After his Christmas greetings to the leprous Roman curia – and it was pretty much right after – Pope Francis let one of his longest-serving curial hands go rather unceremoniously. The departure of Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson from the prefect’s chair in the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development had been rumored for a good while, and the mill had been buzzing for a week before the announcement from the Holy See’s press office made it official on Thursday, December 23rd.
“At the end of the first five years of activity with statutes ad experimentum and following the results of the evaluation visit carried out last summer, the superiors of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development have placed their mandates in the hands of the Supreme Pontiff.” Only, the five years of operation under “experimental” statutes weren’t quite up. Francis, in other words, couldn’t wait another week to make the announcement.
Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago conducted the audit of Turkson’s erstwhile mega-shop over the summer, by the way, and it must’ve been a doozy.
“While he sincerely thanks Card. Peter K. Appiah Turkson and his collaborators for the service carried out and pending the appointment of the new board,” the Vatican’s statement on Thursday continued, “the Holy Father has entrusted ad interim the ordinary management of the same Dicastery starting from 1 January 2022 to Card. Michael Czerny SJ as Prefect and to Sister Alessandra Smerilli FMA as Secretary.”
Whatever else Turkson’s departure itself signals, it certainly means that Pope Francis has an Africa problem. Actually, he’s had an Africa problem for a good while, now. The departure of Cardinal Turkson just makes it unavoidably obvious. The short of it is that the Church in Africa hasn’t really stayed on script during Francis’s pontificate.
In 2018’s synod on young people, Western prelates’ concerns were – to put it bluntly – mostly of the marketing variety, and mostly desperate: How do we keep the few young people we have from abandoning ship? African Church leaders had much the opposite problem. “My churches are all bursting,” Bishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Mamfe, Cameroon, told reporters during one briefing. “I don’t have space to keep the young people,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one to report such problems, either.
The African prelates’ success with confident preaching and insistence on the Church’s “hard” teachings as evangelical “selling points” don’t seem to have taken with their brethren from areas where Christianity as a social and cultural force appears to be on its last legs.
Perhaps the most glaring example of insiders’ frustration with African Church leaders came from Walter Cardinal Kasper in 2014, during the first synod on the family. A small group of scribblers caught up with Cardinal Kasper outside the synod hall. Something between and informal gaggle and an impromptu press conference ensued. Among other things, Kasper said that African prelates “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”
One of the journos was the veteran Vatican beat reporter, Ed Pentin, who recorded the conversation. Cardinal Kasper first denied the remarks. When Pentin produced the recording, he said his remarks were not a formal interview, and complained of being unfairly attacked by a reporter who stubbornly insisted on quoting him accurately. The controversy faded, as they do. The problem didn’t disappear, though.
Cardinal Turkson’s abrupt departure hasn’t helped Pope Francis’s Africa problem in the short term. Maybe Turkson really did need to go, but it isn’t clear why.
Heads of curial departments aren’t supposed to do much, except be there. Secretaries run the operations day-to-day. The prefects and presidents are the faces of their operations. They are more important as reference points for outsiders – ecclesiastical and civil – with business in Rome.
While he held office in the curia, Cardinal Turkson was a highly placed contact for African figures – prelates, politicians, and others – who had business in town. Until recently, Francophone Africa had Robert Cardinal Sarah in the Congregation for Divine Worship. People visiting Rome from Lusophone African countries haven’t always had a Portuguese-speaking go-to figure. As a thumb rule, however, both French and English-speaking Africa have had someone.
The Roman curia has a twofold purpose. Practically, the body assists the pope in governing the universal Church. Symbolically, it represents the universal Church to the pope and to the Church herself. That second, symbolic purpose is relatively new and largely unwritten, but over the last several decades it has become pretty standard and expected.
There aren’t enough senior offices in the bureaucracy to allow representation by country, but continental representation has been generally secured at the highest – most symbolic and least practical – echelon. There are plenty of Italians in top curial jobs, several North and South Americans. Australia is currently unrepresented at the tippety-top level of curial administration, but there is some ready accounting for that.
Pope Francis recently appointed Archbishop Lazarus You Hueng-sik to head the Congregation for Clergy – the first Korean to lead a curial department – while Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle of Manila has the behemoth Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (though Francis recently put that outfit under a commissar).
The Farrell brothers – Bishop Brian, secretary to the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Kevin, Prefect of the Congregation for Laity, Family, and Life (another super-dicastery cobbled together from different offices) – may represent both Ireland and the United States. With the departure of Cardinal Turkson, Mrs. Farrell has given birth to more top curial officials than the entire continent of Africa.
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