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  • John Thavis

The ‘Pope of Italy’?

Pope Benedict’s Feb. 11 announcement that he would resign at the end of the month left him two and a half weeks to say goodbye to the church and the world, and to wrap up pending projects of his pontificate.

It’s been a little surprising, then, to see Benedict’s calendar fill up primarily with encounters with groups and individuals from a single country: Italy.

A meeting with the clergy of Rome. Individual “ad limina” audiences with bishops of Liguria. An encounter with an Italian charity organization. A private meeting with Italy’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Monti. Another round of “ad limina” meetings, this time with bishops of the Lombard region.

The pope’s last scheduled meeting with a major public figure will be his Feb. 23 encounter with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

The pope is reaching out to the broader world through his final general audiences and Sunday blessings. But these, too, tend to be predominantly Italian affairs conducted in the Italian language.

We all know the pope is bishop of Rome. But often it seems that his role today has turned into “pope of Italy.”

Vatican City, of course, is surrounded by Italy and there’s a natural crossover factor for any pope, Italian or not. Italian groups and leaders line up continually to see the pope, and they’re usually the ones who fill the basilica and square for papal liturgies.

But as the world’s cardinals prepare to elect Benedict’s successor, perhaps now is the time to re-examine Italy’s demands on a new pope’s time and energy — and its influence in the church’s universal mission.

As non-Italian popes, both John Paul II and Benedict went out of their way to reach out to Italians. In the eyes of many, in fact, Benedict effectively “re-Italianized” the Roman Curia by placing a large number of Italian prelates at or near the top of key Vatican agencies. He has also increased the Italian cardinal count, leaving 28 Italians as eligible voters in the upcoming conclave.

But in the age of globalization, does it really make sense to continue a single country’s domination of Vatican affairs? And is it really necessary, as is often argued here in Rome, that a “foreign” pope needs an Italian secretary of state to manage the Roman Curia?

In view of recent leaks, miscues and mistakes made at the highest level of the Curia — some of which involved murky Italian business affairs — one would hope the cardinals will take a fresh look at all this when they begin their meetings in Rome.

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