Pope Francis has appointed French-born Archbishop Christophe Pierre as the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., replacing Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the Holy See press office announced Tuesday.

The appointment of the new Vatican ambassador — known as an apostolic nuncio — comes after Archbishop Vigan√≤ reached the retirement age of 75 on Jan. 16 of this year. The Italian prelate had served as apostolic nuncio to the U.S. since 2011.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who heads the U.S. bishops’ conference, welcomed the announcement.

"On behalf of my brother bishops in the United States, I extend Archbishop Pierre a heartfelt greeting and my prayerful support as he embarks on his service to our country,” he said April 12. “A shared closeness with the Church in Mexico already creates a strong fraternal bond between us.”

Archbishop Kurtz also thanked Archbishop Vigan√≤ for “his selfless contributions to the life of the Church in the United States.”

It had been speculated that the role of papal nuncio to the U.S. would fall to Archbishop Pierre, who has been nuncio to Mexico since 2007. As reported by CNA, Vaticanista Sandro Magister asserted in his March 10 blog that the 70-year-old Archbishop Pierre would be “imminently” promoted to the position.

Magister characterized Archbishop Pierre as a “Bergoglian,” and someone in whom Francis confides.

Additionally, a source close to the Mexican bishops' conference told CNA that Archbishop Pierre “is known for suggesting solid, reliable candidates to the episcopate.”

The French prelate was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Rennes in 1970. In 1995 he was consecrated a bishop and appointed apostolic nuncio to Haiti. He served there until 1999, when he was transferred to Uganda.

In an April 8 speech at the Pontifical North American College's annual rector's dinner, Archbishop Vigan√≤ offered a farewell reflection of his four and a half year “mission” as the Pope's representative to the U.S., and the challenges against religious liberty in the country.

“As everyone knows, the past years have been very challenging for the Church in America,” he said, acknowledging in turn other significant events, including Pope Francis' visit to the U.S.   He stressed the need to pray “that the United States of America will protect our freedom, especially our religious liberty, as well as respect the human right to conscientious objection, and that we will be courageous in always defending the freedom to put our Catholic faith into practice without fear.”           “This is an age when we need great courage—courage to stand up for the Truth, even when we are not understood, or persecuted when we are understood. We need to be strong in the face of evil.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. welcomed the appointment, saying “Archbishop Pierre is recognized for his distinguished diplomatic career and service to the Church. I look forward to welcoming him to this archdiocese where he will make his home as he carries out his responsibilities across the country.”

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput echoed this welcome, saying, “Throughout his many years of service to the Church, Archbishop Pierre has displayed a strong sense of just diplomacy. Previously, he served as Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti, Uganda, and Mexico. His broad experience will greatly benefit the Church in the United States.”   “I also want to express my deep gratitude to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, now retiring from his diplomatic duties,” Archbishop Chaput continued.

“Throughout his time as Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Vigano worked zealously for the spiritual welfare of Catholics and many other good people in our country. I am particularly thankful for his personal friendship and invaluable assistance as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia prepared for the World Meeting of Families and the visit of our Holy Father last year.”