VATICAN CITY -- The new Vatican No. 2 was a no-show Tuesday at the ceremony to take over the reins of the Holy See administration, after being hospitalized for urgent surgery on the day he was to have begun charting a new course for the troubled Vatican bureaucracy.
Pope Francis told the assembled guests at Tuesday's handover ceremony that Archbishop Pietro Parolin had to undergo minor but urgent surgery and would be out for several weeks. Parolin was hospitalized while visiting his family in Italy's Veneto region, the Vatican said without providing details.
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The day was supposed to have been a ceremonial and very real changing of the guard from the retiring Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who left his post after seven tumultuous years in which he was blamed for many of the gaffes and problems of the papacy of Benedict XVI.
Francis welcomed Parolin "in absentia" as he thanked Bertone for his service, noting the difficulties and "thorns" that Bertone had endured.
"I want to thank you for the courage and patience with which you lived through the setbacks that you had to confront," Francis said. "There were a lot."
Bertone's scandal-marred term climaxed with the 2012 theft of Benedict's papers by his butler and subsequent publication in a blockbuster book. Based on how poorly Bertone was portrayed in the leaked documents and from the butler's own testimony, the leaks were clearly aimed at discrediting Bertone by airing the Vatican's dirty laundry.
But many other problems of Benedict's reign, from his rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop to the Vatican's initial, flat-footed response to the 2010 explosion of clerical sex abuse cases, were blamed on Bertone's administrative shortcomings.
A canon lawyer from Genoa, Bertone had no diplomatic experience when he was named the Vatican's top diplomat in 2006 by Benedict, who clearly wanted a faithful servant as his No. 2 administrator. Bertone had served as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's deputy when both were concerned with doctrinal issues at the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog.
In his final weeks on the job, the 78-year-old Bertone made clear he didn't appreciate the finger-pointing, telling reporters last month that he had been victim of a "plot by crows and vipers" to bring him down.
While admitting to some problems, he said overall he judged his tenure "positively."
In fact in his speech Tuesday Bertone outlined the highlights of his -- and Benedict's -- term, praising improved relations with Jews and even Muslims after Benedict initially riled the Muslim world with a 2006 speech in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor as characterizing some of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman."
Bertone said Benedict "suffered profoundly" from the church sex abuse scandal and pushed through new laws to fight it.
New popes usually bring with them a new secretary of state, so a changing of the guard under Francis is altogether to be expected, particularly given the mandate given Francis by the cardinals who elected him, to reform the dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy. What's remarkable is that Francis had decided on Parolin just days after being elected, according to one of Francis' closest advisers, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga.
Francis and Parolin had only met once before, when Parolin, 58, was deputy foreign minister under Bertone -- a job he held until he was sent to be the Holy See's ambassador to Venezuela in 2009.
"The truth is that I haven't spoken much with him and I think that when I have the chance, I'll ask him why he named me," Parolin told Venezuela's El Universal newspaper.