What Could Pope Francis’ Message Be With His Choice of New Cardinals?

ANALYSIS: After the August consistory, there will be 132 cardinals with the right to vote in a papal conclave, 12 more than the limit of 120 established by Pope St. Paul VI.

Cardinals attend a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 5, 2019.
Cardinals attend a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 5, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez / CNA)

The consistory for the creation of cardinals on Aug. 27 is a ceremony that seems to mark the end of a pontificate — though that end might be long in coming.  

After praying the Regina Coeli on Sunday, Pope Francis announced the creation of 21 new cardinals, 16 of whom will be eligible to vote in a future conclave. 

He also summoned all cardinals to take part in another consistory, on Aug. 29-30, to discuss the new Vatican constitution Praedicate Evangelium. Such a broad discussion among cardinals hasn’t taken place for seven years. 

The 85-year-old Pope chose to convene the consistory in August, a non-traditional date. The last such event took place on Aug. 24, 1807, when Pius VII named Francesco Guidobono Cavalchini as a cardinal in pectore (in secret). The move was only made public in 1818.

By announcing the gathering to discuss the new Vatican constitution, the Pope effectively froze the ongoing debate until the end of August. For three months, discussion of curial reform and the Church’s broader trajectory will be effectively contained, giving Pope Francis a freer hand to make changes, including new curial appointments, and present them as a fait accompli by the time of his meeting with the world’s cardinals. 

There is almost a sense of inevitability to the new consistory for the creation of cardinals. There is a widespread perception in Rome that this will be Pope Francis’ last and therefore he wants to set things straight. 

Some observers even speculate that Pope Francis could end the Aug. 29-30 gathering with cardinals by announcing his resignation. That would certainly be a striking gesture, sending the message that once one’s mandate is completed — and Pope Francis’ mandate is above all curial reform — then one may leave office.

This hypothesis seems unlikely for now. But the next consistory does send many strong messages, which can be divided into four themes: numbers and symbols; the language of Pope Francis’ consistories; what the cardinals’ profiles reveal; and Pope Francis’ vision.


Numbers and Symbols

Pope Francis has now completely abolished the idea of ​​cardinalatial dioceses. Thus, important archdiocesan sees remain without cardinals, including Milan, Venice, Krakow, Paris, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

Pope Francis has sought to expand the global representativeness of the College of Cardinals. As a result, Paraguay, East Timor and Singapore will each have a cardinal for the first time. Pope Francis will also create as a cardinal Bishop Giorgio Marengo, the apostolic vicar in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

The next consistory will see six new cardinals from Asia. Four cardinals-elect come from Europe, four from America, and two from Africa. Asia already had 15 cardinal electors, and it was thought that the Pope would not look there for new cardinals. And yet, he increased the Asian representation significantly.

Africa also had 15 cardinal electors but only got two red hats. Europe has four new cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave, and the Americas also has four. Oceania currently has three cardinals, but none from Australia. This is also a sobering figure.

How will the College of Cardinals be composed starting from the next consistory? There are 117 cardinal electors, and there will be 116 at the time of the consistory because, in the meantime, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera will have turned 80 years old. After the consistory, there will be 132 cardinals with the right to vote in a conclave, 12 more than the limit of 120 established by Paul VI.

By the end of August, Pope Francis will therefore have created 83 cardinal electors, or 62% of cardinals in a future conclave. By the end of 2022, six other cardinals will have turned 80, thus losing the right to vote in a conclave.

Only one of these, Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez, was created a cardinal by Pope Francis. Therefore, Pope Francis will find himself at the end of the year with a possible conclave of 126 cardinals, 82 of which he created. 

This means that in a conclave, the cardinals created by Pope Francis would be at just over 65%. The quorum for the election of a pope is two-thirds, or 84 cardinals. At the end of 2022, the cardinals created by Pope Francis will only be two less than the quota necessary to elect a successor.

The latest cardinals come from England, South Korea, Spain, France, Nigeria, India (2), Brazil (2), the United States, East Timor, Italy (5), Ghana, Singapore, Paraguay, Colombia and Belgium. 

After the ceremony on Aug. 27, Europe will have 55 cardinal electors, Africa 16, and North America 16 (Bishop Robert McElroy’s entry compensates for Cardinal Rivera’s exit). Central America will remain at seven, while South America rises to 15, Asia goes up to 19 and Oceania sees no new entries, staying at three.

At the end of 2022, Central America will have five cardinals, South America 14, and Europe 52. On Aug. 27, the cardinal electors created by Pope Francis will number 83, with 38 by Benedict XVI, and 11 by John Paul II. At the end of 2022, the quota will drop to 82, 34, and 10 respectively.

Pope Francis has also named five new cardinals over the age of 80 without the right to vote in the conclave. In total, he will have created 27 cardinals over the age of 80 at eight consistories. This is a record: Benedict XVI made 16 cardinals over 80 at five consistories and John Paul II 20 in nine consistories.

For Pope Francis, the consistory is also a language, one that is also spoken through his choices of cardinals over 80.


The Language of Pope Francis’ Consistories

What does this latest consistory mean, then? First of all, that the Pope will not give particular weight to the new offices of the Curia. Those already in post get the red hat: Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the Governorate of Vatican City State.

Yet Archbishop Rino Fisichella, current president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, will not be a cardinal. With the reform, he will become a pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization, alongside Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the current president of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (the prefect will be the Pope). But Archbishop Fisichella will not have the recognition of the red hat, as Cardinal Tagle did.

Also not appearing on the list of new cardinals is Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna, whom many have tipped to be the next prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (currently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF). But this does not necessarily mean that he is no longer in the running to succeed the 78-year-old CDF prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria.

There are other curial offices that are expected to see a generational change of leadership. Among those over 75 are Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. None of their successors might be cardinal at the moment.

For Pope Francis, therefore, an appointment in the Curia does not count because under the new constitution this lasts a maximum of 10 years. Instead, what counts is personal trust or the emphasis he wants to give to certain themes.

The liturgy is not necessarily among those themes. Following the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, it was thought that the Pope would send a liturgical message by giving the red hat to Archbishop Piero Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations from 1987 to 2007. But this was not the case.

The Pope did, however, elevate Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who has enthusiastically promoted Pope Francis’s liturgical decisions.


What the Cardinals’ Profiles Reveal

Pope Francis underlined the theme of the family by giving a red hat to Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como, northern Italy, who was among the first to apply the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, in the sense of granting, under certain conditions, Communion to the divorced and remarried.

It is worth noting that Bishop Cantoni’s name has come up at two Vatican trials. One concerned alleged abuse in the Vatican pre-seminary. The bishop was questioned because it was he who ordained Father Gabriele Martinelli, a priest who was acquitted at the trial. Cantoni also featured in the Vatican finance trial, because Cardinal Angelo Becciu is alleged to have turned to him to put pressure to stop the flow of testimonies from Msgr. Alberto Perlasca, a priest of the Como Diocese who is today one of the key witnesses.

The Pope, however, trusts Bishop Cantoni. And perhaps he also wanted to send a message to Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan, who is currently facing accusations of covering up abuse.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille will be the first French residential prelate to receive the red hat from Pope Francis.

In April 2021, Archbishop Aveline met the Pope and proposed a papal visit to Marseille to develop a sort of “theology of the Mediterranean” that the Pope launched with his journey to Lampedusa in 2013 and continued to shape with a trip to Naples in 2015.

Archbishop Aveline presented the idea of ​​a Mediterranean pilgrimage to the Pope and also launched the idea of ​​an extraordinary synod for the Mediterranean. The Pope seems to prefer this idea to the “Mediterranean frontier of peace” initiative launched by the Italian bishops’ conference. Therefore, the choice of Archbishop Aveline not only affects the French episcopate but also gives a clear signal to the Italian one.

Among the new cardinals there is also Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, Nigeria. He was appointed bishop of Ahiara by Benedict XVI in 2012 but was unable to settle in the diocese because local Catholics demanded a bishop of another ethnicity. Pope Francis described the situation as “unacceptable” and even considered suppressing the diocese. In 2020, he appointed Bishop Okpakele as the first bishop of Ekwulobia. His appointment sends a clear message: one cannot oppose the will of the Pope regarding episcopal appointments and, above all, it cannot be done for ethnic reasons.

Another significant sign is the red hat awarded to Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who was reportedly considered a possible candidate to lead the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Bishop McElroy represents the most conciliatory line among the U.S. bishops regarding Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians such as President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In 2019, Francis named Bishop McElroy one of two Americans to attend the Pan-Amazon Synod.

Brazilian Archbishop Leonardo Ullrich of Manaus was also at the forefront during the synod. His creation as cardinal is undoubtedly linked to his work for the Church in the Amazon: The 77-year-old Franciscan is vice president of the Ecclesial Conference of the Amazon.

Another new cardinal, Archbishop Filipe Neri António Sebastião do Rosário Ferrão of Goa, India, was named a bishop by John Paul II in 1993. He is currently president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. 

Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, 60, also comes from India. He will be the first Dalit to become a cardinal, giving a solid signal to Indian society.

Also named a cardinal is Archbishop Virgílio do Carmo Da Silva of Dili, East Timor. Pope Francis had elevated Dili to a metropolitan archdiocese in 2019 and giving the red hat to the first archbishop is a vital sign of attention.

Archbishop Paulo Cezar Costa of Brasilia, 54, is the fourth archbishop of the Brazilian capital to become a cardinal after Cardinal José Freire Falcão, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, and Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha.

Also named cardinals are Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr of Wa, Ghana, the 62-year-old former superior general of the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers,) and Archbishop William Goh of Singapore, 64, who has led the Asian archdiocese since 2013. Their appointments meet the criteria of worldwide representation.

Bishop Giorgio Marengo, the apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, is a Consolata missionary who has been a bishop since 2020. At 47, he will become the youngest member of the College of Cardinals.

As mentioned, the cardinal electors are particularly important. And so, the red hat arrives for the Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Pope Francis’ troubleshooter and key man in all the most complex canonical situations. The 79-year-old Father Ghirlanda presented Praedicate Evangelium after its publication, and he was positioned next to the Pope at an interdicasterial meeting in May.

Bishop Lucas Van Looy, the 80-year-old emeritus bishop of Ghent, Belgium, is another of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis, who insisted on his presence at the 2015 family synod. His positions at the synod sought a synthesis, but he is considered an exponent of the progressive wing at home.

The red biretta for him is a further rebuke for Archbishop André-Joseph Leonard, who led the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels from 2010 to 2015. His predecessor, Godfried Danneels, was a cardinal, and so was his successor, Jozef de Kesel, created by Pope Francis. At the consistory of 2015, the Pope also gave the red hat to Archbishop Karl Jozef Rauber, the former nuncio to Belgium who strongly opposed the appointment of Léonard as archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.

Another new cardinal recently over the age of 80 is Archbishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez Carvajal, archbishop emeritus of Cartagena, Colombia, while the biretta given to Archbishop Arrigo Miglio, the archbishop emeritus of Cagliari, Italy, who will turn 80 next July, is a bit surprising. 

Msgr. Fortunato Frezza, an 80-year-old canon of St. Peter’s Basilica (and chaplain to the soccer team AS Roma), who worked for years for the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, will also become cardinal. Here, the Pope wanted to reward the old guard of the Synod of Bishops, and it is a sign that should not be underestimated.


Pope Francis’ Vision

Pope Francis uses consistories as a form of government. The first criterion is representativeness, and Francis has dramatically expanded the electoral representation. Following the consistory in Aug., 18 countries that previously never had a cardinal will be represented in the College of Cardinals.

Pope Francis also used consistories to change profoundly the profile of the College. So far, he has created 83 cardinal electors (101 after the August consistory.) The Pope has no qualms about going beyond the limit of cardinal electors because the message he is conveying is important to him.

This consistory, in particular, sends a message of “completion of work.” The Pope clarifies which positions he prefers, highlights that the Curia does not weigh greatly for him, and underlines the importance of the peripheral dioceses.

At the same time, Pope Francis confirms a typical feature of his modus operandi: that of discussing decisions only after they have been made. This happened during the curial reform process and also happens now that the reform has been unveiled.

The Pope has asked the cardinals for a meeting months after Praedicate Evangelium comes into force June 5. This is not, after all, a reform made by consensus, although drafts of the constitution were sent to the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences. It is a reform made to respond to the mandate entrusted to Pope Francis. The cardinals will not be able to change the reform. They will only be able to acknowledge it.

It is for all these reasons that the August consistory gives the impression of ​​an endpoint. After this, Pope Francis will only make minor adjustments, and perhaps he will not preside over another consistory. After Aug. 30, we will see, more clearly than ever before, the outlines of his legacy.

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