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from issue no. 02 - 2007

A story begun in 1954

The Italian Episcopal Conference and its Presidents

by Gianni Cardinale

In Italy from its first Statute of 1959 the chairmanship of the Bishops’ Conference is by pontifical nomination. And that because the Pope is Bishop of Rome and Primate of Italy. Today, normally, the post of chairman of a Bishops’ Conference is elective. But apart from Italy there are two other exceptions to the rule: Belgium, where the post falls to the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel pro tempore, and the Conference of the Latin Bishops in the Arab countries, chaired ex officio by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Italy instead is the only country in which the Secretary General of the Bishops’ Conference is not elected but is appointed by the Pontiff.
As Monsignor Luigi Bianco – currently counselor of the nunciature in Spain – points out in his detailed and valuable dissertation for his doctorate in Canon Law La Conferenza episcopale italiana. Profilo storico e giuridico [The Italian Bishops’ Conference. Historical and legal outline] (Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, 2005), the very first idea for an Italian Episcopal Conference goes back to 1946, but the first meetings took place in 1952 and 1953. The first Statute was set down in 1954, while the first gathering was held in Pompei in January 1955.
But at that time the IEC meant only the coming together of the chairmen of the regional Bishops’ Conferences. The first general meeting of all the Italian bishops, in fact, occurred during Vatican Council II, on 14 October 1962, in the “Domus Mariae” in Rome. While it was in the Spring of 1964 – when for the first time, convoked in official manner, all the Italian bishops gathered in Rome – that the IEC as we understand it today came into being. And the revised Statutes of 1965 set out that the IEC includes all the bishops of Italy.
It was the Cardinal of Turin Maurilio Fossati, as the most senior in terms of nomination, who led the IEC from 1954 to 1959. In that year he was replaced by John XXIII’s appointment, the Cardinal of Genoa Giuseppe Siri, who was confirmed in the post in 1962. In 1964 Paul VI accepted his resignation and appointed as pro-chairman Cardinal Luigi Traglia, pro-vicar of Rome.
In 1965 Pope Montini established that the chairmanship of the IEC be temporarily taken jointly by Cardinals Giovanni Colombo of Milan, Ermenegildo Florit of Florence and Giovanni Urbani of Venice. Then in 1966 the chairmanship was entrusted to Urbani alone, and in February 1969 he was confirmed for a second three-year term. However, in the September of that same year, the Patriarch of Venice unexpectedly died. At the beginning of October, after a very brief interim stand-in by the Archbishop of Bari, Enrico Nicodemo (who was vice-chairman), Paul VI appointed the Cardinal of Bologna, Antonio Poma as new chairman, who was confirmed for a subsequent three-years both in 1972 and in 1975. In 1978 Poma was confirmed by John Paul I and by John Paul II, who in 1979 appointed the Cardinal of Turin, Anastasio Ballestrero, as chairman.
Ballestrero was confirmed for a second three-year term in 1982, and in 1985 John Paul II appointed as chairman – for a five-year term according to the new Statutes laid down that same year – Cardinal Vicar Ugo Poletti, who held the post up to his resignation, accepted in January 1991. After a brief stand-in by the most senior vice-chairman, Cardinal Salvatore Pappalardo, on 7 March 1991 the then Bishop Camillo Ruini was appointed, and after becoming Cardinal was confirmed in the post by John Paul II for another further two five-year terms, in 1996 and in 2001, and was confirmed donec aliter provideatur in February 2006 by Benedict XVI. On 7 March last Pope Ratzinger appointed the Archbishop of Genoa Angelo Bagnasco as Chairman of the IEC for the next five-year term. Presumably he will become Cardinal in the first fitting consistory.

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