When Cardinal Pietro Parolin was appointed Vatican secretary of state in October 2013, there were rumours that the oldest dicastery in the Roman Curia was about to have its wings clipped. Insiders said that Pope Francis was considering creating a new department to deal with the interior running of the Curia, reducing the secretariat of state’s role to the diplomatic functions of the Holy See alone.

But in an early sign of his political nous, Cardinal Parolin ensured that this did not happen. Not only that, he also made certain that his department’s grip on all the others was actually tightened.

Another indication that Parolin would re-assert the central role of the secretariat of state was his appointment to the Council of Cardinal Advisers. This new body was created only a month after Francis’s election to allow the Pope to receive advice from outside the curial circle. Many thought that the secretariat of state had monopolised access to successive popes.

It was therefore significant that it was not represented in the new council. But in July 2014, after less than a year, the “C8” became the “C9”, with Parolin added to their number. The new secretary of state, made a cardinal that February, was not about to let himself be marginalised.

Three years later, the secretariat of state has not only maintained its overarching grip on the other dicasteries; it has also seemingly increased its dominance still further. Parolin, the archetypal curial insider, seems more and more to be setting the agenda in Rome.

Who is Parolin? He is the son of a shop manager and a teacher from near Vicenza. He was ordained in 1980 and swiftly chosen to train as a papal diplomat. After postings in Nigeria and Mexico, where he helped to oversee the legal recognition of the Catholic Church, he returned to Rome. He rose to become Undersecretary of State for Relations with States in 2002. In 2009, Benedict XVI appointed him nuncio to Venezuela, then under the messianic rule of Hugo Chávez. Parolin impressed observers with his deft handling of the erratic strongman.

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