Preoccupied for months by the clerical sex abuse scandal, the pope on Wednesday shuffled the Vatican bureaucracy before heading off on vacation. His most significant appointment: the head of a new office designed to fight secularism in the West.
Pope Benedict XVI tapped a trusted Italian, Monsignor Rino Fisichella, to head the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, a new Vatican department designed to reinvigorate Christianity in the parts of the world where it is falling by the wayside.
Benedict has made rekindling the faith in Europe a priority of his papacy, and the appointment of Fisichella served as a tacit acknowledgment that his efforts to date needed more focus and heft.
Also Wednesday, Benedict named Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet to head the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishops nominations worldwide. Ouellet, the 66-year-old archbishop of Quebec, replaces the retiring Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, and his new high-profile job ups his ranking as a possible papal contender.
Benedict also moved his New York-based U.N. ambassador to Poland to serve as papal nuncio and named a new head of the Vatican's bioethics advisory board, the Pontifical Academy for Life.
The long-rumored appointments were announced as the pope wraps up key Vatican business before going on vacation for the rest of the summer at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome.
Benedict announced the creation of the new evangelization office earlier this week, saying it would promote Christianity in countries where the church has long existed "but which are living a progressive secularization of society and a sort of 'eclipse of the sense of God.'"
Benedict has been particularly concerned about Europe's increasing secularization and has focused his foreign trips on the continent as a result. His 2010 travel itinerary, for example, lists Malta, Cyprus, Portugal, Britain and Spain.
"The pope knows this issue well from his long experience as a teacher and as an acute observer of historic and cultural moments," Fisichella was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency. "It's evident that he sees at this moment a need to bring forward again the message of Jesus Christ so that people today can reinvigorate their faith."
The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, said Wednesday that re-evangelizing the West was "central" to Benedict's concerns as pope.
"Dating from his years as a young theologian, the pope had before his eyes the image of a spiritual desert of a world which ... has become increasingly secularized in recent centuries," the paper's editor in chief, Giovanni Maria Vian, wrote in a front-page editorial.
Fisichella is currently president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and is rector of the Pontifical Lateran University; Benedict filled Fisichella's posts at those institutions Wednesday as well.
Other positions are expected to be announced soon, including a new head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, the Vatican office that oversees relations with other Christians and Jews. Italian media have said its current head, the retiring Cardinal Walter Kasper, will be replaced by Swiss Bishop Kurt Koch of Basel.
In addition, the pope is expected to name the papal delegate who will take over the Legionaries of Christ, the scandal-plagued conservative order. After years of denials, the order admitted last year that its founder, the Rev. Marciel Maciel, had sexually abused seminarians and had fathered a child. It now says he had at least three children.
Even as allegations against Maciel intensified, the Legionaries had long been favored by Pope John Paul II for its success in bringing in new vocations.
On Wednesday, 26 new Legionaries were ordained in Rome, a third of the estimated 60 Legion seminarians who will be ordained around the globe this summer — an indication that the scandal hasn't completely eroded the order's ability to attract new men for the priesthood.
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