Vatican reformer; b. Paggiole de Vernio, near Pistora, Italy, May 12, 1921; d. Oct. 26, 1982. As sostituto (or deputy) to the Vatican Secretary of State, he played a key but controversial reforming role in the pontificate of Paul VI. One of three children of middle-class parents, he entered the seminary at Pistora, was ordained at 22, and did further studies at the Gregorian University and the Ecclesiastical Academy or school for diplomats.
In 1947 he entered the Roman Curia as secretary to Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, who remained his 'patron.' He rose steadily in the Vatican diplomatic service through successive appointments: Dublin 1950, Paris 1953, Rio di Janeiro 1960, and Madrid 1962, where he was credited with recommending bishops who
could live happily in a post-Franco world. This diplomatic posting meant that he missed the first-hand experience of Vatican II. In 1965 Paul VI named him Observer to UNESCO in Paris but, after a brief spell in West Africa, brought him back to Rome in 1967 as his chief executive.
Pope Paul summoned him back to Rome to serve as sostituto to the Vatican Secretary of State, Amleto Cardinal Cicognani (d. 1969). As sostituto he was responsible for carrying out the reform of the Curia announced in August 1967. Since one of its features was that the Secretariat of State was made responsible for the overall 'coordination' of the work of all curial departments, his influence was considerable. A glutton for work himself, he expected others to be the same. He was a practical reformer, and put a stop to abuses and nepotism in the Vatican administration.
His loyalty to the reforming aims of Paul VI was unchallenged. In particular he sought to ensure a balance between the 'new curia' (the Secretariats for Christian Unity, Non-Believers, and Non-Christian Religions) and the traditional Roman dicasteries. This meant that both groups regarded him on occasion with suspicion. He was the man in the middle. The buck tended to stop with Benelli. He became known as the 'Gauleiter ' or the 'Berlin Wall' for the brusque directness of his management style. He supervised the work of the International Justice and Peace Commission very closely, and he took a keen interest in the activities of the Italian Episcopal Conference. Very little escaped his notice. His attentions were not always welcomed by those for whom they were intended. He was charged with abusing his closeness to the by now enfeebled Paul VI, and in particular, he was said to 'go over the head' of the French Secretary of State, Cardinal Jean villot.
His critics thought they had won a victory in 1977 when Benelli became Archbishop of Florence and a cardinal. But this was a mistaken reading of the event. In the August 1978 conclave Benelli was the king-maker and his candidate, Albino Luciani, came through with remarkable swiftness. In the October conclave, however, Benelli was himself a contender and came very close to the two-thirds plus one needed to be elected. But supporters of Cardinal Giuseppe Siri would not yield. With the two Italians dead-locked, the way was open for this first non-Italian pope since Hadrian VI in 1523.
Benelli did not repine. He no longer expected to return to Rome as Secretary of State, and was content to be the first Tuscan to be Archbishop of Florence in over a hundred years. He determined to make Florence the cultural and spiritual capital of the European community, and to provide the European Common Market with a soul (as he put it). But the new pope, John Paul II, was more concerned about the 'wider Europe' which included the Slavs. Benelli's world was changing.
Bibliography: "Benelli, Giovanni Cardinal," Current Biography 1987 (New York 1987) 48–50.