Why you should care
Because the first American pope might be more than a TV show.
From the outside looking in, Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, with its high Victorian architecture, colossal statues of Nelson Mandela and imposing, crescent-shaped Union Buildings, appears a paragon of order — the good twin to Johannesburg, its wayward brother 25 miles to the south. And yet, an assignment from the portentous halls of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to the smaller midcentury modern Apostolic Nunciature office and residence in one of Pretoria’s gated communities could be seen as getting put out to pasture. But consider the presidency of Jacob Zuma, who has survived seven no-confidence votes amid countless scandals, a restless electorate beset with 25 percent unemployment and a recent report on church abuse, and Pretoria is a minefield of spiritual unrest.
Into this Ascalon, on Feb. 9, 2016, walked Peter Bryan Wells, Catholic diocesan priest turned papal diplomat, and formerly the most senior American official in the Vatican — fourth in line to the pope himself.
“I’ve found that I do as much pastoral work here as anything else. I’m in Soweto saying mass in the morning and with the Dominicans for an event in the evening,” says Wells, giving a tour of his house after shepherding in guests. Pretoria is prone to carjackings and home invasions, and Wells lives in a locked community and uses a car and driver. “Most diplomatic services bring the concerns and interests of their countries. I am here for the people of the country. I am here to hear their challenges, their sufferings and joys, to take them back to the Holy Father, so he knows if he needs to use his very loud voice to help those who don’t have a very loud voice.”
He certainly would have the qualities and the confidence to be the first American pope.
Monsignor Gregory Gier
As Pope Francis continues in his mission to reach out to the most marginalized communities, Wells’ five-year appointment could signify a stepping-stone to higher office. Since 1980, the number of Catholics in Africa has grown by 238 percent and is approaching 200 million, according to a 2015 report issued by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University–affiliated research center. And the countries under his charge — South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia — present some of the biggest problems (and opportunities for salvation) in the world.
A preliminary 2017 report on the Commercialisation and Abuse of People’s Belief Systems by the South African government found that church leaders in evangelical or “storefront” churches were allegedly pouring boiling water over congregants‚ placing them in deep freezers and making them drink gasoline in a “demonstration of God’s power” before taking their money. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has documented a general lack of faith in the government’s willingness to develop a strategy to combat the high rate of violence against women, as well as the continued underreporting of rape, even in the home.
“South Africa is a major player on the Africa continent — and Peter has a lot of opportunity there,” says Monsignor Gregory Gier, who was Wells’ superior in the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Wells was ordained and spent his first five years as a priest. Looking ahead, Gier adds, “He certainly would have the qualities and the confidence to be the first American pope, but the timing isn’t quite right. Then again, no one was sure the timing was right for an Argentinian pope or a German one, either.”
Known as a charismatic yet low-profile workaholic, Wells, the former assessor for general affairs of the Holy See’s secretariat of state from 2009 to 2016, was considered in Vatican circles as the “go-to man” for world leaders from English-speaking countries who wanted the pope’s ear. During his tenure in Rome, Wells was also credited with voicing the Vatican’s position on sensitive issues, including the sex abuse controversy, same-sex unions and Francis’ sweeping effort to turn the church toward the poor and the marginalized. After Francis realized the Institute for the Works of Religion, commonly known as the Vatican Bank, needed significant reform, he enlisted Wells to rid the bank of alleged money-laundering and tax-evasion schemes. In 2014, Francis put Wells in charge of the Holy See’s Financial Security Committee to ensure that all Vatican financial transactions — from distributing church collection change to collecting rents from vast property holdings — met European bank transparency standards.
Having such professional authority and responsibility is something Wells never conceived of. Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma, the eldest of five children to moderately religious Catholic parents, Wells was always an altar server, but priesthood didn’t enter his mind until he was at university, studying premed and working with youth at the local parish. “I wanted to just be a priest in Oklahoma — you could do so much with small parishes to make them active and alive,” Wells says.
After graduating from seminary and becoming a priest, Wells entered the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in 1995. As a diplomat in training, he earned a doctorate in canon law and learned the four required languages of the Vatican: Italian, French, Spanish and English.
Like his contemporaries around the world, Wells’ agenda is the pope’s agenda — and Francis’ papacy is focused on climate change, sustainable development and the “protection of human dignity.” But in South Africa, Wells has picked up another cause: education, especially for girls. “We see a lot of undocumented children, and it’s hard for them to get an education,” he tells OZY. “One of the main ways to get out of poverty is through education, and the church is making sure that this concern is addressed.”
As refugees from neighboring countries flood South Africa and teenage girls become pregnant — sometimes consensually, often not — and then drop out of school, Wells realizes that his tenure will involve more deed than deity. “The church here was so involved in the struggle against apartheid, always on the front lines, and now that the leadership is more indigenous and coming into its own, I believe we have a real chance to change things here,” he says.
“But with my life, I take it as it comes. The more I try to think and analyze, the more wasted energy.”