VATICAN CITY (UCAN) – Pope Benedict XVI has named Italian-born Archbishop Fernando Filoni as Substitute for the General Affairs of the Secretariat of State, the third most important position at the Vatican.
The Vatican announced on June 9 that the experienced diplomat will take up his new role, known by its Italian name sostituto, on July 1. He is succeeding Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, 63, who was appointed also on June 9 as Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
With these appointments, Pope Benedict has filled all key Vatican positions with men of his own choosing. Now, 26 months after he was elected pontiff, he has his own administration.
Archbishop Filoni has broad experience in Asia and the Middle East. He was born on April 15, 1946, in Manduria, southern Italy, and ordained a priest in 1970. After entering the Holy See's diplomatic service in 1981, he worked in Brazil and at the Vatican (1985-89), but mostly in Asia (Sri Lanka, Iran, Philippines). In 1992-2001, he was officially assigned to the apostolic nunciature in the Philippines but based in Hong Kong where, as he told UCA News in 2001, he was on "a study mission."
During that period, Msgr. Filoni grew as an expert in China affairs and was Pope John Paul II's point man as the pontiff reached out to all Chinese bishops as he sought to unify the Catholic Church in the mainland.
In January 2001, Pope John Paul appointed him nuncio to Iraq and Jordan, and consecrated him a bishop on March 19, 2001. The late pontiff opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq that began in March 2003. As nuncio, Archbishop Filoni was the only Western diplomat in Baghdad all through the war. He made himself available to Christians and Muslims alike, and to foreign journalists who much appreciated his courage, good humor and hospitality.
As attacks were launched against Christian Churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk, he came close to being killed in Baghdad on Feb. 1, 2006, when a car bomb exploded next to the nunciature. "Thank God we survived," he stated afterward.
Archbishop Filoni was named by Pope Benedict as nuncio to the Philippines on Feb. 25, 2006, and was there when his latest appointment was announced.
In a release issued by the Vatican, Archbishop Filoni expressed gratitude and appreciation to the Filipino people and authorities, who had "everywhere welcomed me with joy and warmth." He asked the Philippine Church to support him with prayers in his new assignment, which he said he accepted "not without trepidation, but with the same willingness as in the past."
The sostituto is like chief of staff or secretary general in the secretariat of state, the central office at the heart of the Roman Curia. With regular access to the pontiff, his desk is the clearing house for everything in the Vatican. He is the conduit through which matters go to the pope, and communications come from the pope to all Roman Curia offices.
As Archbishop Filoni assumes his new position, Archbishop Sandri moves on to a delicate post with overall responsibility for 18 million faithful in the 22 Eastern-rite Catholic Churches in Asia, Europe, the Americas and all over the Middle East. On July 1, he will take over as prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches from Syria-born Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, 76, whose resignation Pope Benedict has accepted.
When the pope visited the congregation on June 9, the 90th anniversary of its establishment as an autonomous Vatican body, he publicly thanked Cardinal Daoud for his "generous" service as prefect since November 2000, and announced the appointments of the congregation's new prefect and the sostituto.
Archbishop Sandri, also a seasoned diplomat, was born on Nov. 18, 1943, in Buenos Aires, and ordained a priest in 1967. He began his diplomatic service for the Holy See in 1974, first in Madagascar, next at the secretariat of state (1977-89), and then at the nunciature in Washington, D.C. (1989-91).
Pope John Paul II recalled him in 1991 to serve as Assessor (assistant of the sostituto) for the General Affairs of the Secretariat of State.
He was appointed nuncio to Venezuela in July 1997 and ordained a bishop that October. Pope John Paul reassigned him as nuncio to Mexico in March 2000 but recalled him to the Vatican as sostituto on Sept. 16, 2000. Archbishop Sandri became "the pope's voice" by reading many papal speeches during the pontiff's illness, and announced the pope's death to the world on 2 April 2005.
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Gerard O'Connell is special correspondent in Rome for UCA News.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (www.ucanews.com).