It was something of a mystery why Archbishop Antonio Mennini was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain in 2010. Why did Rome deploy one of its finest troubleshooters to a relatively small and stable Catholic outpost?
Archbishop Mennini arrived with an impressive pedigree. He belonged to an old Roman family and his father had served as managing director of the Vatican bank. As a young priest he was an intermediary during the kidnapping of Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades.
The archbishop had displayed formidable diplomatic skills in his previous posting to Russia. He arrived there shortly after St John Paul II created Catholic dioceses across the country. This act outraged the Russian Orthodox Church, which regards the land stretching from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok as its “canonical territory”.
Relations between Rome and Moscow were frozen like Arctic tundra. But in less than a decade, Archbishop Mennini achieved a thaw. He won over the Orthodox hierarchy through patient listening and paved the way for full diplomatic relations between the Kremlin and the Holy See.
Why then did Benedict XVI send such a distinguished figure to Britain? The most popular theory was that he wanted Archbishop Mennini to strengthen ties with the Church of England, which were strained in the wake of Anglicanorum Coetibus, which permitted groups of Anglicans to be received into the Catholic Church while retaining elements of their patrimony.
Perhaps the German pope also felt that his visit to Britain had uncovered unexpected common ground between Rome and Whitehall, and that he needed a seasoned diplomat to explore it.
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