ROME — Pope Francis has chosen Bishop Angelo De Donatis to be the new vicar of Rome, the first non-cardinal to hold the position in nearly 500 years.
The 63-year-old has served as an auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rome since November, 2015, and before that was pastor of San Marco, the parish church located off Rome’s Piazza Venezia, at the heart of the city.
The vicar serves as the de facto bishop of the city, and takes up residence at the Lateran Palace which adjoins the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran. Another vicar, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, has the same pastoral function for the Vatican City State.
Francis took notice of De Donatis, a native of the Italian province of Puglia in the heel of Italy’s boot, early in his pontificate.
The priest was among seven chosen by Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu to eat lunch with Francis after the chrism mass in 2013, just two weeks after his election.
De Donatis, a noted spiritual director in the diocese, was chosen to lead the first Lenten spiritual exercises of the pontificate a year later. In 2015, Francis himself consecrated him as an auxiliary bishop for the diocese. With his new assignment, he will be given the title ‘Archbishop.’
Although originally ordained for the Puglian Diocese of Nardò-Gallipoli in 1980, the Rome-trained priest switched to the Diocese of Rome three years later.
He has served in various pastoral and administrative assignments during his 35 years of ministry in the diocese.
Before taking on his position at San Marco, he served for 13 years as the spiritual director of the diocesan seminary, so he is well known to the clergy.
The city hall is also located in the parish – the full name is San Marco Evangelista al Campidoglio, “Campidoglio” being the Italian for Capitoline Hill, which has served as the city’s administrative headquarters since ancient times – meaning De Donatis is also well acquainted with the city’s civil leaders.
The Church of the Gesù, the motherhouse of the Jesuit order, is also located within the parish’s boundaries, creating another important tie to the first Jesuit pope.
De Donatis succeeds Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who was appointed Vicar in 2008.
The rapid rise of De Donatis – who was still just a parish priest nearly 18 months ago – shows the pastoral role the pope wants for the position; Francis, of course, often describes himself as first and foremost “the bishop of Rome.”
De Donatis’s background is a stark contrast to Vallini, whose previous position was as the Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court.
The announcement comes just two days after Francis named Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti as the President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference.
The appointment also comes less than a week after Francis announced he would be creating five new cardinals, the first consistory in which he has not appointed a cardinal from Italy, nor from the Vatican Curia.
By tradition, the vicar of Rome is the “Cardinal Vicar of Rome,” and all other vicars have been named a cardinal before taking up the post.
In fact, in 1991, Pope John Paul II named Bishop Camillo Ruini “pro-vicar general” for Rome, not appointing him “vicar general” until after he was created a cardinal six months later.
Francis seems to want to make the position more focused on the local Church, instead of dealing with the various Curial assignments occupying much of the time of all cardinals living in Rome.