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ROME – By an order of magnitude, the most public position in the Catholic Church, and certainly the one with the greatest responsibility, is the papacy. Nothing else comes close, but in a distant second place one might put the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State, perhaps followed by the cardinal-archbishops of major metropolitan areas such as Paris, London, and New York.
Public exposure, however, is only one measure of the difficulty of a job. If we want to talk about how challenging a particular gig is, a strong case can be made that the single toughest assignment in the Catholic Church belongs to the sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
The sostituto – technically, the sostituto per affari generali – is, effectively, the pope’s chief of staff, and by tradition the only official in the Vatican with the right to see the pope without an appointment. On most days, it’s the sostituto who does the leg work for about 90 percent of the decisions a pope has to make. In the 20th century, two former sostituti went on to become popes, Benedict XV and Paul VI. Most of the rest became enormously influential cardinals, including Alfredo Ottaviani, Domenico Tardini, Govanni Benelli, and, more recently, Giovanni Battista Re.
All this comes to mind in light of the most recent testimony by Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the star defendant in the Vatican’s “Trial of the Century” related to an ill-fated $400 million land deal in London. Becciu, a former sostituto himself, testified for the third and, presumably, final time before the court this past week.
At the same time, Cecilia Marogna, a security consultant linked to Becciu, also deposited a 20-page statement to the court. Marogna had acted on behalf of the Vatican, with Becciu’s involvement, in securing the freedom of a Colombian nun kidnapped by jihadists in Mali in 2017 and liberated after more than four years in 2021. Pope Francis, according to previous testimony by Becciu, had authorized paying a ransom of up to $1 million to secure Sister Gloria Cecilia Narvaez.
Taking Becciu’s testimony and Marogna’s document together, we get a picture of the range of things a sostituto has to deal with. None of this has anything to do with whether Becciu is innocent or guilty of the crimes with which he’s been charged, or the larger question of whether he was suited to the position with which he was invested under two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, but it does provide an unusual glimpse into the job itself.
To begin with, Becciu testified regarding a business proposition brought to him by a financier named Antonio Mosquito – honest to God, I’m not making this up, his name is “Mosquito” – whom he had come to know while Becciu was the papal ambassador in Angola. Basically, it involved the possibility of investing roughly $250 million in an oil extraction project in Angola, which the Vatican eventually declined after due diligence efforts failed to provide the needed assurances of return on investment.
It was that failure that, among other things, led the Secretariat of State to pursue the London deal.
Becciu testified that one reason the Secretariat of State was interested in such opportunities was because it ran a deficit every year covering the costs of Vatican Radio and also papal embassies around the world, and income from the Vatican bank previously used to cover those costs had declined.
In addition, Becciu testified that he had no role in the firing of the Vatican’s first independent Auditor General, an Italian layman named Libero Milone, in 2017. Becciu initially refused to answer questions about Milone’s exit on the grounds that it involved pontifical secrecy, but said that after seeking permission from Pope Francis, he could now disclose what happened.
In essence, he said, Francis decided on his own to fire Milone after receiving reports that Milone had exceeded his authority by hiring a security company to spy on key Vatican personnel. It was the pope, Becciu testified, who directed him to fire Milone, and he had no role other than to relay the pope’s decision.
Considering Marogna’s statement, she suggests that Becciu was also involved in a meeting with two Russian emissaries who purported to represent the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, according to Marogna, they wanted information on an alleged account in the Vatican bank containing Russian assets, which Becciu tried to track down. Then they wanted to negotiate the return of the relics of St. Nicholas, currently housed in the Italian city of Bari, to Russia.
It turns out that a letter from Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, requesting the return of the relics – which the emissaries said they would arrange – never materialized, raising questions about whether they actually had the access to decision makers they claimed.
Finally, Becciu insisted that the decisions he made with regard to the London investment were presented to him by Monsignor Alberto Perlasca and Italian businessman Fabrizio Tirabassi. At the time, Perlasca was the head of the financial section of the Secretariat of State, and in the meantime has turned into the star witness for the prosecution in the Vatican trial, while Tirabassi was a consultant on financial affairs to the Secretariat of State.
In other words, at roughly the same time, the sostituto had to be concerned with:
- The fate of a Colombian nun kidnapped in Mali.
- A $250 million business prospect in Angola.
- Deficits involving Vatican Radio and papal embassies.
- The firing of the Vatican’s own auditor.
- Another business prospect in London.
- Russians claiming to represent Putin who wanted access to the Vatican bank and the return of a saint’s relics.
That, by the way, is merely a smattering of the things that cross a sostituto’s desk in any given stretch. For fans of American TV, the sostituto is basically akin to the Leo character in “West Wing,” meaning the chief of staff who has to carry every decision the president needs to make in his head at all times, at a level of detail the president himself only rarely will engage.
Some years ago, I recall talking with a Vatican official who was no fan of the sostituto at the time, which was well before Becciu’s era. Yet with grudging admiration, he said: “That guy has to think about the adverb that’s going to be used in a papal talk, who’s going to be named a bishop in some sensitive place, the latest petty Vatican personnel dispute, and also what policy the Vatican should adopt on some big theological dispute. Nobody could do all of that perfectly.”
That, in a nutshell, is the point. Perhaps Becciu truly is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, but in any case, the fact remains that he held a job for seven years which even seasoned Vatican insiders regard as essentially impossible.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr