SO Mgr Benelli becomes Cardinal Benelli. One should not be surprised at what was, barring accidents, inevitable. Rut the timing of the appointment is intriguing.
Needless to say, official Vatican sources will provide no helpful interpretation: the reason Benelli has become Cardinal Archbishop of Florence is because he is the best man for the job, and because God has willed that he should be. All we can do is join the Florentines in singing Ecce Sacerdos Magnus. But why precisely now? Giovanni Benelli could have been made a Cardinal at any time in the last five years. He had done his stint at the Secretariat of State and was due for his report.
The argument against making Benelli a Cardinal was always that it would make him less effective. It would remove him from the sensitive centre of papal communications and deprive him of power. To make him a Cardinal would be to ease him gently out of the way.
Furthermore, Benelli had been much criticised, sometimes unfairly. To remove him from his Rome post would, it was suggested, lend credence to the absurd idea that his critics might just possibly be right. Paradoxically, criticism merely strengthened his position.
But the strongest argument against removing Benelli from his post as sostituto was simply that he had become indispensable. With an increasingly aged Pope and an increasingly
centralised curia, someone was needed who could hold the multiple threads together. That man was Benelli.
One can say that without any suggestion for a moment that Benelli is "power-crazy" or inordinately ambitious. This was the erroneous interpretation placed on the Observer articles on 1973. The power of Benelli, which no one denies. is derived from the structure of the Roman curia.
Its reform in 1968 added to his authority. Even Archbishop Cardinale, in his classic volume, The Holy See and the International Order, recognises this evident fact. "The deputy," he writes, "is endowed with much power as the key co-ordinator of 'the work of the curial departments." The Archbishop of Florence has no comparable power and no role in the international Church scene. Why, then. should he go to Florence at this time?
It is likely that several reasons converge. The first is that if Pope Paul intends Benelli to rise still higher, he has to send him off to look after a diocese for a period of time. Pastoral experience is regarded as essential for a curial high flier.
Benelli already had the other qualifications of high office international experience and administrative competence hut he had little pastoral experience. He should have his fill in Florence.
This does not mean, of course, that Pope Paul is thinking of Benelli as his immediate successor. But he is not ex eluding the possibility. It would be inconceivable to imagine Cardinal Benelli calmly spending the rest of his life in Florence. doing to 'Florence is a case of reculer pour mieux sauter.
The other reason for naming Benelli -to Florence is that the Italian episcopacy is badly in need of leadership. There is a vacuum at the top. The Cardinals of Milan and Turin have already tendered their resignations.
Cardinal Poma, president of the Episcopal Conference, is a sick man.
Benelli will be like a whirlwind in the Italian Bishops' Conference, and is likely to take over as its president. Because the Pope is Primate of Italy, Benelli will remain close to him.
But the appointment remains a puzzle. Pope Paul has voluntarily deprived himself of his most energetic, efficient and loyal collaborator. Why he should do so now is odd, unless, once again, he feels that he is near to death, and that his pontificate has run its course, and that administrative requirements can be subordinated to preparing for the future.
Pope Paul has frequently spoken of his death and talked of "laying down the burden of office." But so far all the alarms have been premature. Part of the trouble is that Popes are never admitted to be ill until they have died.