When the new Archbishop of Milan stood up to give his first speech to his new diocese last Friday he wore a crumpled jacket over a faded clerical shirt. He said that he had proof of his “inadequacy” as leader of Europe’s largest diocese. Consider the names of his predecessors, he said, “illustrious [ones] like Angelo, Dionigi, Carlo Maria, Giovanni, Giovanni Battista, etc. But Mario – what kind of name is that?”
It’s true that few thought that Mario Enrico Delpini would succeed Cardinal Angelo Scola in Milan. Most expected another ecclesiastical heavyweight. According Church-watcher Rocco Palmo, five of Delpini’s nine predecessors in the past century have been either beatified, elected to the papacy, or both. In recent decades, archbishops of Milan have been intellectual titans, notably Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit biblical scholar, and Scola.
But Pope Francis has set aside these expectations. Until now, Delpini has served as an auxiliary bishop and vicar general of Milan. He has formed a deep bond with diocesan clergy and got to know Milan’s more than 1,100 parishes. He is nicknamed the “bicycle bishop” because of his habit of navigating the city on two wheels (seemingly without a helmet).
Palmo describes the Milan appointment as “arguably the most significant personnel choice of any Pope Francis will make”. So what does his choice mean? Simply that, when it comes to diocesan bishops, what matters most to Francis is that they are totally dedicated to their priests and people.
That is why, when he recently had to select a new vicar of Rome, Francis chose Archbishop Angelo De Donatis, who like Delpini served as a vicar general and oversaw the ongoing formation of priests.
This emerging pattern in major appointments won’t surprise those who have been paying attention to papal utterances. A few months after his election in 2013, Francis urged new bishops to be “profoundly bonded” to their communities. “I beg you, please, to stay among your people,” he said. “Avoid the scandal of being ‘airport bishops’.”
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