On the afternoon of Thursday, March 21, Pope Francis received in audience His Eminence Leonardo Cardinal Sandri (69) (above), Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. This was the first audience granted a dicastery head after the inauguration of the pontificate. Of course, this may simply have been a courtesy as Cardinal Sandri is both an Argentinian national and, like the Holy Father himself, of Italian parentage.
However, there is another possible interpretation. In the days following the inauguration of the late Benedictine pontificate, Pope Benedict’s first audience with an American prelate was not with any of the Cardinal Archbishops but with the Archbishop of San Francisco, not a Red Hat See. A short while later it was announced that that prelate, the then Most Rev Archbishop William (Bill), later Cardinal, Levada, was to replace Cardinal, by then Papa, Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Cardinal Sandri is a product of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, Class of ’71. As is the case with most, indeed, nearly all, alumni of the Academia he holds a doctorate in Canon Law. And as is the case with ALL alumni, he is fluent in several languages: besides his native Spanish and, obviously, Italian, he has also mastered French, English and German. As a canonist Latin is a given. Perhaps academic/classical Greek as well.
One of Cardinal Sandri’s classmates was Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, currently Apostolic Nuncio to the USA and formerly Secretary-General of the Governatorate of Vatican City State (July 16, 2009 to September 3, 2011). Mgr Viganò was removed from that post under somewhat controversial circumstances. Another was Lorenzo Baldisseri, the current Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops (appointed January 11, 2012) who was Secretary of the Conclave (and who can therefore expect to be created cardinal in early course).
(NB: I originally drafted this post, but did not then publish it for various reasons, on March 23 before leaving for a short break in Florence. It has subsequently emerged that Pope Francis placed his then un-needed red zucchetto on Mgr Baldisseri's head when the latter made his obeisance after the cardinals at the conclusion of the Conclave, signifying his intention to name him cardinal at his first consistory.)
Cardinal Sandri entered the diplomatic service of the Holy See in 1974 and served in the nunciatures in Madagascar and Mauritius before being recalled to Rome in 1977 to work in the Secretariat of State. In 1989 he was sent to the nunciature in Washington. While there he also served as Permanent Observer of the Holy See before the Organization of American States. On August 22, 1991 he was appointed Regent of the prefecture of the Pontifical Household. Eight months later, on April 2, 1992, he was appointed Assessor of the Secretariat of State for General Affairs.
Elected titular Archbishop of Cittanova and named nuncio in Venezuela on July 22, 1997, His Eminence was consecrated bishop on October 11, 1997, in St Peter’s at the hands of then Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Sodano assisted by Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu, archbishop emeritus of Buenos Aires, and by Giovanni Battista Re, then titular archbishop of Vescovio, Substitute of the Secretariat of State for General Affairs (who, as the senior Cardinal Bishop still an elector, was acting dean of the recent Conclave).
On March 1, 2000, Archbishop Sandri was transferred to Mexico. However, a mere six months later, on September 16, 2000, he was recalled to Rome and appointed Secretary of State Substitute for General Affairs, sostituto (in effect the papal Chief of Staff). When Blessed Pope John Paul II was unable to read his speeches, it was Mgr Sandri, and NOT as the popular press had it the papal Secretary Archbishop, now Cardinal, Dziwisz, who read them for him. It was also Cardinal Sandri who, in what may have been a breach of protocol, announced the Pope’s death to the world from St Peter’s Square.
Appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches on June 9, 2007, he was raised to the cardinalatial dignity at the consistory of November 24, 2007. He enjoyed the honour and privilege of being No 1 on the list of new cardinals.
Prior to the recent Conclave, Cardinal Sandri was regarded as papabile. It is now entirely possible that the granting of this audience on March 21 may indicate that he is soon to be appointed Cardinal Secretary of State in succession to Cardinal Bertone. Some would argue, persuasively it must be said, that a non-Italian Pope would have to have an Italian Secretary of State. However, one of Cardinal Bertone’s great failings was his involvement, meddling, in both Italian civil and ecclesiastical politics. Cadinal Sandri is an ethnic Italian but has clean hands in this regards.