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The Pope's Team: the Vatican's Secretariat of State

by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B.


A description of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, and its important role as the Pope's right hand in both internal and external Church affairs.

Larger Work

The Catholic Answer



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, March/April 1997

When Pope John XXIII was once asked, "How many people work in the Vatican?" he allegedly answered, "About half." For years this tongue­in­cheek remark has been taken seriously. But the facts tell another tale.

According to management expert Peter Drucker, the Holy See ranks with General Motors and the Prussian army as history's most efficiently run organizations. By all accounts the Church's central bureaucracy, the Roman Curia is a slim operation. With fewer than 3,000 workers, that makes one employee for about every 350,000 Catholics worldwide. Compared to the ecclesiastic machinery of many dioceses and bishops' conferences, the Curia is small indeed. Even so, it exerts enormous influence on the Church's life.


For the Pope to hold the "keys of the kingdom" (Mt 16:19) and to see to the feeding of the Lord's entire flock (see Jn 21:15­17), it is more than an awesome ministry-it is arduous in the extreme. The Pope needs a team that will help him perform the world's toughest job. According to Pope John Paul II, the Roman Curia is an "indispensable instrument" in carrying out his ministry. How else could he effectively keep in touch with more than 3,000 dioceses throughout the world, let alone with more than a million nuns and priests, and nearly a billion faithful?

The Roman Curia is heir to an administrative apparatus that goes back to the early Church. As the duties assumed by the Bishops of Rome expanded, so too did their need for assistance. The Curia mushroomed but, alas, corruption also grew in its ranks. At the time of the Reformation, many clamored for the reform of the Curia. This reform was effectively implemented by Pope Sixtus V in 1588.

Four hundred years later, Pope John Paul II reorganized the Roman Curia's structure and procedures in light of the Second Vatican Council's ecclesiology of communion. Continuing the reforms of Pope Paul VI, the present Pontiff set down precise guidelines. He directed the Curia to respect the authority of bishops in their dioceses, foster the communion of bishops with the Pope, and clearly show itself to be at the service of the local churches. Above all, everything possible should be done so that the Curia in no way blocks or restricts personal dealings between him and his brother bishops.

Sometimes referred to as the Holy Father's "long arm," the Curia wields its authority in the pope's name. It never acts on its own. Whereas bishops enjoy their authority as "vicars of Christ," Curia officials act as "vicars of the Pope." They have no more power than what the Pope gives them. The Curia's task is to carry out the Pope's will-not its own agenda.


When the main elevator of the Apostolic Palace stops at the third floor, you have two choices: turning to the left, for the Pope's private apartment, or to the right, for the offices of the Secretariat of the State. Every day about 200 men and women-bishops, priests, Religious and laity-turn to the right. They walk along magnificently frescoed corridors to their modest offices, where they discretely collaborate in the Pope's ministry to the Church and the world.

The Secretariat of State is at the top of the Vatican's organizational flow chart, just under the Pope. By law, all the various departments, or dicasteries, of the Roman Curia-congregations, pontifical councils, tribunals, administrative offices-are equal. Each one is directly responsible to the Holy Father. But without prejudice to their autonomy, the Secretariat is to coordinate their work.

In practice, however, the Secretariat of State exercises authority over the other dicasteries. At some point, all questions or decisions of major importance are funneled through it to the Pope. It has been remarked that the Secretariat's task is to be the "eye, the heart and the arm of the Pope."

At the top rung of the personnel ladder is the cardinal secretary of state. As the chief curial official, he presides over the Secretariat. This position developed in the late Middle Ages from the web of private secretaries used by the popes to control the Vatican bureaucracy and to discharge special, often secret missions.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, when intrigue was rife, the pope often named a nephew or other trusted relative as his chief assistant, who was then named a cardinal. Some of these "cardinal nephews" were ambitious and corrupt; but others, like St. Charles Borromeo (1538­1584), were holy men dedicated to Church reform. Since the middle of the 18th century, the Popes have looked for proven ability and personal integrity when filling this position.

The cardinal secretary of state is the pope's right­hand man. As such, he is not subject to the five­year term of office common to all other heads of dicasteries. Moreover, upon the pope's death, he automatically loses his post.

If there is a prime minister at the Vatican, it is the cardinal secretary of state. He represents the Holy See in international affairs, receives heads of state and ambassadors, and accompanies the Holy Father on his trips. Both internal Church affairs and the Vatican's relations with states and international organizations fall under his supervision.

Pope John Paul II has chosen three men for this office. In 1978, he confirmed the appointment of the Frenchman, Cardinal Jean Villot, who had served under Pope Paul VI. Cardinal Villot died within a year. He was replaced by the able statesman Cardinal Agostino Cassaroli, architect and executor of the Vatican's Ostpotitik-its delicate dealings with communist countries. Since 1990, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, a veteran diplomat with many years of service as the papal representative in Chile, has held the post.


Today the Secretariat of State is divided in two: the Section for General Affairs (First Section), and the Section for Relations with States (Second Section).

The First Section is run by an archbishop, who is called the "Substitute." He holds the number two post in the Secretariat of State. It is commonly said that no one has more frequent access to the Pope. In this century, both Popes Benedict XV and Paul VI held this job while they worked in the Curia..

Especially in matters affecting the Church's day­to­day internal life, this section's task is-according to the rules governing the Curia-"in a special way to expedite the daily service of the Supreme Pontiff." It draws up and sends papal texts of all kinds: apostolic constitutions, apostolic letters, messages and any other documents entrusted to it by the Holy Father. As well as translating major papal texts, the section also works on drafts of the Pope's speeches and homilies.

For reasons of efficiency, the workload of the Section for General Affairs is divided up on a linguistic basis. At present, there are eight departments: English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.

Matters from around the world are dealt with according to the language used in dealing with the Pope. Seven priests and three sisters from five different countries now work in the Secretariat's English­language department.

The First Section also has personnel who deal with matters such as secret diplomatic codes, relations with other dicasteries, international Catholic organizations, protocol questions, official publications, statistics and papal honors. It is also responsible for supervising more than 200 papal diplomats around the world.


Many of those attached to the Secretariat of State work outside Rome. These men are the Pope's diplomats. Most of them are trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy- once called "for Noble Ecclesiastics." This prestigious school, located near the Pantheon in downtown Rome, was set up nearly 300 years ago. Today it prepares about eight priests a year for service in the Holy See's diplomatic corps. For a long time its students were overwhelmingly Italian. Since Vatican II, however, career diplomats are chosen from an increasingly international pool.

In 1996, the Holy See had diplomatic relations with more than 160 nations. In these cases, the Pope's representative in a country is called a nuncio. If diplomatic relations are lacking -as in about a dozen cases-he is called an apostolic delegate. At present, the total number of papal representatives is just over 100. Two of them are Americans. With more than 175 postings to fill, some representatives are assigned to more than one nation.

Whether a nuncio or an apostolic delegate, the head of each mission is an archbishop. He is assisted by at least one counselor assigned by the Secretariat of State.

Despite their diplomatic duties, papal representatives are primarily concerned with Church affairs. They have the duty of strengthening communion between the Holy See and a nation's local churches. This entails informing the Vatican about the conditions of dioceses, offering bishops their advice and fostering relations between Rome and the nation's episcopal conference. Probably their most pressing task is to propose names of suitable candidates for the episcopacy to the Pope.

Papal representatives are warned to avoid creating the impression that they rank above a country's bishops. Rather, they are admonished to reinforce and sustain episcopal authority. Representatives also watch lest civil authorities try to subordinate a national hierarchy to state interests or curtail its communication with the Vatican.


The Second Section, or Section for "Relations with States, primarily deals with the Holy See's relations with governments. In its domain are diplomatic relations, political matters and contacts with international organizations. In particular situations, which require delicate negotiations with civil authorities, it also oversees the nomination of bishops and the erection of new dioceses.

A secretary directs the Second Section. An archbishop, he is commonly known as the Vatican's "foreign minister." At the present time a Frenchman, Archbishop Jean­Louis Tauran, holds the post. Under the cardinal secretary of state, he is responsible for implementing the Pope's policies in the international arena. Frequently, he travels abroad, as he did in October 1996, when he visited Cuba in an attempt to improve the Church's situation there.


Since the beginning of the fourth century, the Bishop of Rome has been a major player in world affairs. In carrying out this unique spiritual role for the international community, the Pope relies on collaborators. Again he turns to the Secretariat of State. At his behest, it drafts documents, sends representatives to conferences and deals with ambassadors sent to Rome.

While the Holy See has published no master plan of its diplomatic objectives, Pope John Paul II steadily pursues four main aims in his initiatives. In large measure he relies on the Secretariat of State to put his ideas into practice.

  • Religious Liberty: The driving force behind the Pope's diplomatic initiatives is the defense of the Church's freedom to pursue her mission in peace. Papal diplomacy, therefore, stresses the inalienable right of individuals to practice their faith. It also emphasizes the Church's liberty to nominate bishops without interference, to organize her own structures, to evangelize and to have free access to the media. Finally, the Pope and his diplomats insist on the right of parents to educate their children according to their religious convictions.

  • Ethical Vision: Because he is free from specific political, economic or strategic interests, the Pope can serve as the moral conscience of the international community. Through the Secretariat of State and other Curia officials, he works to galvanize all those inspired by sound ethical principles. This was very evident at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. In both cases the Vatican's delegation held out for safeguarding moral values.

  • Human Dignity: In recent years, Pope John Paul II has also mobilized papal diplomacy to foster human dignity and a wide range of human rights. In his encyclical Centesimus Annus (on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum and addressing the social question in a contemporary perspective), in 1991, he affirmed that the Church's "contribution to the political order is precisely her vision of the dignity of the person revealed in all its fullness in the mystery of the Incarnate Word" (no. 47). The Vatican vigorously protects the right to life, family, employment and just distribution of the world's resources.

  • Justice and Peace: Together with the Pope, papal diplomats labor tirelessly for the advancement of peace and for economic, political and social development. Besides denouncing injustice, the Holy See, working through the Secretariat of State, also collaborates with international organizations. It strives to formulate policies that will effectively alleviate grave injustice and promote social harmony within countries and peace among nations.

As the visible principle of the Church's unity of faith and communion, the Pope is weighed down by the "care of all the churches" (2 Cor 11:28). Fortunately, he is backed up behind the scenes by a team of aides.

The circle of the Pope's closest collaborators in Rome is the Curia. And at the center of that circle is the Secretariat of State. By carrying out the various activities assigned to it by the Pope, the Secretariat of State gives concrete shape to the ministry that Christ entrusted to the Successor of Peter.

Father J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., writes from Rome.

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