, Pope Francis takes his responsibilities as a local bishop seriously, and thus even who gets tapped as an auxiliary bishop here has tone-setting significance.
Ambarus is an immigrant, part of an estimated 1.5 million people from his native Romania now living in Italy, forming the largest Romanian community anywhere in the world outside the country itself. He arrived in Rome to study in 1996, just ahead of a major wave of immigration in 1999 when the EU began making it easier for Romanians to settle. Most chose either Italy or Spain, since those romance languages are closest to Romanian.
Ambarus first got a bachelor’s degree at Rome’s Major Seminary and was ordained a priest, then moved to the Jesuit-run Gregorian University for graduate studies. After that, he was named to a series of positions in the local church, where he earned a reputation as competent, calm, affable, and generous – in other words, the kind of guy nobody wants to see go, and so he stayed.
I first met Don Ben – I guess now I’ll have to get used to calling him “Monsignore,” though he may shun the honorific – in May 2013, when he was the new pastor at Sts. Elizabeth and Zacharia Parish in the city’s Valle Muricana neighborhood, technically outside the city limits to the far north but part of the vast urban sprawl that surrounds Rome.
It’s an area with a large immigrant population featuring illegal or semi-legal dwellings, and is legendary for its toxic combination of poverty, neglect by city officials, unemployed and aimless youth, drugs and crime.
One local writer, at around the time Ambarus was named pastor, referred to Valle Muricana as the “Kabul of Rome,” and he didn’t intend it to be a flattering comparison.
When news broke Francis had chosen Sts. Elizabeth and Zacharia for his first visit to a parish as the Bishop of Rome, I sensed a story: An immigrant pastor receives an immigrant pope, providing him a platform for his pro-immigrant message. When I pitched Ambarus, however, he wasn’t interested. The story wasn’t about him, he said, it was about the people of the neighborhood.
Four years later, Ambarus was named the vice-director of Rome’s branch of Caritas, the Catholic charitable organization. One year after that he became the director, which means that for the last three years, Ambarus has been in charge of a ministry for which the pope has a passionate interest, in a city for which the pope has direct pastoral responsibility.
It’s also meant that Ambarus has played a lead role in shaping the local church’s response to the Covid crisis, working to balance the provision of traditional charitable services while also responding to the new needs generated by the pandemic, including the isolation and impoverishment of a large share of the city’s elderly population.
Thus it wasn’t a great surprise when news broke that Ambarus had been tapped as an auxiliary bishop, with special responsibility for immigrants and Catholic charities. His response was typically self-deprecating: “I was only supposed to be in Rome four years, and now a foreign priest, a Romanian Roman, is an auxiliary bishop in Rome! I guess these are the Lord’s jokes,” he said.
“In these years, I’ve had the privilege of living the ministry of diocesan charity, and … I’ve learned what it means to be missing something, to be a beggar, and also what it means to cry out in prayer and to wait for salvation, what it means to truly believe and trust,” Amabrus said in a brief statement on the web site of the Rome diocese.
“At the same time, I’ve also learned from the poor, the true teachers of life, that every death and every fall is a guarantee of resurrection, of salvation,” he said.
That, in short, is a portrait of a Pope Francis bishop – and at just 46, there’s a fairly good chance Ambarus will be extending this pope’s imprint on the church for a long time to come.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.