Most of what Cardinal Luigi De Magistris, 88, spent his life doing you’ll never hear about. Not because it wasn’t important, but because it was.
Born into a well-known family in Cagliari, the capital city of the island of Sardinia off the west coast of Italy, Cardinal de Magistris spent most of his adult life working in the Roman Curia. He was 10 years working for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and staffed Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani during Vatican II. In 1969 he went to the Secretariat of State and spent another 10 years as a staffer there. Then in 1979 he was made second in charge of the Apostolic Penitentiary.
For as forbidding as its title makes it sound, the Apostolic Penitentiary is not a jail, or even an institution that metes out punishment, but rather the church’s tribunal of mercy. Those who come before it seek forgiveness for one of five serious church offenses—the desecration of the Eucharist; breaking the seal of confession; offering absolution to a sexual partner; making an attempt on the life of the pope; and direct participation in an abortion by a man who now wants to become a priest. The Penitentiary hears these cases, offers penance and operates entirely under the seal of confession.
As such, there is no record of the cases, nor any information that can ever be shared as to reconciliations that have occurred. But its importance to the church is clear; during a Conclave the Head of the Apostolic Penitentiary is in fact one of only three Cardinals that is allowed to continue having contact with the outside world. His job is considered too important to be interrupted.
Cardinal De Magistris spent 21 years as the second in charge of the Penitentiary. In 2001, at 75, the normal age of retirement for a bishop, he was promoted by Pope John Paul II to director.
It was the regular practice of the church to make the head of the Penitentiary a Cardinal. But that didn’t happen in de Magistris’ case. He also retired after less than two years in the job.
Over the years the speculation has been that de Magistris was punished for publicly criticizing the canonization of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escrivá. In the 1980s, de Magistris served on the panel assigned to judge Escrivá’s worthiness for canonization. He and another opposed the canonization; in 1992 a confidential note from a judge thought to be De Magistris was reproduced, listing the problems with the process and warning that the canonization could cause “grave public scandal.”
In 2002 Escrivá was canonized anyway. And a year later, with Pope John Paul II so ill he was almost certainly no longer making the major decisions, de Magistris was gone.
While at the Penitentiary Cardinal De Magistris pushed for more and better confessors in Roman churches. As Pope Francis was announcing who his new cardinals were last January, de Magistris was in fact at his home church in Cagliari, hearing confessions. Even in retirement, his life remains a committed, quiet witness to so many stories of sin and redemption.
In lieu of answering questions, Cardinal de Magistris offered this statement:
I'm honored to be named cardinal. My whole life was about serving the church and I tried to do my best, like many others who aren't now cardinals but loved the church like me or more. And I received so much love and so many spiritual and moral gifts I can't thank God enough.
I'd like that so many people who are suffering around the world could feel the consolation and the love of God like I feel. I want to thank also Pope Francis and all the people who work, unknown, to spread the good news of Jesus.
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