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Villot, Jean


Cardinal, Vatican Secretary of State; b. Clermont-Ferrand, France, 1905 (possibly 1906); d. Rome, Italy, March 9, 1979. Villot was tall, gangling, chain-smoking, and exasperatingly courteous in the French manner. Little in his previous career prepared him for the top post in Vatican diplomacy. He was a theology professor at Clermont-Ferrand and the Institut Catholique of Lyons. From 1950 to 1959 he was secretary of the French episcopal conference, which led to his being appointed as the French-language secretary when Vatican II started in 1962. This brought him to the attention of Paul VI who made him a cardinal in 1965 and brought him from Lyons to Rome in 1967 as Prefect of the Congregation of the Clergy. In May 1969 he was advanced to Secretary of State.

This was a crucial time in the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. The anti-authority mood of 1968 affected the Church and led to intense criticism of Humanae vitae. Pope Paul needed someone to steady the ship. The surprise was not so much that Pope Paul had appointed a non-Italian Secretary of State for the first time, but that he had persisted with the aged Cicognani for so longhe was 86 before he was forced to retire.

Paul also wanted Villot to carry through the reform of the Roman Curia. It had been done "on paper" with Regimini ecclesiae (Aug. 15, 1967), but to be made effective, it needed strong leadership. Villot could bring a fresh mind to this task, and flanked by the dynamic Giovanni benelli as sostituto, he would perform that function of co-ordination which Paul VI saw as the main role of the Secretariat of State.

Villot was energetic, methodical, and pastorallyminded. He tried to rationalize the working methods of the Secretariat of State, insisting on shorter hours and fewer time-wasting procedures. The bureaucrats were reminded that they were priests, and he set an example for them by hearing confessions, visiting hospitals, and preaching on Sundays. The Villa Barberini near Castelgandolfo had been fitted out as the summer residence of the Secretary of State; yet no previous Secretary of State had actually lived there. Villot spent his summers there in order to be close to Paul VI. Although the Pope remained alone with the burden of his office, Villot shouldered some of the load.

Villot often had difficulties with Giovanni Benelli. Benelli specialized in Italian affairs about which Villot was deemed ignorant. Villot thought that the Church would expose itself to humiliation if it fought the divorce reform proposal of May 12, 1974; he was later proven correct. Benelli, who had been secretary to Monsignor Montini from 1947 to 1950, had known the Pope far longer than Villot had, and had access to him whenever he liked. This rankled Villot, but it was Benelli who left in June of 1977.

Villot played a crucial role as camerlengo responsible for organizing the two conclaves of 1978. Pope John Paul I immediately named him his Secretary of State. An ill-informed writer later claimed that Villot had joined in a plot to murder the Pope because he was about to be removed from office, but Villot had no desire to retain his position and wished to resign. After John Paul I's death and the subsequent election of John Paul II on Oct. 18, 1978, Villot was forced to remain in the Vatican as Secretary of State. The unique combination of a non-Italian pope and a non-Italian Secretary of State was short lived. Villot died a few months later at the age of 73.

Bibliography: p. hebblethwaite, The Year of Three Popes (1978). h. denis, Eglise, quas tu fait de ton concile? (Paris 1985).

[p. hebblethwaite]

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