Speaking to journalists last month, Pope Francis addressed a seemingly impossible task: reforming Vatican finances. Surprisingly, he named a cardinal who, he implied, had held up progress: Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (Apsa). The cardinal, who reached retirement age in February, has overseen the agency responsible for the Vatican’s investment and real estate portfolios since 2011. “I am studying candidates who have an attitude of renewal, a new person after so many years,” the Pope told reporters. “Calcagno knows the functioning well, but perhaps the mentality has to be renewed.”

Last week Francis revealed the name of the successful candidate: Bishop Nunzio Galantino. The choice surprised Vatican-watchers because the bishop is noticeably lacking in financial expertise. Five years ago he was a virtual unknown, leading a small southern Italian diocese. Then, to general astonishment, Pope Francis named him secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference. The Pope elevated Galantino because of his reputation for integrity and austerity. Francis has now given him his toughest assignment yet.

Everyone has heard of the Vatican bank. But few know of Apsa. The latter is, in fact, far more significant. The Vatican bank’s assets do not belong to the Vatican, but rather to the religious orders and Catholic associations whose funds it manages. Apsa, meanwhile, uses money from Vatican properties and investments to finance the Curia. Reform of the Vatican bank, launched by Benedict XVI, is more or less complete. Apsa, meanwhile, has fought off outside auditors, earning a reputation for opacity and cronyism.

Francis was elected in 2013 with a mandate to reform Vatican finances. He began promisingly, creating a Council for the Economy to oversee Vatican financial policy, appointing Cardinal George Pell as head of the new Secretariat for the Economy and naming an independent auditor general. Five years on, the council is rudderless, the secretariat neutered and the auditor general’s post is vacant after the previous occupant was marched out of the Vatican. The nomination of Bishop Galantino is therefore a last-ditch effort to salvage Vatican financial reform.

We wish the bishop well, but the omens are discouraging. For all their outstanding qualities, post-conciliar popes have failed to get a grip on Vatican finances. Paul VI founded the Prefecture for Economic Affairs in 1967, but it was unable even to produce credible annual financial statements. Under John Paul II, the Vatican bank became a byword for scandal, and Benedict XVI’s resignation left his financial reforms incomplete.

To his credit, Francis is refusing to give up when many have written off his chances. The Pope trusts Bishop Galantino to implement his vision faithfully. The bishop, in turn, has an impeccable reputation. Will this be enough to enable them to haul Apsa into line? The odds are against them, but let’s pray that they succeed.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection