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Holy See finance review is at an ‘advanced stage’

Reform leader Joseph F.X. Zahra gives first interview since appointment

Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican yesterday. Photo: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Economist Joseph F.X. Zahra. Photo: Matthew MirabelliEconomist Joseph F.X. Zahra. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

A review of the structures within the Holy See is an advanced stage and will see the introduction of modern governance and proper checks and balances, according to the Maltese man appointed by Pope Francis to help lead these reforms.

Economist Joseph F.X. Zahra is among top laymen from the world of finance and economics who sit on a new Vatican Council for the Economy, intended to improve scrutiny of the Holy See’s scandal-plagued accounts.

This follows his appointment as president of a committee of inquiry set up by the Pope to investigate the Vatican’s finances and recommend ways to fix the Holy See’s economic and administrative shortcomings.

The council, which includes eight prelates from around the world, is being coordinated by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the eight cardinals charged with re-organising the Vatican administration.

Mr Zahra, a former chairman of Bank of Valletta and the National Euro Changeover Committee, said the challenges facing the Holy See were found in any reform process.

“Any institution needs moments of reflection and a revision of its structures, which would need to be modernised to be able to reflect modern governance.

“The main issue facing the Vatican is related to the introduction of a system of checks and balances and controls,” he said in his first interview since his appointment.

Asked how he was chosen, Mr Zahra said he has a long history with the Vatican and for the past three years was one of its five international auditors.

The main issue facing the Vatican is related to the introduction of a system of checks and balances and controls

The Holy See’s problems, which have long been acknowledged in Church circles, were revealed publicly last year through the leaks of papal correspondence by then Pope Benedict XVI’s butler.

The documents exposed the squabbles among Vatican bureaucrats, allegations of corruption in the awarding of contracts and mammoth fiscal waste, including €550,000 spent in 2009 for its Nativity scene in St Peter’s Square.

But aside from his role in revamping the Holy See administration, Mr Zahra is also involved in the promotion of the Church’s social teachings.

Along with other top-profile professionals and businessmen from the banking and financial services sector, he regularly organises meetings, seminars and short courses to attempt to influence decision-making through formation.

One of those events is being organised by the Vatican-based foundation Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice, which was set up by Pope John Paul II more than two decades ago.

The seminar, to be held in Malta, will deal with the socioeconomic aspects of Pope Francis’s recently published Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.

“The good society and the future of jobs is the theme chosen for this year’s seminar through which we are promoting the social thinking of the Church.

“The Evangelii Gaudium, Latin for ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, exhorts people to implement a particular aspect of the Church’s life and teaching” Mr Zahra explained.

“Pope Francis instils courage and urges us to look ahead despite the present crisis.

“It is not strictly about Catholicism and religion but deals with the absolute values of subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good.

“It is a sort of mission statement of the Church through the eyes of Pope Francis, who is inviting us to go back to basics and rediscover the original freshness of the Gospel.”

The Pope’s document deals with peace, social justice, the role of women, the family, faith and politics and the economy, among others, and has been described as the spiritual government policy statement.

“We cannot have a society that chases money for the sake of money. We have to have an economy where entrepreneurs contribute to social and economic growth, achieving fulfilment in life which will create more equality in society.”

The document, according to Mr Zahra, is not pessimistic about business but states that “business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life”.

It highlights the link between the economy and peace and decries the economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money through consumerism, overspending on luxury and waste.

It speaks out against a fiscal system that rules rather than serves, and against an inequality that creates violence.

The document also says no to corruption, tax evasion, bribery, virtual consumerism and short-termism.

These are the issues to be discussed during the public seminar being held tomorrow at 6pm at the Seminary in Tal- Virtù.

Apart from Mr Zahra, speakers include Jesuits provincial Fr Paul Pace SJ, former Central Bank governor Michael Bonello, social policy university lecturer Sue Vella, former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi and Archbishop Paul Cremona.

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