The Pope is worried about Vatican debt.

So much so, that he has asked one of his most trusted advisers to put austerity measures into place to safeguard the financial future of the Holy See.

Driving the news

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Francis wrote in May to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy, with an urgent petition to rein in spending.

“I ask you to study all measures deemed necessary to safeguard the economic future of the Holy See and to ensure that they are put into effect as soon as possible”, the Pope told Marx, who is also a member of Francis’ “kitchen cabinet” of cardinal advisers and President of the German Bishops’ Conference.

“Inform the respective heads [of Vatican departments] about the gravity of the situation”, Francis added.


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The big picture

In total, the Vatican has an annual budget of some 300 million euros.

But it ran a debt in 2018 of about 70 million euros, a figure twice that of 2017.

About 45% of the Vatican budget goes to salaries for its 3,000 employees.

Although observers say many workers are in non-essential positions, sources say Pope Francis is determined to see the financial crisis through without any lay-offs.

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The intrigue

Although he was elected Pope in 2013 on a mandate of theological, financial and administrative reform, Francis has met with many headwinds in his project for Vatican renewal.

First, the deep-seated corruption he inherited in Rome, perhaps most famously represented by the 550,000-euro Christmas manger scene set up one year in St. Peter’s Square.

Vatican finances have also been decimated, critics say, by the lax approach of officials to balancing the budget, the non-maintenance of Vatican real estate and the non-collection of rents, as well as an expensive car fleet.

To get to the bottom of the rot, Francis set up a number of oversight bodies for Vatican financial supervision, including the Secretariat for the Economy he established in 2014.

But the man he chose to head the Secretariat, Cardinal George Pell of Australia, left Rome in 2017 to fight the charges of child sexual abuse for which he now serving a six-year prison sentence.

The post of Vatican auditor general has also been vacant since the previous occupant of that post, Libero Milone, resigned unexpectedly, also in 2017, over a purported “clash of operational styles” with Pell.

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Why it matters

Vatican officials fear that if the Pope doesn’t clear up finances soon, a number of the Church’s most famous landmarks, as well as Vatican employee pensions, could be at risk.

Joseph Zahra, a Maltese businessman who is also Vice Coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy, told the Wall Street Journal that “what (the Pope) is saying is this can’t go on forever. One can see incremental changes but there have to be radical steps”.

And that’s just what the Pope intends to do, calling an urgent meeting on Vatican finances for September 20.

The Vatican also plans to publicly report this autumn on its budget for the first time since 2015.

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