Sarah’s last hurrah? 2020 could see Vatican shakeups

Sarah’s last hurrah? 2020 could see Vatican shakeups Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured with pilgrims during Pope Francis' general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring
Letter from Rome

At the beginning of last week, the insider Catholic universe imploded when news broke that retired Pope Benedict XVI and Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah had co-authored a new book defending priestly celibacy just as Pope Francis is considering an exception to the rule proposed during the Amazon synod.

In the fierce and polemical debate that ensued, the role of a Pope emeritus was questioned while Catholicism’s conservative and progressive camps exchanged arguments over Benedict XVI’s intentions with the book, titled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, which hit the shelves on January 15 in France.

The saga culminated with Archbishop Georg Ganswein, personal secretary for Benedict XVI, making a call to the Ignatius publishing house requesting that Benedict’s name be removed as co-author, and that it also be removed from the introduction and conclusion of the book, which Ignatius refused to do.

Bizarre episode

Though unprecedented is perhaps the wrong word to describe the bizarre episode, it was certainly odd, as Sarah, an active sitting cardinal who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office, took to social media to defend his credibility, issuing several statements and publishing correspondence between himself and Benedict – things that heads of Vatican departments don’t typically do.

However, this week’s episode could well have been Sarah’s “last hurrah”, as the Guinean cardinal is set to turn 75 in June, meaning he will be required to submit his resignation after having reached the formal age of retirement for bishops and cardinals.

Sarah is just one of many possible shakeups that could take place around the Vatican this year as Francis’s reform of the Roman Curia unfolds, with several major department heads already 75 or older, who have yet to step down.

Heavy-hitters such as Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet of the Vatican’s office for bishops will both turn 76, yet both are widely seen as having Pope Francis’ backing, so he might keep their resignation letters sitting on his desk, and not accept them just yet.

Other noteworthy officials who are already over 75 include: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, 76, who heads the Vatican office for Eastern Churches; Cardinal Beniamino Stella, 78, who heads the Vatican office for clergy; Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, 76, in charge of the Vatican’s education office; and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, 77, president of the Vatican’s Council for Culture.

The heads of two of the Vatican’s tribunals are also both over 75 and could be replaced. These are Fr Pio Vito Pinto, 78, who is dean of the Roman Rota, and Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, 75, who heads the Apostolic Penitentiary. These tribunals deal with cases related to marriage annulments and issues dealing with the “internal forum” respectively.

Francis has also placed a strong emphasis on the role of laity in his reform”

Cardinal Giuseppe Bertollo, head of the Governate of Vatican City, will turn 78 this year, meaning that in theory, nearly half of Francis’ current staff could be shown the door on the basis of age alone.

However, another factor in the Vatican’s 2020 appointments is Francis’ reform of the Roman Curia, which will culminate this year with the publication of a new apostolic constitution Predicate Evangelium, meaning ‘Preach the Gospel’.

The document, which will outline the role and structure of the Roman Curia, will likely be published sometime this spring and is expected to see the merger of several Vatican offices, meaning one can expect a fair number of new appointments for both the old and the new.

In the category of things to come, a new mega-department for evangelisation is expected, which would merge two existing curial offices: the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, also called Propaganda Fidei; and the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation.

Most observers predict that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, who was recently named head of Propaganda Fidei, will be tapped to head the department, meaning Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the current head of the Vatican’s office for the new evangelisation, could either be reshuffled or out of a job at 69.

A new office for ‘charitable services’, which will answer directly to the Pope and which would absorb what is currently known as the Office of the Papal Almoner, headed by Polish Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, is also a rumoured change. Given the confidence Francis has placed in Krajewski, who got a red hat from the Pope in 2018, the Polish prelate is a frontrunner candidate to preside over the new office.

Another possible change coming down the pike is the merger of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Culture into another new mega-department for “education and culture”, meaning     that either Versaldi or Ravasi, or both, could finally see their retirement should Francis choose to bring in new leadership.

It is also possible that the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, headed by Archbishop Filippo Iannone, could be merged with other departments holding similar competencies, leaving questions as to who would lead these offices should that happen. However, all this is yet to be seen.

Should these offices merge with another, Ouellet and Iannone could also see themselves in different roles, with a possible retirement for Ouellet, though it is unlikely that Iannone, 63, would be completely gone from the scene.

Figures likely to stay put in the shakeup are those who have already been appointed to positions as part of Francis’ reform, such as American Cardinal Kevin Farrell of the office for Laity, Family and Life, and Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson of the Vatican office for Integral Human Development.


However, earlier this year Francis gave Canadian Jesuit Michael Czerny a red hat. For now Czerny is acting as undersecretary for Turkson’s department, overseeing a section for migrants and refugees that reports directly to the Pope; given that it is extremely rare to have one cardinal serving beneath another in the same department, it’s possible that Czerny could be shuffled to another position, or that his office could get an elevated status.

Francis has also placed a strong emphasis on the role of laity in his reform, insisting on multiple occasions that a layperson can preside over a dicastery, and that their leadership is particularly encouraged in fields of family and life, the promotion of peace and justice, the economy and care of creation.

Though he has already named several laypeople, including women, to top Vatican posts, Francis last Wednesday took another concrete step in this direction, naming Italian laywoman and lawyer Francesca Di Giovanni as undersecretary of the Vatican Secretariat of State’s section for multilateral affairs, making her the first woman to hold a managerial position in the department.

Should things continue along this trajectory, many other similar appointments could be made this year as the Pope’s curial reform rolls out.

It could be a busy 2020 for the Pope.

Elise Harris is senior correspondent with