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Gerard O’ConnellApril 06, 2024
Pope Francis is greeted by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar of Rome, at the beginning of a meeting with priests and deacons working in the Diocese of Rome Jan. 13, 2024, in Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis is greeted by Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, papal vicar of Rome, at the beginning of a meeting with priests and deacons working in the Diocese of Rome Jan. 13, 2024, in Rome's Basilica of St. John Lateran. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In a further change at the top echelons of the Roman Curia, Pope Francis has appointed the Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis as the Major Penitentiary and head of the Apostolic Penitentiary. Cardinal De Donatis had served as the vicar general for the Diocese of Rome and archpriest of the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

The appointment comes as no surprise; it had been expected for two years, as it had been known that Francis intended to appoint a new vicar general for the Rome diocese and to designate Cardinal De Donatis, 70, to succeed the Italian cardinal Mauro Piacenza. Cardinal Piacenza turns 80 on Sept. 15 and has held this post since Sept. 2013.

As “Predicate Evangelium,” the constitution on the reform of the Roman Curia, explains, the Apostolic Penitentiary is one of the three Institutions of Justice in the governance of the Catholic Church, the others being the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and the Tribunal of the Roman Rota. It is sometimes referred to as the tribunal of mercy, and grants pardon and forgiveness.

It explains (Articles 190-193) that “the Apostolic Penitentiary is competent in all matters regarding the internal forum and indulgences as expressions of divine mercy.” And, it says, that in terms of “the internal forum, whether sacramental or non-sacramental, it grants absolution from censures, dispensations, commutations, validations, remissions and other favours.”

The Apostolic Penitentiary is also “charged with the granting and use of indulgences,” a role we will see it exercise in relation to the Jubilee Year 2025. It is also responsible for ensuring that the four papal basilicas of Rome “are provided with a sufficient number of penitentiaries [that is confessors] supplied with appropriate faculties” and “for overseeing the proper training of the penitentiaries” appointed in those basilicas and or elsewhere.

The Major Penitentiary is an ancient role in the church and dates back to the 12th century and gained that title first under Pope Honorius III (1216-1237). The Major Penitentiary is sometimes referred to as chief confessor of the Catholic Church because he has broad faculties that are reserved to the Holy See to grant pardon and forgiveness for sins for which an ordinary priest or bishop cannot grant absolution, such as desecration of the Eucharist, and to grant dispensations or pardon for other matters.

Since the time of Pope Clement V (1305-1314) the Major Penitentiary has been one of the few top officials of the Roman Curia to retain his post and to continue to exercise his faculties when the See of Peter is vacant, either because of the death or resignation of the pope.

Two American cardinals have held this post: William Baum (1990-2001) and James Stafford (2003-2009).

Pope Francis today also made another change to the governance of the Rome diocese when he reassigned Bishop Daniele Libanori, 70, a Jesuit, to the newly created position of “assessor to the Holy Father for Consecrated Life.”

Bishop Libanori has been auxiliary bishop of Rome since 2018 and last year was appointed as commissioner to conduct an investigation into the Loyola community of consecrated persons in Slovenia. That community had been cofounded three decades ago by Sister Ivanka Hosta and Father Marko Rupnik, a former Jesuit, who was expelled from the Society of Jesus last summer. Father Rupnik has been accused of abuse of the sisters, and his case is now under examination by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Following Bishop Libanori’s investigation, the Loyola community was dissolved by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Consecrated life in December 2023 because of serious problems relating to the exercise of authority and the internal life of the community. The bishop’s reassignment had been rumored for some time as he seems to have upset some in Rome with that investigation. It is not known what he will exactly do in his new role, nor is it known whom Pope Francis will appoint as his vicar general for the Diocese of Rome.

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