Even After Retirement, Cardinal Hummes Was a Central Figure in the Pontificate of Pope Francis

Standing at the Holy Father’s side immediately after his election in 2013, the late cardinal’s presence was a powerful sign of things to come.

Pope Francis (l) listens as Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes addresses the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 7, 2019 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis (l) listens as Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes addresses the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region on Oct. 7, 2019 at the Vatican. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images)

Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who died on July 4, had a remarkable lifetime of service to the Church, but his greatest influence came after his retirement in 2010. 

When Pope Francis appeared on the balcony after his election in March 2013, he adapted protocol to place Cardinal Hummes at his side. It was a powerful sign of three things to come — a pontificate focused on the poor, the ascendance of German priorities and a new era of dismissals in the Roman Curia. 

Claudio Hummes was a Franciscan priest in Brazil, ordained in 1958 and part of the generation of Latin American clergy which sought to implement Vatican II with an emphasis on justice for the poor. An articulate and persuasive voice, he was prominent enough as a young friar that he was made a bishop in 1975 at age 40. He was bishop for 20 years of Santo André, a diocese near São Paolo. In 1998, St. John Paul II made him archbishop of São Paolo, one of the most prominent sees in South America. 

After Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, there was grumbling that Brazil, despite have the largest Catholic population in the world (123 million), did not have a prominent curial cardinal in Rome. St. John Paul II had appointed the enormously respected Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves to be prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in 1998. He was thought at the time to be a possible Latin American papabile. But ill health forced his resignation in 2000, and he died in 2002, leaving John Paul’s Curia without a Brazilian prefect. 

Benedict XVI remedied that in 2006 by appointing Cardinal Hummes the new prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. He was the most senior Brazilian prelate, and Benedict thus brought him to Rome, despite differences in theological emphases.  

Cardinal Hummes had a rocky arrival. Just before leaving Brazil in December 2006, he gave an interview in which he mused about the possibility of married priests in the Latin rite. That provoked an immediate reaction in Rome, and a statement was issued by the cardinal clarifying that the issue of priestly celibacy was not up for discussion. Given that the statement was issued immediately upon his arrival in Rome, and thus prepared while he was en route, it was evident that he had been forced to sign something prepared for him. 

Roman rumors at the time suggested that Benedict XVI had asked Bishop Mauro Piacenza to execute Cardinal Hummes’ retraction. Cardinal Piacenza, a favorite of Cardinal Ratzinger, had been an official at Clergy since 1990 before being appointed president of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage  of the Church.  

Ordained a bishop in 2003, Piacenza’s role in reining in Cardinal Hummes was confirmed when Benedict XVI made him secretary at Clergy in 2007, just months after the Brazilian cardinal had arrived. In giving Cardinal Piacenza to Cardinal Hummes as his deputy, Pope Benedict was sending a subordinate to watch over the superior. 

Cardinal Hummes served less than four years at Clergy, retiring at age 76 in October 2010. He was succeeded by now-Archbishop Piacenza, who was named a cardinal the same month. 

Cardinal Hummes had been made a cardinal in the mega-consistory of 2001, along with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, and they sat next to each in order of seniority in the conclave of 2013.  

According to the newly-elected Pope Francis, at the moment of his election Cardinal Hummes leaned over and whispered to him, “Do not forget the poor.” The Holy Father explained that this admonition prompted him take Francis, Il Poverello, the poor man of Assisi, as his papal name. 

When Pope Francis appeared with Cardinal Hummes, the Franciscan, at his side, it was not just Latin American solidarity on the balcony. It was a clear signal, along with the new pope’s decision not to wear the customary vestments for the occasion and to make his first words a secular greeting, “Good evening.” John Paul had begun with “Praised be Jesus Christ!” 

Cardinal Hummes has been a champion of the poor, and Pope Francis intended to bring that South American experience to Rome, dreaming of a “poor Church for the poor.” 

Cardinal Hummes took as his episcopal motto the words of St. Francis, founder of his order, Omnes vos fratres (All you brothers). Pope Francis would take that same Franciscan greeting as the title of his 2020 encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.  

Cardinal Hummes also signaled the beginning of another, very different, German pontificate. Benedict XVI was from Germany, but he did not represent the dominant priorities of the Church in that country. Cardinal Hummes did. He was one of a remarkable number of ethnic Germans who ascended to great positions of influence in Latin America.  

He was born in Brazil to a German-Brazilian father and a German mother. His intellectual path followed the dominant themes in post-conciliar German theology. 

Cardinal Hummes was a principal figure in the “German pontificate” of Pope Francis. Germany is a rich Church for the rich, but the Holy Father has granted its longstanding priorities, notably admission of the divorced-and-civilly-married to Holy Communion and greater control of liturgical translations. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich is on the Council of Cardinals and head of the Council for the Economy. 

The great push for married priests — recall the Cardinal Hummes interview on 2006 — was to be accomplished at the Amazon Synod of 2019. German personnel and money dominated the Amazon synod process, and Cardinal Hummes was the leader of a longstanding German-Latin American alliance to use the situation in the Amazon to advance the priorities of the German heartland. Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Hummes relator general of the Amazon Synod. 

In a bitter disappointment to the Germans on both sides of the Atlantic, Pope Francis did not authorize married priests or woman deacons. He gave Cardinal Hummes a consolation prize, a new Amazonian assembly of bishops that Cardinal Hummes, though long past 80, would head. 

In the consistory scheduled for next month, the Amazon will get a new cardinal, Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, another ethnic German and Franciscan, the archbishop of Manaus in Brazil. The Hummes torch will be passed on. 

The presence of the retired cardinal on the balcony in 2013 also signaled that a new pontiff had come,  one who did not know Ratzinger — or at least Piacenza. Call it Hummes’ revenge. In September 2013, in one of his earliest curial appointments, Cardinal Piacenza was sent from the rather influential Congregation for the Clergy to the spiritually important but less influential Apostolic Penitentiary. It was widely understood in Rome to be a demotion. It was the first of the curial dismissals, a feature of the new papal style, as Cardinals Burke, Müller and Becciu would come to learn. 

Cardinal Hummes will be mourned and buried in São Paolo, where he died of lung cancer. His long life is a reminder that a last, significant, chapter can be written even after retirement.