Pope Francis has chosen the first woman to serve in a number two position in a department of the Roman Curia.
Sister Alessandra Smerilli, a 47-year-old economist, is to become the interim secretary at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, an office which covers a diverse portfolio including the environment, Covid-19 and nuclear disarmament. It makes her the highest ranking woman in the Church’s central administration.
The Salesian sister, who has previously served as the number three in the department, teaches political economy at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences “Auxilium” and undertook doctoral research at the University of East Anglia under Professor Robert Sugden, a specialist in behavioural economics. A Vatican news release explained that her appointment was “ad interim”.
Francis’s choice of Sr Alessandra as secretary breaks a glass ceiling for women serving in the Vatican given that the roles of prefect or secretary of Roman Curia offices have traditionally been held by bishops or cardinals. In 2018, Francis appointed a layman, Paolo Ruffini, to run the communications department, and has gradually increased the number of women in leadership positions during his pontificate.
Sr Alessandra’s appointment makes the religious sister one of the most influential women in the Vatican. Along with her new position, Sr Alessandra sits on the governing council of the Vatican City State administration and was among the first women to be chosen as consulters to the Synod of Bishops’ office last year.
In her new role she will take over from two priests: Mgr Bruno Marie Duffé, the former secretary of the department and Fr Augusto Zampini Davies, a senior official closely involved in co-ordinating the Vatican’s Covid-19 response. Both are returning to their dioceses (in France and Argentina respectively).
Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Pope asked Sr Alessadra to co-ordinate the economy task force on the Vatican’s Covid-19 commission and alongside the role of secretary she has a management role on the Covid body, previously carried out by Fr Zampini-Davies.
She described her new position, which comes less than six months after she was chosen as an undersecretary at the dicastery, as a “challenging task” but pledged to carry it out with the “humility, passion, creativity and ability to listen that it requires”.
The Pope’s decision to appoint Sr Alessandra comes after a review of the human development department’s work had been carried out by Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Archbishop of Chicago, at Francis’ request. He was assisted by the Dominican sister Helen Alford, the vice rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas, and Pier Francesco Pinelli, a management consultant.
Last year Sr Alessandra was closely involved in organising a gathering of more than 2,000 young entrepreneurs and economists in Assisi titled “The Economy of Francesco”, an event aimed at helping to build a more just and sustainable financial system. She has argued that the figure of St Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake, points the way for a new approach.
Speaking to The Tablet she pointed out how, back in the 15th century, Franciscan friars helped set up the first small lending institutions known as “montes pietatis”, which provided loans with reasonable interest rates for the poorest in society. This was a time when usury was rife and Sr Alessandra describes it as the first example of microcredit.
Fr Zampini Davies leaves after playing a key role in steering the Vatican’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, seeking to influence the global conversation on a range of economic and environmental questions.
The Argentinian priest spent several years in the UK and is a former theological adviser to Cafod who studied at the University of Bath, Roehampton University and the Margaret Beaufort Institute, University of Cambridge.
Sr Alessandra’s appointment follows the Pope’s choice of Sister Nathalie Becquart as the first woman to serve as joint under-secretary at the Synod of Bishops’ office (a post normally held by a bishop). She also has voting rights during a future synod gathering in Rome. Over the last eight years Francis has slowly tried to diversify the leadership of the male-dominated Vatican.
His appointments include female under-secretaries at the Department for Laity, Family and Life, the first woman director of the Vatican Museums and six women to the board overseeing Holy See finances. He has also named the first woman consulters to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a female deputy director of the Holy See Press Office. Earlier this month, he added five women scientists, including three Nobel laureates, to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.