Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re has been elected as Dean of the College of Cardinals, a position that gives him a pivotal coordinating role during a future conclave.
The new dean, a longtime Vatican official who turns 86 on January 30, will be tasked with summoning the cardinals to Rome to elect a new Pope and presiding over the crucial pre-conclave discussions which take place before the electors enter the Sistine Chapel.
If the dean is under the age of 80, he presides over the conclave voting but Cardinal Re’s age prevents him from doing so. Instead, that task will fall to the new vice-dean, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, also just elected: he is a 76-year-old Argentinian prelate who leads the Vatican’s department for Eastern Catholic churches.
Cardinal Re is an experienced Holy See diplomat who has held a series of senior posts in the Vatican including as Pope John Paul II’s “sostituto”, a chief of staff equivalent, for 11 years and then Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops from 2000-2010.
He succeeds Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who stood down just before Christmas at the age of 92 after 15 years in the job. At the same time, Francis announced that the role of dean, traditionally a job for life, would be limited to two five-year renewable terms.
In 2013, Cardinal Re presided over the conclave which elected Francis as the most senior cardinal as both Cardinal Angelo Sodano nor Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, then vice-dean, were both over the age of 80. Cardinal Re was elected the vice-dean of the College of Cardinals since 2017 after the late Cardinal Etchegaray asked to be dispensed from the role.
The new Dean and Vice-Dean were elected on 18 January and 24 January respectively by the most senior cardinals in the college. Francis then approved their choice.
Cardinal Re’s appointment as dean comes just weeks before the Vatican is expected to release its report into how ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, rose up the clerical ranks in spite of having abused young boys and seminarians.
Sources in Rome expect the report to be critical of some who held senior positions during John Paul II’s long papacy including Cardinal Sodano, a former Secretariat of State whose handling of the clerical sexual abuse scandal has recently come under scrutiny.
A book on the McCarrick case, Il Giorno del Giudizio (The Day of Judgment), reports that the Vatican was informed of claims about “homosexual harassment” by McCarrick in 1999, a few months before he was named Archbishop of Washington. But the authors of the book, which include Andrea Tornielli, Editorial Director of the Vatican’s communications office, write that Cardinal Re was opposed to McCarrick’s appointment.
Along with overseeing a conclave, the dean effectively manages the college of cardinals and advises the Pope on any problems.