VATICAN CITY — During visits with the public Feb. 14, various cardinals spoke to the Register about receiving their red hats, which, for many of them, came completely out of the blue.

Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the bishop of Tonga, who is the shepherd of just 15,000 Catholics, said he was “delighted” and felt “so happy, so humbled” by Francis’ decision and that there is such a “strong sense of solidarity, especially coming from a little island so far away.”

The cardinal learned of his appointment in a somewhat unorthodox manner: In the middle of the night, he received a telephone call from his brother, who lives in Los Angeles, who told him of his appointment.

Reflecting on the situation in Myanmar, which is only now emerging as a democracy, after suffering under a repressive authoritarian military regime since 1962, newly elevated Cardinal Charles Maung Bo said the “main concern” is for “real freedom and democracy, especially reconciliation among all the different religions.”

He said there are “no shortcuts to democracy,” which will have to be achieved “gradually,” depending on the “will of all the government as well as the people of Myanmar.”

“We need the reconciliation of different ethnic groups — reconciliation and then peace will come, and, clearly, development will follow, too,” Cardinal Bo said. “Myanmar has so many rich resources, and the people are very nice, so if there’s goodwill among all the people, there’s a hope to proceed toward democracy.”

Asked how the government reacted to his appointment, Cardinal Bo said they “sent us letters and are happy.” He also said “Buddhist monks as well as Muslims and Hindus and all people are happy.”

Benedict Rogers, East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said the cardinal’s appointment is an “illustration of Pope Francis’ emphasis on the universal Church, the marginalized, poor, suffering and persecuted.”

The Myanmar prelate, he told the Register, “is an inspirational figure, a man of immense faith, a passion for justice and freedom, an emphasis on faith in action, combined with an infectious sense of humility, humor and hospitality.”

Rogers, a convert from the Church of England, said the cardinal inspired him personally in his own journey of faith and received him into the Church in Rangoon two years ago.

“He is the only religious leader in Burma, and perhaps the only national leader of any kind in the country, who has repeatedly, consistently and courageously spoken out for religious freedom, human rights, peace and justice for all, especially for religious and ethnic minorities, including the Muslim population,” Rogers said. “His appointment is a recognition of his deep spiritual and personal qualities, but also a recognition of the faith and maturity of the Church in Burma.”

Rogers believes it will give the cardinal “a significantly enhanced platform from which to promote his and the Church’s message of justice and peace, and it will give Burma greater engagement with the worldwide Church.” More than 300 Burmese came to Rome for the consistory.

 Cardinal John Atcherley Dew of Wellington, New Zealand, said his appointment was “wonderfully received,” and people were “very supportive and full of congratulations and prayers.” He said he has been “overwhelmed by the incredible support.”

He said the Pope’s words to the new cardinals were “wonderful.” Francis, he said, is “just so sure about what he says, and there’s always so much material for prayer and reflection, which I will need to do.”

Asked for his reaction to his appointment, Cardinal Luigi De Magistris, who, at 89, is one of the most senior of the new cardinals, said, “I have only one word [obey]: I obey the Pope. I obey with an open heart, even now as he wanted to honor me in this way.”

Cardinal De Magistris served as pro-major of the Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary from 2001 to 2003. From 1959 to 1969, a period that included the Second Vatican Council, he served in the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.

The only serving Curial cardinal appointed during this consistory was Moroccan Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, a Holy See diplomat, the Vatican’s former “foreign minister” and now prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

He told the Register he was “full of gratitude to the Holy Father for this appointment” and said he hoped he would be able to “respond to this confidence” placed in him by assisting the Pope in his mission as the Supreme Pastor of the Catholic Church: “It’s a great responsibility — an honor, but also a great responsibility.”

 

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.