The Pope’s Cardinals: A New Era for Red Hats

EDITORIAL: The Pope is certainly recasting the College of Cardinals along international lines, but he is doing so in an innovative way. Its implications will be felt for decades to come.

(photo: Unsplash)

On June 28, Pope Francis will preside over his fourth consistory since his election in 2013 — the fourth time he has added new members to the College of Cardinals. So far, the Holy Father has named 61 new cardinals, 49 of them under the age of 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave that will one day elect his successor.

But the real story goes beyond the numbers.

Pope Francis has brought a new era to the way cardinals are chosen, where they serve, and the perspectives they bring to the college and to the wider Church. The Pope is certainly recasting the body along international lines, but he is doing so in an innovative way. Its implications will be felt for decades to come.

There are some who argue that many of his picks tend to possess a less orthodox view of the Church.

St. John Paul II, of course, sometimes made similar choices. The same Pope who elevated Cardinals Francis Arinze and John O’Connor to the College of Cardinals also named Roger Mahony and Walter Kasper.

What, then, is so remarkable about Francis’ reshaping of the College of Cardinals? He has expanded its horizons, naming cardinals from the peripheries who have an especially close connection to the poor and those suffering persecution, oppression and marginalization for their faith or from war. And he has bypassed many larger, traditional sees in favor of smaller, even tiny, dioceses that would never had been considered for a red hat before.

When he named the latest batch of cardinals in May, he said, “Coming from different parts of the world, they manifest the catholicity of the Church spread out across the entire Earth.”

The growth of the Church across the globe and the maturing of the faith in new mission territories is something to be celebrated, and the appointments of cardinals from these burgeoning parts of the Catholic world are significant milestones for any country.

U.S. Catholics celebrated their first cardinal, Archbishop John McCloskey of New York, when he was appointed in 1875. Likewise, not just Brazilians, but Catholics across South America, welcomed the first Latin American-born cardinal in 1905, when Pope St. Pius X named Archbishop Joaquim Arcoverde de Albuquerque Cavalcanti of São Paulo, Brazil. And African Catholics cheered when Bishop Laurean Rugambwa of Bukoba, Tanzania, was named the first native African cardinal by Pope St. John XXIII in 1960.

These were all groundbreaking appointments, and the modern popes have all added to the global character of the college. Francis, however, has taken this focus in a remarkably different direction.

Francis knows vividly that the center of gravity for the world’s Catholic population has shifted from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere and, increasingly, from the wealthier centers of Europe and North America to the poorer regions of the world, with their own challenges and opportunities.

His appointments have reflected that global awareness. Of the 49 voting cardinals named by Francis, 30 come from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania. And of these, most come from some of the poorest places in the world or where the Church is suffering the most.

They also have certain characteristics in common. Many are known as intense pastors and are current or former presidents of bishops’ conferences, meaning they have been elected to leadership positions by their peers. These choices, then, are not as random or bewildering as they might, at first, seem.

By custom, the very name “cardinal” comes from the Latin word cardo (“hinge”), denoting that these men are the key counselors, or pivots, for the Pope. Francis wants these cardinals’ voices to be heard as counselors and for them to bring their special perspectives of the situation for the Church in all the corners of the world to Rome.

Equally, it is clear that he wants the Catholics in suffering regions to know that he stands with them in solidarity and love, and one of the best ways to express that is to have the powerful voice that only a cardinal can bring. After all, cardinals wear scarlet as a reminder that they should be willing to serve with charity even to the point of shedding their blood.

Consider Cardinal Mario Zenari, Francis’ own nuncio to Syria, who was given a red hat in 2016 — an unusual appointment, as papal ambassadors are rarely elevated while still in the field. Cardinal Zenari expressed gratitude for what his appointment meant to the Syrian people. Speaking to Vatican Radio at the time, he said, “I sincerely thank the Holy Father, because this … is for Syria, for the victims of Syria, for all those who suffer because of this terrible war.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by other cardinals from such troubled regions as the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Laos, Mauritius, Myanmar and Mali.

How will all of this play out when it comes time for the cardinals from the peripheries to gather in a conclave? History shows that it can be difficult to predict how cardinals will vote in a conclave.

After all, the conclave that elected St. John XXIII was filled mostly with cardinals named by Pius XI and Pius XII. The conclave that chose St. John Paul II was mostly filled with men picked by Blessed Paul VI.

But it can be seen that the cardinal-electors who will gather in the next conclave will truly represent every part of the global Catholic Church. They will likely span three pontificates and will bring a love for the Church and the experiences, sorrows, hopes and potential of a growing global Catholicism to Rome.

This is important because, by custom, every cardinal is incardinated in the Church of Rome, a historical reminder of the earlier practice of the clergy of Rome participating in the election of the pope.

Pope Francis offered a reflection on that tradition, with a vital reminder of our need for trust in the Holy Spirit.

“The more we are ‘incardinated’ in the Church of Rome,” he told his second class of cardinals in 2015, “the more we should become docile to the Spirit, so that charity can give form and meaning to all that we are and all that we do.”

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