Pope Francis Places His Stamp on the College of Cardinals

NEWS ANALYSIS: But only time will tell what this means at a future conclave when the cardinals return to Rome to elect a new pope from among their ranks.

Pope Francis meets with the College of Cardinals Aug. 29 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis meets with the College of Cardinals Aug. 29 at the Vatican. (photo: Simon Risoluti / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — For only the third time in his nine-year pontificate, Pope Francis gathered together all of the cardinals in the world for an extraordinary consistory. The assembly of nearly 200 cardinals, held on Aug. 29-30, was preceded on Aug. 27 by an ordinary consistory at which Francis created 20 new cardinals, including 16 electors who are eligible to vote in a future conclave.  

Altogether, the events of late August demonstrated that this is now unquestionably Francis’ College. The question however, is what precisely that entails for a future conclave when the cardinals return to the Eternal City to choose a new Bishop of Rome from among their ranks.  

Pope Francis has held eight consistories in nine years and has transformed the College of Cardinals that elected him in 2013. It is inevitable that any pontificate of reasonable length will bring changes to the College, partly through attrition, as cardinals die or turn 80 and age out of serving as electors, and through new appointments of cardinals who presumably represent the pope’s vision for the future. With this latest consistory, Francis has chosen 121 cardinals from 66 countries, many of which had never produced a cardinal. Even more significantly, Francis has named 83 of the current 132 cardinal-electors. Pope St. John Paul II created 11 of the current electors and Pope Benedict XVI named 38.  

Pope Francis’ cardinals now represent 63% of the college, nearly the two-third supermajority of votes needed in a future conclave to guarantee the election of a candidate hypothetically without a single vote of the cardinals named by John Paul II or Benedict. 

The numbers are one thing, but Pope Francis has departed from his predecessors in several ways. First, he very early on established a pattern of bypassing many traditional larger or cardinalatial sees in favor of prelates who are bishops of small dioceses and even auxiliary bishops.  

Two conspicuous examples are found in this most recent consistory, in which Francis named the U.S. Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Italian Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como. Both are heads of smaller dioceses and both were chosen to be cardinals instead of the archbishops who head the nearby larger metropolitan sees — Los Angeles and Milan, respectively.  

In the case of Cardinal McElroy, he was picked instead of Archbishop José Gomez who is not only head of the largest archdiocese in the United States but also has served since 2019 as the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

Similarly, since 2016 Cardinal Cantoni has headed a diocese in the ecclesiastical shadow of the largest Italian diocese. Archbishop Mario Delpini was appointed by Francis in 2017 and would seem to have all of the needed credentials for selection to the college. Instead, Cardinal Cantoni now wears the red hat and Archbishop Delpini remains an archbishop.  

Both Cardinals McElroy and Cantoni would seem, like similar appointments to the college, to be personal choices by Francis in recognition of their very public and unswerving loyalty at least to what they assert is the thought of the Pope. Cardinal McElroy is lionized by the dissenting progressive Catholic media and stands now among the other loyalist progressive U.S. cardinals named by Francis, including Blase Cupich of Chicago, Joseph Tobin of Newark, Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and the Irish-American Kevin Farrell, who currently serves as prefect for the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life in the Vatican.  

Appointments based on loyalty, however, paint only a partial picture of how Francis has reconstructed the College of Cardinals. He has remained faithful to one element of cardinalatial tradition with his creation of cardinals from among the prefects of major offices of the Roman Curia.  

In this consistory, for example, Pope Francis named three prefects: Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Cardinal Lazarus You Heung-sik, prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy; and Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and the Governorate for Vatican City State. But the pattern is also bigger and broader internationally.  

The Holy Father has regularly chosen bishops for the college from the farthest corners of the globe, the periferia (or peripheries as he calls them), often with tiny Catholic populations. This latest batch is a case in point with four new countries represented: East Timor, Mongolia, Paraguay, and Singapore. There were also cardinals appointed from such countries as Nigeria, Brazil, India and Ghana.  

The choice for Mongolia was particularly striking in the person of Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, the 48-year-old Italian Consolata missionary and apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, whose territory covers the whole of the country but contains some six parishes and fewer than 1,000 Catholics.  

The very diverse and idiosyncratic pattern of appointments nevertheless has brought a genuine geographic overhaul of the college. It is certainly less European and Italian. In 2013, Europeans comprised 52% of the college; as of today, they are 40%. Italians remain over-represented with 20 electors, but that is down from the 28 electors who took part in the 2013 Conclave.  

At the same time, under Francis there has been a substantial increase in the number of Asian-Pacific and African cardinals. Since the time of Francis’ election, the number of cardinal-electors from the Asia-Pacific region has risen from 9% to 17%, while the number of electors from Sub-Saharan Africa has also increased, rising from 9% to 12%. More modest increases in Latin America and the Caribbean (16% to 18%) still demonstrate their heightened geographic representation in the college. In all, the current cardinal-electors come from six continents and 69 countries.  

The College of Cardinals is the most diverse and geographically dispersed in its history, but that very distribution begs the question as to why Francis has not assembled his cardinals in an extraordinary consistory since 2015. Why now?  

The stated reason for the extraordinary consistory — coming at the highly unusual time of late August when Rome is typically battered by heat and tourists — was to discuss the Pope’s reform of the Roman Curia through his apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium and his plans for the 2025 Jubilee of Hope. Helpful discussion topics certainly, but the jubilee is still some three years away and the reform of the Curia while pertinent to the work of the cardinals did not necessarily demand their presence at this moment.  

It can be argued that Francis has postponed bringing them all together because he wanted to wait until he had appointed a sufficient number of his own men. To be sure, he encountered stiff resistance to some of the ideas being put forward on the family at the extraordinary consistory in 2014 — or more precisely Cardinal Walter Kasper’s ideas that divorced and remarried Catholics without annulments might receive Communion. That did not stop the publication of the still-controversial 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but Francis convoked only one more such extraordinary consistory in 2015 and had not called another one until this August. In the meantime, he proceeded apace adding cardinals in ordinary consistories.  

With the balance now clearly shifted, at least numerically, this is Francis’ College. Far more difficult to assess is where the college stands theologically.  

As history has shown, assumptions about the College of Cardinals can be a hazardous undertaking. The college that elected the supposed progressive Pope St. John XXIII in 1958 had been built by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII. The conclave that elected Pope Francis in 2013 was the product of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It would thus be unwise to deduce that every member appointed by Francis is a kindred spirit to the progressive American and European cardinals who have frequently been promoted since 2013. There is much to learn about the cardinals from the peripheries.  

It is just as true that the members of the college have much to learn about each other, which is why this extraordinary consistory may prove to have lasting significance. This was the first chance in years for the members of the college to put names to faces and meet each other, albeit briefly. It is hardly enough time for all of the members to go beyond a limited appraisal of each other, and building a rapport with fellow cardinals was also hampered by the imposed structure of different language groups for the first session, a carryover from the practice at the synods of bishops. From what the cardinals themselves are saying, the discussions did focus on Praedicate Evangelium and the jubilee. But the members also took to heart Pope Francis’ demand that they speak plainly and openly in the extraordinary consistory’s plenary session.  

A number of cardinals reportedly pressed for the answer to a more fundamental and troubling question: What exactly is “synodality,” a concept that has now become one of the major pillars of this pontificate even as it remains inchoate or evenly deliberately obscure. A year out from an entire Synod on Synodality some, perhaps many, cardinals want clarity and are willing to demand it. That introduces further complexity into an already at times confounded ecclesiastical condition, and the dynamic now at play in the college makes assessing a future conclave all the more difficult. 

We are now nearly a decade into the Francis pontificate, and thoughts are turning in earnest to what must inevitably follow. Was this the final consistory before then? That remains to be seen, although the conversations and even debates that just took place in Rome are a sign that the cardinals take their duties seriously in service to the Church. Chief among those duties is to elect the vicar of Christ. This may be Francis’ College of Cardinals, just as it once was John Paul’s and Benedict’s, but in the end as the cardinals stand locked in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and cast their votes, history has shown that it is God’s College of Cardinals.  

Pope Francis seemed to understand that when he delivered his homily for the Mass with the cardinals on Aug. 30. A minister of the Church, he taught, is “one who experiences wonder before God’s plan and, in that spirit, passionately loves the Church and stands at the service of her mission wherever and however the Holy Spirit may choose.”