Once Again, New Cardinals Reflect Pope Francis’ Preferences

COMMENTARY: Catholics in the U.S. will pay most attention to the elevation of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., whose appointment is a sign that some power centers matter more than others.

Pope Francis during the Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 28, 2018.
Pope Francis during the Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica on June 28, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN News)

The consistory for new cardinals announced for Nov. 28 illustrates the continuing preference of Pope Francis for the “peripheries,” the papal diplomatic corps and the choice of new cardinals as symbols of papal priorities. 

The inclusion of Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, 40-year preacher of the papal household, will bring delight to many Catholics the world over, but especially in the United States, where he has preached regularly for decades, especially in the Charismatic Renewal.


A Capital Cardinal

American Catholics will pay most attention to the elevation of Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., who was sent to the capital in 2019, after Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation the previous year, following the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the Theodore McCarrick scandal.

Given the Holy Father’s practice of bypassing traditional cardinalatial sees in favor of new ones — and that Washington, D.C., only exists as a separate diocese for political reasons, not ecclesiastical ones — the quick elevation of Archbishop Gregory is a sign that some power centers matter more than others. Along with the de facto granting of a second cardinal to New York City in 2016 — Cardinal Joseph Tobin across the river in Newark, New Jersey — centers of American power have not been slighted in the college. 

As the first Black cardinal in the United States, some have interpreted Archbishop Gregory’s elevation as a nod to increased racial consciousness this past year. Perhaps, but racial-diversity considerations were likely marginal, otherwise Archbishop José Gomez — the Mexican American head of the largest diocese in the country and fierce advocate for immigrants — would not have been passed over by Pope Francis for the seventh straight time. Between Washington — a center of power but small in population — and Los Angeles, a behemoth of the Latino future of Catholicism in the U.S., it is striking that Pope Francis chose Washington.


Symbols of Papal Priorities

All popes use, from time to time, the creation of cardinals to signal their particular priorities. Pope Leo XIII said that his “first cardinal” would signal his papal program. The creation of St. John Henry Newman as a cardinal did just that, indicating a new confidence about faith and reason and a priority on philosophical and theological renewal. 

Pope Francis has been particular creative in his “symbolic” cardinals. In 2016, he named Cardinal Mario Zenari, the papal nuncio in Syria, to express his sympathy for the plight of the Syrian people, particularly refugees.

In 2017, he named the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador — perhaps the first time that has ever been done — as a sign of admiration for St. Oscar Romero. Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chavez was Archbishop Romero’s close aide and friend. 

In 2018, he elevated the archbishop of L’Aquila in Italy, Cardinal Giuseppe Petrocchi, to indicate his closeness to the victims of a devastating earthquake there.

This time, another secondary Italian diocese got a cardinal. Siena Archbishop Augusto Paolo Lojudice was chosen, who serves as secretary for the Italian bishops’ commission for migration. In 2015, the Holy Father elevated Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, then president of the Italian migration commission. In 2019, Father Michael Czerny, the Curial undersecretary — another first — was made a cardinal as head of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development’s Migrants and Refugees Section. These appointments all signal the Holy Father’s preeminent priority for migrants and refugees. 


A Latin American Honoring

The inclusion of retired Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, already 80 years old, of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, is likely an olive branch to those who hoped for more liberal reforms to emerge from last year’s Pan-Amazon synod. 

Bishop Arizmendi succeeded in Chiapas the famous “red bishop,” Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, whose outreach to the Indigenous Mayan population made him notorious. His pastoral program aimed to create a Mayan clergy; he ordained hundreds of Mayans as permanent deacons, with the clear hope that they could be ordained priests someday. At one point, nearly half of all Mexico’s permanent deacons were in Bishop Ruiz’s diocese alone.

The Vatican stopped those diaconal ordinations in 2000, and Bishop Arizmendi was sent to Chiapas to preserve Bishop Ruiz’s passion for the poor in a more theologically orthodox manner. Bishop Arizmendi defended Bishop Ruiz against his critics; and, in 2014, Pope Francis gave Bishop Arizmendi permission to ordain 100 Indigenous deacons. In honoring the retired Bishop Arizmendi now, Pope Francis is saluting the progressive dreams long nurtured in Chiapas — without actually making any concrete changes.


Shrines and Popular Piety

Two other symbolic appointments signal papal favor for shrines, pilgrimages and popular piety. Two shrine priests have been named cardinals: Father Enrico Feroci, pastor of the Divino Amore Shrine in the outskirts of Rome, and Conventual Friar Mauro Gambetti, head of the Sacro Convento in Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis is buried. 

While Father Feroci is already 80 years old, Father Gambetti is only 55, meaning that he may well remain at the shrine for another 25 years. As religious superiors do not have authority over cardinals, the Franciscans would, in principle, not have authority to transfer him.  


Peripheries and Diplomats

As is his custom, Pope Francis creates cardinals in places that have never had them before — this time in Brunei and Rwanda. The new Rwandan cardinal, Archbishop Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, is also a comfort to a nation still healing the wounds of the genocide of 1994. Archbishop Kambanda’s entire family — save for one brother who was abroad in Italy at the time — was killed in the massacre.

Despite the cardinals from new lands, six of the 13 in this consistory are Italians.

This consistory will include a retired nuncio, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, former permanent observer (“ambassador”) to the United Nations in Geneva, who previously had served as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Migrants. Pope Francis has a preferential option for the papal diplomatic corps and has included both active and retired diplomats in prior consistories.


Cardinal-Elect Cantalamessa

The elevation of Father Cantalamessa to the sacred college has been expected for six years now, since he turned 80 in 2014. Having served an astonishing 40 years as preacher of the papal household, he has been a frequent visitor to the United States, where he has preached often, especially in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. In January 2019, he preached a special retreat to all the bishops of the United States in Chicago, held at the special request of Pope Francis. 

Father Cantalamessa’s appointment by St. John Paul II in 1980 was a complement to the long work of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI in the renewal of biblical theology and preaching. A gifted scholar and linguist, Father Cantalamessa is both an advocate and a symbol for biblical study that deepens, not destroys, the faith of the people. His homilies, meditations and retreats have been translated into more than a dozen languages and published the world over.

In 2018, Pope Francis elevated Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the “papal almoner” who is the head of the Holy Father’s direct charitable works. So with Father Cantalamessa’s elevation, it can be said that the two special representatives of the Pope’s mission of charity and preaching have been honored.