News Analysis

Roman Curia: The Pope’s new right-hand man

Who is Archbishop Peña?

Pope Francis has finally named a new deputy for the powerful Vatican Secretariat of State. He had rendered the post vacant in late June when he gave a red hat to the former occupant, Angelo Becciu, and named him prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

The longer the post remained vacant, the hotter the speculation became that he was preparing to name a major player. Instead, the nomination of Archbishop Edgar Robinson Peña Parra (pictured below) to the post seems to be a safe play. Still, Archbishop Peña will be someone to watch. If he wasn’t an influential figure in the Vatican before last week, he is certain to be one now, even if he works quietly.

Peña is a 58-year-old native of Venezuela and a career diplomat who has served in several trouble spots and held several other sensitive billets. His most recent posting was to Mozambique, where he took over the nunciature in the midst of political violence that included assassinations and a low-level insurgency conducted by the militant wing of the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo).

Before that, Archbishop Peña had been apostolic nuncio to Pakistan. Among the places Peña had a desk early in his career are Kenya, Mexico, Honduras and the Balkans. He is a gifted linguist, speaking Italian, English, French, Portuguese and Serbo-Croatian, as well as Spanish. Polyglots are a dime a dozen in the diplomatic service, though: it’s a minimum qualification for a diplomatic career.

Having a Venezuelan native close by might also be something Pope Francis wanted in view of his preoccupation with the country. Hence the interest the Vatican’s institutional diplomatic apparatus, led by the Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, has taken in the nation, which is said to be on the brink of total social collapse. Archbishop Peña is also a canon lawyer by training who has written on human rights – the respect of which is a keystone of Vatican diplomacy and one of the motifs of Pope Francis’s advocacy on the world stage.

It is too soon to say how the archbishop will handle his new role – a position resembling that of a chief operating officer in a multinational corporation – when he officially begins on October 15. It is nevertheless fair to say that he is familiar with the diplomatic side of the job, and his resumé comports well with the profile of the candidate Pope Francis would have for it.

Historically, however, the Sostituto – “Substitute” for General Affairs of the Secretariat of State of the Holy See – is a “doer”. The Sostituto is a coordinator of the work of the Secretariat, and sometimes a fixer. In concert – at least theoretically – with the Secretary for Relations with States (often styled the Vatican’s foreign minister, currently says the Englishman Archbishop Paul Gallagher), the Sostituto deals with personnel issues within the Roman Curia. He is also a bridge figure, spanning the divide between the Secretary of State and the Pope.

Then there is the question of how the role of the Sostituto will fit into the new scheme of the Secretariat of State, which Pope Francis began to introduce late last year. The Pope modified the Secretariat’s structure, introducing a third section for diplomatic staff of the Holy See to the two sections already existing: the first section for general affairs and the second section for relations with states.

The creation of the third section was in essence an attempt to iron out a bureaucratic wrinkle in which the personnel office of the diplomatic service was caught under the purview of the first section (general affairs), rather than under the second section (relations with states).

The papal letter establishing the new section said: “The third section will deal exclusively with matters relating to the staff who work in the diplomatic service of the Holy See or who prepare to do so – such as, for example, selection, initial and continuing formation, conditions of life and service, promotions, permits, etc.”

Archbishop Peña’s workload and portfolio will certainly expand and contract with the continued implementation of the third section of the Secretariat of State, which Francis only created in November 2017. The Pope blessed its office in late May of this year.

“We do not know how things will work,” says Andrea Gagliarducci, the Catholic News Agency’s senior Vatican analyst. “Much will be seen in the new apostolic constitution,” he said, in reference to the promised blueprint for the Roman Curia, now more than five years in coming.

“We will have a first section with slightly fewer powers,” he added. “How much influence the Sostituto will have will depend on his ability to establish a good working relationship with the Pope.”

Christopher Altieri