Archbishop Robert Francis Prevost, a 68-year-old Augustinian religious of American nationality, will be created cardinal on September 30, 2023, exactly eight months after being named Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. Pope Francis had defied expectations by choosing the bishop of Chiclayo, Peru, to head this powerful dicastery responsible for selecting bishops of historically Christian territories.
Born in Chicago on September 14, 1955, Archbishop Robert Francis Prevost comes from a family of French, Italian, and Spanish descent. Educated in mathematics and philosophy at Villanova University in Philadelphia, he entered the Augustinian novitiate in 1977.
He took his vows four years later, before receiving priestly ordination in 1982 in Rome. The ordaining bishop was Archbishop Jean Jadot (1909-2009), then pro-president of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, and perceived as a “progressive” figure within the Curia. This Belgian archbishop was apostolic delegate to the United States from 1973 to 1980. At that time, the nunciature did not yet exist due to the absence of formal diplomatic relations between Washington and the Holy See.
In 1987, Robert Francis Prevost obtained a doctorate in Canon Law from the Angelicum (Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas), with a thesis on the role of the local prior of the Order of St. Augustine. While preparing his thesis, he also had his first missionary experience in Peru in 1985-86, as chancellor of the Diocese of Chulucanas and vicar of the cathedral.
After returning to his native Illinois for a few months as head of vocation ministry and director of missions for his province, he returned to Peru in 1988 for 11 years, during which time he carried out numerous missions in the Archdiocese of Trujillo. In particular, he founded a parish of which he was the first pastor until 1999. He was also at various times the prior of his community, ecclesiastical judge, director of the Augustinian seminary, and prefect of studies and rector of the diocesan seminary, where he taught canon law, patristics and morals.
Elected provincial for his home region covering the American Midwest, he returned to Chicago in 1999. Father Prevost was then elected Prior General of the Order of Saint Augustine. He held this position for two six-year terms, from 2001 to 2013. After a transitional year as Director of Formation at the Convent of St. Augustine in Chicago, First Councillor and Vicar Provincial, he was called to the episcopate by Pope Francis in November 2014, returning to his former mission country.
A missionary bishop in an unstable Peru
Initially apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Chiclayo, he became its full bishop in September 2015. According to the 2022 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, this diocese in northern Peru has 90 incardinated priests serving a total population of 1.3 million, 83% of whom are Catholics. Prevost was also Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Callao, the major Pacific port, from 2020 to 2021.
Within the Peruvian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Prevost was vice-president and member of the permanent council from 2018 to 2023, and president of the commission for education and culture from 2019 to 2023.
Peru’s bishops played an important role in ensuring institutional stability during the successive political crises that led to the overthrows of presidents Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in 2018, Martín Vizcarra and Manuel Merino in 2020, and Pedro Castillo in 2022. A few days before his fall and arrest, Castillo, a radical leftist, was received by the president of the bishops’ conference and by Bishop Prevost. They hoped to find a peaceful solution “at this very difficult moment in Peruvian democratic life,” as the bishops, who had previously had difficult relations with his administration, pointed out.
Within the Latin American episcopate, US nationals are rare. Peru’s bishops’ conference does, however, include another American: Bishop Arthur Colgan, a religious of the Order of the Holy Cross, who has been auxiliary bishop of Chosica since 2015.
Peru, a relatively small country on the scale of Latin America but nonetheless twice the size of France, was visited by Pope Francis in January 2018. That trip therefore enabled him to meet and spot Bishop Prevost, whom he received in a private audience in 2021.
A novel missionary profile within the Dicastery for bishops
For several years, Bishop Robert Prevost had been the subject of speculation about an imminent curial promotion, as he had been a member of the Dicastery for the Clergy since July 2019, and of the Dicastery for Bishops since November 21, 2020. Such discreet appointments can sometimes be a first clue to taking on responsibility within the Roman Curia.
He was named Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops in January 2023, and was made an archbishop at the same time. When he took over from Cardinal Ouellet on April 12, 2023, he became the first missionary bishop outside his home country to be appointed to head this strategic dicastery. It’s responsible for selecting bishops for dioceses in countries that have an ancient Christian presence, mainly in the northern hemisphere. Mission lands remain under the jurisdiction of the Dicastery for Evangelization, the former Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
However, bishops from countries in the southern hemisphere have occasionally held the office of prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. Such was the case of Beninese Cardinal Bernardin Gantin from 1984 to 1998, and his successor, Brazilian Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves, from 1998 to 2000.
During his first months in office, Archbishop Prevost remained relatively discreet in the media, but was appreciated for his ability to listen and his mastery of issues. A French bishop who met him two months after he took office praised his “judicious questions” and his ability to synthesize, stressing that this first contact had left him with a “good impression.”
Criticism of his conduct in an abuse case
His two years at the head of the Augustinian province of Our Lady of Good Counsel (1999-2001) were the subject, 20 years later, of fierce criticism from the American press. The issue was his attitude in a case of sexual abuse of minors involving a member of his congregation. In September 2000, in his capacity as provincial, Father Prevost had given his approval to Father James Ray, a religious convicted of sexual abuse of minors and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, to stay at an Augustinian priory near an elementary school.
For two years, the cleric continued to celebrate weddings and baptisms, while also working as a hospital chaplain. It wasn’t until 2002, with the tightening of rules established by the American episcopate, that this priest was removed from that residence, before being laicized in 2012 following the discovery of new cases implicating him.
As prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Cardinal Prevost is responsible for applying the rules of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux mundi. This motu proprio can lead to the resignation of bishops found guilty of negligence, cover-up or mismanagement of abuse cases involving priests under their jurisdiction.