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The Pope’s Right Hand Man

5 minute read
Jeff Israely/Rome

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone doesn’t have the guarded air of those who tend to rise to the heights of Vatican power. He smiles easily. He laughs out loud. His oval face and dark, bespectacled eyes show no sign of scars from the bureaucratic battles that accompany most climbs up the Roman Curia career ladder. A few years ago, I saw Bertone walking alone on a side street near St. Peter’s and went over to say hello and shake his hand. He stopped on a dime when he heard his name, turning toward me with his arms spread open, and practically sang out in his baritone, “Oooh! Carissimo! How’s it going!?” And we had never even met before.

Such gregariousness has apparently helped the 72-year-old find friends in high places. Bertone, a native of the northern Italian region of Piedmont and a former theology professor, worked for seven years as deputy for then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that oversees church orthodoxy. Promoted in 2002 to Archbishop of Genoa, Bertone attained the rank of Cardinal the next year and was thought to be among the core group in the conclave that pushed for Ratzinger’s election. Still, since he didn’t have the usual résumé from the Vatican diplomatic corps, many were surprised when his old boss, now Pope Benedict XVI, tapped him to take over in September as Vatican Secretary of State, the No. 2 slot in the entire Catholic Church hierarchy, behind only the Pope himself.

Bertone sat down last week with TIME for a rare interview in the sunny 15th century Vatican tower that serves as his temporary office while the Secretary of State’s quarters are being remodeled. “The Holy Father has shown to have great trust in me,” Bertone says, recalling their years at the doctrinal office. “We were the consummate duo. We’ve always gotten along personally, and there is a mutual understanding that continues to be the basis for our work together.” It’s the kind of affinity–similar to what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is said to have with President George W. Bush–that inevitably adds extra weight to an already influential assignment.

Although he shares the same title as the chief U.S. diplomat, the Vatican Secretary of State is more like a Prime Minister, responsible not only for foreign policy but also for overseeing church headquarters at the Roman Curia, being the Vatican link to Catholic organizations and officials around the world, and even stepping in for the Pope if he falls ill or is unavailable. While Pope John Paul II’s constant travels kept him somewhat separated from the workings of the Vatican bureaucracy, Benedict and Bertone are instead expected to work hand in hand on all matters, foreign and domestic. The Pope will need his No. 2 as both a political strategist and a sort of chief of operations, which will give Benedict the space to pursue the intellectual and theological aspects of the job that he prefers. Moreover, if Benedict hopes to continue streamlining the governance of the church–which would include interrupting the ambitions of top prelates–he will have to lean on Bertone, who handled such delicate tasks in the past as spearheading Vatican negotiations with the ultratraditionalist Lefebrve group. “The Pope can count on Bertone’s absolute loyalty,” says a veteran Vatican diplomat. “Ideally, the Secretary of State must maintain some autonomy while always reflecting the thoughts of the Pope.”

Both men have learned quickly that their respective new roles go well beyond the internal discussions over church doctrine that marked their old positions. Bertone came on the job just three days after the Pope’s controversial speech in Germany about faith and violence that angered many Muslims. The new Secretary of State hit the ground running, orchestrating what, by Vatican standards, was a swift response that included conciliatory public statements, a quickly organized meeting with ambassadors from Muslim countries and, ultimately, the success of November’s trip to Turkey, where the Pope surprised his critics with a moving prayer together with an imam in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. “Words have great value,” says Bertone. “But sometimes gestures can have such an enormous emotional impact that words might not be able to achieve.”

Yet, not all of late has gone smoothly in Rome. The low point was the Pope’s botched appointment last month of the new Archbishop of Warsaw, who had to immediately resign after revelations that he had been an informant for the Polish communist regime. There are also broader complaints inside the Curia that other appointments, and key documents, have being delayed. “We’re still waiting on important changes,” says a senior Vatican official. “Benedict is turning out to be more cautious than we had thought, and so far Bertone hasn’t managed to really get things moving.”

For a poor farmer’s son to have risen to the top of the Vatican hierarchy, Bertone must have had to develop steel under his outward affability. Vatican insiders note that in the new job–for which part of his task is to fend off those who want to derail the Pope’s agenda–that thick skin may count more than Bertone’s good humor. A Vatican official who has worked with the Cardinal in the past says, “I’ve never seen him betray his principles–but he’s had to do everything just short of it.” Adds the official: “He knows how to operate within the structure of the Holy See. He has the skills of a politician.”

Still, Vatican watchers say it remains an open question if the Benedict-Bertone team–which may have been effective in imposing orthodoxy on wayward theologians when the pair ran the doctrinal office–has the worldly vision and institutional muscle to impose their will on the 1.1 billion–strong universal church.

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