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The men who could be pope: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri

Cardinal Sandri recites the Angelus at the Vatican in 2005, serving as a stand-in for Pope John Paul II (Photo: CNS)

The 69-year-old cardinal was born in Buenos Aires in November 1943 and is earmarked as the possible first Latin American pope. But wait: his parents, Antonio and Nella were Italian natives from Trentino, who emigrated to Argentina. Brought up in a bilingual world of Italian and Spanish, Leonardo Sandri grew up in a fusion of Argentinean and European culture.

Ordained in 1967, aged 23, he was only 27 when he was plucked from an ordinary priest’s life to become a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service. From that point on he has spent the past 42 years, up to the present, as a diplomat of the Holy See.

He is known for being reserved and extremely careful about what he says on record, so the four decades of diplomatic discipline have left their mark. The hole in his CV is that he lacks pastoral experience, that nitty-gritty knowledge of Catholics in the pew that most priests gain through years in parish life, and his critics are quick to say that because he is quite private and hesitant when asked for detailed answers. But this could work in his favour: a closed mouth catches no flies and someone so notably discreet has earned the trust of his fellows. Also, perhaps a diplomat who works hard behind the scenes is the right mix for the instant communication age of Twitter and mobile phones, when every move he makes will be scrutinised in seconds and interpreted in myriad ways. He won’t ruffle feathers or make more enemies for Mother Church, but could work to mend divisions on the inside. He also holds a doctorate in canon law, which would come in handy for settling disputes.

He was apostolic nuncio to Venezuela from 1997 to 2000 and nuncio to Mexico in 2000. Also in 2000, he was given the third-highest Vatican post as the Vatican’s “chief of staff”, a post he held for seven years. But he didn’t get global recognition until 2005. As Blessed John Paul II’s papacy drew to a close and he was ailing to the point where speech was near impossible, Sandri read out John Paul’s final communiqués. He was the prelate who announced the heart-rending news that John Paul II had died, saying: “Our Holy Father John Paul has returned to the house of the Father … we all feel like orphans this evening.”

After Benedict XVI’s election, he did not enjoy a public climb in power and prestige. But that’s not to say he didn’t grow in experience and influence – in private. Cardinal Sandri is an expert on everything and everyone in the Roman Curia, and is characterised by his tactfulness, which means few leaks of sensitive information that make headlines. Benedict XVI entrusted him with the role of prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, which he has managed smoothly. It has become a refrain among commentators that this post is not a “power position” in the Curia, that it’s an esoteric office where he’s not working with movers and shakers. But just because the bishops that he deals with are outside the glare of our mainstream media does not mean they are any the less powerful or that because Cardinal Sandri works with Eastern Catholics his work is any the less important. He oversees the Church in the Holy Land and for several years has appealed for Catholics around the world to raise funds and pray for the faithful in the Middle East who often live in grinding poverty and face persecution.

There is a misconception that the only prelates who know Cardinal Sandri are Rome-based and that he could lose the vote from cardinals outside the Eternal City. But this seems inaccurate because he is also a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and is a member of the Vatican supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. Since 2010 he has also been a member of the Congregation for Bishops, helping to select Latin Rite bishops. His time as apostolic nuncio in different Latin American countries means that he has intimate knowledge of the lie of the land in countries far from Rome, and knows prelates who are out of the spotlight but nonetheless allies of his. 

Cardinal Sandri is an accomplished polyglot who speaks five languages fluently, including English, French and German. This means he can converse freely with Benedict XVI in the Pope’s mother tongue. He’s not just a diplomat, then, but also a much-loved confidant of countless people, a canon lawyer, a linguist and a seasoned selector of bishops. For someone who is only 69, he has accomplished much and is eligible to participate in a papal conclave until November 2023, when he turns 80. Being comparably younger will also work in his favour. As a result of Benedict XVI citing age as a factor in his abdication cardinals are definitely scouting for a younger pope. For the Conclave of March 2013, some are of the opinion that cardinals around the world who have had quiet dealings with Cardinal Sandri will quietly vote for him.