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Pope’s new pick for head of liturgy department: A bet or a hedge?

The Holy See announced on Thursday the appointment of Archbishop Arthur Roche as the new prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Roche, the emeritus Bishop of Leeds in England, has served as the secretary of the congregation since 2012.

The appointment comes after Pope Francis accepted in February the resignation of Cardinal Robert Sarah as head of the congregation, and ordered subsequently a visitation of the curial department — an unusual event for the Vatican. 

Archbishop Arthur Roche. Credit: Mazur/


Roche’s appointment, at the age of 71, will be seen by many as a kind of stop-gap. The archbishop is expected to serve a normal five-year term in the role, after which he will be one year older than the ordinary age of retirement for the head of a Vatican department. 

At the same time, the pope named Bishop Vittorio Francesco Viola, OFM, as an archbishop and the congregation’s new secretary. Viola is now Bishop of Tortona, Italy. Given Roche’s age, many are already touting the bishop as an eventual successor as prefect.

Pope Francis has largely sought to avoid cultural clashes over the liturgy during his time in office, and his decision to promote from within the department may signal a desire to end the controversy caused by the visitation of the department after Sarah’s departure, while also signaling a shift in emphasis at the department towards the ordinary form of the liturgy. 

The 2014 appointment of Sarah, Roche’s predecessor and a known supporter of the extraordinary form of the liturgy, was seen in Rome as an indication Francis would not seek to revisit the provisions of Benedict XVI’s 2007 motu proprio Summorum pontificum, which broadened access to the more traditional liturgy throughout the Latin Church. 

At the time of Sarah’s appointment, there was widespread speculation that Francis would choose Archbishop Piero Marini, the former master of papal liturgical ceremonies under St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Marini was subsequently passed over for the appointment and sent to lead the Pontifical Committee for the International Eucharistic Congress. Marini is the former secretary to Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who was responsible for the major reform of the liturgy following Vatican Council II.

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After Sarah’s departure and the pope’s decision to order an inspection of the department, some Vatican watchers predicted confidently that the next prefect would be Bishop Claudio Maniago of the Italian Diocese of Castellaneta, who conducted the visitation and leads the liturgical commission of the Italian bishops’ conference. 

While the results of Maniago’s inspection were not made public, some commentators suggested it had concluded that the department was dysfunctional and in need of dramatic reform after Sarah’s seven years in charge. Francis’ decision to promote from within the department twice, naming Roche as prefect and promoting Msgr. Aurelio García Marcías, an office head from within the congregation, to bishop and under-secretary, would seem to refute those suggestions. 

An avuncular Yorkshireman who previously served as spiritual director of the Venerable English College in Rome, Roche has long been affectionately known among English priests as “Uncle Arthur” — long before the McCarrick scandal imbrued the term “uncle” with scandalous subtext.

Although not possessing an academic background in liturgy, he has played a central role in liturgical matters for more than a decade, especially in the area of translation, and, while known to be a close friend of Archbishop Marini, Roche has found himself on both sides of the Church’s liturgical culture wars. 

In 2002, Roche was elected chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, which produced the 2011 revised translation of the English liturgy, which was widely criticized by liturgical progressives. 

More recently, he oversaw a review of Liturgiam authenticam, which promulgated that revised translation, and which led to Francis’ 2017 motu proprio Magnum principium, which delegated future liturgical translations to episcopal conferences.

Critics of Roche describe him as someone who can be relied upon to “go with the flow” and fall in line with the predominant school of thought on any particular issue, almost to the point of being a “yes-man”. Others who know and work with Roche stress that his collaborative nature makes him well suited to the often bitterly divisive work of liturgical reform.

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While many are already confidently touting Francis’ choice of Roche as a place-holder for an eventual Viola prefecture, it should also be noted that the pope has largely side-stepped liturgical clashes over the last eight years, and made a point of celebrating public liturgies ad orientem as well as facing the congregation, without apparently favoring one style over another.

Given the pope would himself be 89 by the time Roche finishes his term, reading his choice of prefect as a stepping stone to a future appointment is likely just projection by commentators. 

Perhaps the most common-sense interpretation of Francis appointing a collaborative and non-ideological prefect for the congregation is that the pope isn’t looking for a liturgical fight in the final years of his papacy. 

Of course, trying to predict what Pope Francis has in mind is a fool’s game; ask those who were sure he would appoint Marini instead of Sarah, or Maniago instead of Roche.

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