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Cardinal Robert Sarah, former prefect of the Congregation for Divine WorshipShutterstock

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VATICAN CITY, March 16, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — A Canonical (or, more likely, an “Apostolic”) Visitation, led by Bishop Claudio Maniago, was launched this Monday, March 15, at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, according to the French conservative news blog “Riposte catholique.”

To date, this information together with other details published on Friday last and picked up by many sources, including the Italian Catholic daily La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, has not been denied. News of the canonical Visitation became public within three weeks of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s dismissal as prefect of said congregation by Pope Francis on February 20.

The visitor chosen for this mission is Bishop Claudio Maniago.

The move is a highly unusual one. Canonical Visitations are a normal event in the Catholic Church — bishops and religious superiors, and in a general way, all prelates who have ordinary jurisdiction over persons in the external forum may visit their diocese, seminaries, convents, cemeteries, church properties or persons subject to their authority. Such visits take place “with a view of maintaining faith and discipline, and of correcting abuses by the application of proper remedies,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.

But for a congregation of the Roman Curia to be “visited” in this way is unheard of. To which authority could it be subject, if not that of the Pope himself?

Indeed, according to La Nuova Bussola, in additional information published on Sunday under the headline “Vatican Wars,” it is an “Apostolic Visitation” that is presently underway at Cardinal Sarah’s former congregation: Here, the Pope himself, through one or more delegates mandated by his papal authority, is “putting into effect the supreme and immediate jurisdiction which is his for any and every part of the Church,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. “The exact powers of a visitor can be known only from his brief of delegation.” Apostolic Visitations terminate with the report that the Visitors submit to the Holy See.

What can be the reasons and the objective of an Apostolic Visit at the Congregation for Divine Worship? In the present context in the Vatican, financial issues or an assessment of moral conduct would seem to be the most natural candidates, but the personality of Cardinal Robert Sarah, who had some notorious clashes with Pope Francis over liturgical and doctrinal issues, is more likely to have provided the incentive for the move. And whatever the official reason for it — over which we can only speculate — and its objective, its most obvious effect is to throw discredit upon the Guinean Cardinal, whose “management” of the Congregation appears to be under scrutiny by the Pope’s will.

Keeping in mind that Cardinal Sarah thrice rejected the office Pope Francis placed under his responsibility in 2014, before accepting because of the Pontiff’s insistence, the situation is puzzling. One reliable clerical observer of Vatican events and “politics” told LifeSite that in his private opinion, the Apostolic Visit is likely a kind of retaliation because of the book Cardinal Sarah co-authored with Pope Benedict XVI about priestly celibacy, From the Depths of Our Hearts, following the Amazon Synod.”

Looking forward, Cardinal Robert Sarah is also seen by many conservative Catholics as a papabile at the next Conclave, which cannot be so very far away. Could this explain the aura of disgrace that seems to be in the process of creation, so as to kill his chances of being elected to the See of Peter?

“It is not clear what the purpose of the maneuver is,” insisted our discreet Vaticanist. In the present situation, with the recent decision to relegate individual Masses from Saint Peter’s Basilica to the crypt, with an even harsher regime for priests who wish to celebrate Mass according to the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, he underscored that the issue is also liturgical.

Without being a proponent of the Vetus Ordo, Cardinal Sarah is a known “Ratzingerian” who has vocally defended the “reform of the reform,” “liturgical reconciliation” between the ordinary and extraordinary form, and celebrations “oriented” towards God, that is, Mass celebrated with the priest facing the same direction as the faithful. After these declarations, he practically lost power in the Congregation for Divine Worship, with decisions being made in practice by underlings.

This means that the Apostolic Visitor, Bishop Maniago, can hardly be expected to find compromising elements regarding Cardinal Sarah, who over the last years was not often even reachable at the congregation.

Financial wrongdoing can also be ruled out, more or less: The Congregation for Divine worship is far from rich, and little money circulates there.

Bishop Claudio Maniago, in any case, has no visible reputation as a managerial expert or an auditor: His expertise is in liturgy, which he has both studied and taught. He presently presides the liturgical commission of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and only recently gave a lengthy presentation of the reform of the Italian translation of the Novus Ordo Mass, commending its continuity with Vatican II and the post-conciliar reform that, he said, expressed the Council’s spirit.

It appears that the liturgical element is in fact quite strong in this Visitation, all the more so because Maniago is known to be a member of the loosely-knit group of Italian liturgists, clerical or not, who have been pushing over the last years for the biggest possible restrictions on the freedom to celebrate the Tridentine Mass proclaimed by the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.

It was shortly before the news broke about the Apostolic Visitation at the Congregation for Divine Worship, that new rules essentially prohibiting traditional Masses in Saint Peter’s Basilica were publicized. Interestingly, the “Fabbrica” of Saint Peter, which is responsible for the conservation and maintenance of the central basilica of the Catholic faith, had just been subjected to an “inspection” run by the Secretariat of State, in a similar move to the one made regarding the congregation. The pontifical commissary is acting as a temporary prefect during his mission, while the newly appointed Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, a 55-year-old Franciscan who recently replaced Cardinal Angelo Comastri at the head of the “Fabric of Saint Peter,” waits to take full office.

Comastri, like Sarah, was known as a “Ratzingerian.” Sources say that angry words were exchanged between Comastri and the Pope in the latter’s apartments in Sancta Martha when the Cardinal heard of his replacement and the opening of an “inspection.”

At the same time, the inspection currently being carried out under the authority of the Secretariat of State implies that the Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, is playing some role in pushing forward modern liturgical orientations.

Be it Sarah or Comastri, the same kind of patterns are emerging, and they have in common a clear hostility towards prelates who were very open to the traditional liturgy.

In the case of the congregation, this attitude has led to the nomination of a visitor whose career seems to have been cut short or at least hindered by accusations of cover-ups of child sex abuse. Claudio Maniago, born and raised in Florence, was ordained a bishop and appointed auxiliary bishop of this central and important Italian diocese, when in the late 2000s, he was accused of having concealed the crime of multiple and aggravated abuses of minors on the part of Don Lelio Cantini, who was reduced to the lay state by Pope Benedict XVI.

An anti-clerical site that registers sex abuse by priests in Italy wrote in 2012 that Maniago had himself joined a homosexual sadomasochist orgy, according to a young male accuser. This does not prove Maniago’s implication in such an event, but it is true that the auxiliary bishop who seemed to be destined to climb up high in the Church hierarchy was instead “promoted” to a tiny diocese in 2014: Castellaneta in Puglia. In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Maniago a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

The question remains open about who will replace Cardinal Sarah at the said congregation. Some sources said Maniago, having carried out the Apostolic Visitation, will go on to be named prefect. At any rate, the upcoming Visitation would appear to be the reason why a new prefect was not named in the wake of Cardinal Sarah’s departure.

But rumors are still rife suggesting that Vittorio Francesco Viola, another 55-year-old Franciscan and Bishop of Tortona, is the favorite for the post. He is a known admirer of one of the main architects of the Novus Ordo in 1969: Archbishop Annibale Bugnigni. Viola has even chosen to wear Bugnini’s episcopal ring.

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Jeanne Smits has worked as a journalist in France since 1987 after obtaining a Master of Arts in Law. She formerly directed the French daily Présent and was editor-in-chief of an all-internet French-speaking news site called She writes regularly for a number of Catholic journals (Monde & vie, L’Homme nouveau, Reconquête…) and runs a personal pro-life blog. In addition, she is often invited to radio and TV shows on alternative media. She is vice-president of the Christian and French defense association “AGRIF.” She is the French translator of The Dictator Pope by Henry Sire and Christus Vincit by Bishop Schneider, and recently contributed to the Bref examen critique de la communion dans la main about Communion in the hand. She is married and has three children, and lives near Paris.