Pope Francis will likely be giving the inaugural lecture of the annual general assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference scheduled for May 19-23, according to Italian publication “Il Fatto Quotidiano.” Customarily, the president of the conference delivers the opening address, after having agreed with the Pope on its main topics, in an audience that takes place the Saturday before the beginning of the assembly. The Pope, as Bishop of Rome and Primate of Italy, is usually invited to make an intervention during the assembly. Two sources confirmed to CNA March 17 that Pope Francis may well have decided to give the opening address himself. The decision could be attributed to his decision to give a definitive push for his will regarding reform of the Italian bishops’ conference. It would be the first time that the inaugural lecture will have been given by the Pope. The decision is being read by Italian observers as a knock against the conference president, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa. It would be the latest in a series of decisions by Pope Francis appearing to marginalize Cardinal Bagnasco. The Genoan archbishop was not confirmed as a member of the Congregation of Bishops in its Dec. 18 reshuffle: the first time that the president of the Italian bishops’ conference was excluded from the dicastery. Cardinal Bagnasco was replaced on the congregation by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia. Pope Francis also chose as the Italian bishops’ general secretary “ad interim” Bishop Nunzio Galantino of Cassano all’Jonio, following informal consultation among the Italian bishops. Bishop Galantino has been entrusted by the Pope with carrying out the modification of the Italian bishops’ conference statutes. Italy’s bishops’ conference is the only conference the world over whose president is not elected by his peers but is chosen rather by the Pope. The conference considered the possibility of themselves electing their president, during the 1983 general assembly. In a non-binding vote which was delivered to the Pope, 145 voted to give the bishops the power to elect their president; 36 not to, and four ballots were left blank. But during an extraordinary assembly the following year, the then-president of the conference, Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero of Turin, told his fellow bishops that John Paul II had chosen to reserve for his office the appointment of their president and secretary-general.

Pope Francis has asked the Italian bishops to reconsider their statutes. The first discussion on a possible reform of the statutes took place in January, during the last periodic meeting of the presidents of Italy’s regional conferences. In a news conference held Jan. 31, Bishop Galantino said, “the Italian bishops want to reserve to the Holy Father the freedom of appointing their president.” Bishop Galantino then added that the bishops “are working on modifications of the statutes in order to participate in the process of selection of the president,” while “before, according to the statutes, the Italian bishops could only applaud after the Pope’s decision.” In any case, there is seemingly a long way to go for the reform of the statutes, which is reportedly meeting resistance by several of the Italian bishops. This will have been the reason why Pope Francis may have taken the unprecedented decision of giving the inaugural address of the next general assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference.