Ambrose, Charles, Montini, Martini… and Mario – For Milan, The Pope's "Inside Job"
And so, after months of anticipation, “The Big One” has arrived – arguably the most significant personnel choice of any Pope Francis will make across his pontificate.
Yet while the ancient chair of Milan has been occupied over 18 centuries by saints, future Popes – and, more recently, the intellectual heavyweights of their respective ecclesial eras – in selecting its 144th holder, Papa Bergoglio opted instead for the “man behind the curtain,” picking Bishop Mario Delpini, the 65 year-old auxiliary and lead vicar-general of the Lombard church, to lead Europe’s largest diocese, comprising some 5 million Catholics served by more than 1,100 parishes. (Above, the archbishop-elect is seen with Francis during his March visit to the city.)
Despite having served as top aide to Cardinal Angelo Scola practically since the now-retiring prelate’s arrival six years ago, a contrast of style was clear at the noontime announcement in the Milanese Curia, as Scola donned his red-trimmed house cassock, while the archbishop-elect – known for bicycling around Italy’s financial and media hub – made his debut in a faded tab-shirt and rumpled suit (below).
Oft-tipped in the Italian rumblings leading up to today’s move, among the locals Delpini’s ascent has evoked comparisons to the newly-elected Paul VI’s pick of another native son – his own lead deputy, Giovanni Colombo – to fill the seat after the then-Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini became the post’s last holder to be elected to the papacy.
Over his 42 years of priesthood, the incoming archbishop’s ministry has been spent mostly in the central rungs of the sprawling, immensely complex local church, being tapped by its successive chiefs as seminary rector, regional vicar, auxiliary, and then the de facto overseer of the Curia. (At the behest of Scola’s predecessor, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, Delpini was named an auxiliary in 2007 by then-Pope Benedict XVI.)
Beyond allowing for a remarkably smooth transition that’ll see Delpini hit the ground running, it was indeed observed during the stakes that the eventual choice shares a key focus with Francis’ recent nominee as vicar for Rome, Archbishop Angelo DeDonatis: on top of his duties as vicar-general, like DeDonatis the Milanese likewise coordinates the mega-diocese’s efforts for the continuing formation of priests.
Striking a humble tone in his first remarks upon the appointment, Delpini joked to the throng of clergy and media on hand today that, “people who know me might say I’m a good guy… but archbishop of Milan? Somebody else would be better.
“My inadequacy can be found just in the names [of prior archbishops],” he said “illustrious [names] like Angelo, Dionigi, Carlo Maria, Giovanni, Giovanni Battista, etc. But Mario – what kind of name is that?
“As you can see, it’s just some run-of-the-mill bishop.”
The “biking bishop” can say that all he likes, but history shows his new reality to be rather different – beyond being thrust into the global stratosphere with his ascent, as noted here over recent weeks, five of Delpini’s nine predecessors over the last century have either been beatified, elected to the Papacy, or both.
“I need everybody,” Delpini said today, voicing his hope that “our church should reveal in an ever more evident way the threads of synodality and co-responsibility that Vatican II marked out…. I need all the men and women who live in this diocese… to help this Ambrosian church to be creative and welcoming, poorer and more simple, that it might be freer and happier.”
In keeping with recent custom for the post, Delpini will be installed in the seat of Saints Ambrose and Charles in late September to coincide with the beginning of the church’s pastoral year after the summer hiatus. By longstanding tradition, the formal “entrance” of a new archbishop into the city is conducted as a grand spectacle, with the region’s civic leadership, the top brass of the Italian church, and an overflow throng outside the Duomo (cathedral) all out in force; the future Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini SJ is seen above at his 1979 arrival, having been ordained as the 141st archbishop at the Vatican by John Paul II.
While most Curial business has ceased for the vacation season of July and August, it’s standard procedure that diocesan appointments already decided will still be announced over the next ten days or so.
Above all, however, given the fallout of last week’s transition at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the most important nod on-deck is that of its new Archbishop-Secretary to replace the incoming Prefect, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ.
Though the lead official of a Roman dicastery sets his office’s general direction and serves as its external “face,” the second-in-command is at least as critical a figure in light of his responsibility for managing the daily nuts and bolts of its workload – which, in the CDF’s case, tends to involve no shortage of the Curia’s most sensitive and significant business.