The New Cardinals

by Michael Sean Winters

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Wow. I looked at the list of new cardinals yesterday morning and had what I assume was the reaction that most people did: Who are these guys? And that, I suspect, is the most important thing to realize about the list, that this pope of surprises is using his surprises to upset the sense of predictability that the conferral of red hats once entailed.

It is hard to know what is the more impressively surprising, the fact that four of the new cardinals come from countries that have never had a cardinal before – Myanmar, Panama, Tonga and Cape Verde – or the fact that only one member of the curia was raised to the sacred purple. Or, that the Americans were shut out for the second conclave in a row. Or, that Turin and Venice were passed over and the two residential Italian bishops who got the red hat were from the far less prominent sees of Ancona and Agrigento.

All day yesterday, I wondered what to say and it took awhile to get past “wow.” But, there is more to discern here. First, the pope who has called the Church to go to the peripheries is leading by example. This list of new cardinals, like his first batch, is weighted towards the global south and away from Western Europe and the U.S., both of which remain over-represented in the college. The Church is growing in the global south and I do not think it is because they “toe the line” on this issue or that but because in some regions, the Gospel is still fresh, still news and therefore able to be appreciated as Good News. And, in Latin America, the Church is still at t he heart of the culture in ways it never has been in the U.S. The numbers of self-identified Catholics has declined in Latin America, to be sure, and the reasons for that are complex. But, they still appreciate that the Gospel calls the Church to be with the poor, and to cling to Jesus in the face of not just secularization but all manner of sin, social and personal, most especially the grinding poverty that afflicts far too many people. One worry should be registered: These new cardinals from the periphery will not know their way around Rome and there will be plenty of minutanti only too happy to show them the ropes but, in fact, divert them into a way of thinking that is more curial than peripheral. I hope the pope will find ways to minimize that danger. Under the guise of “internationalization” the old guard can still find ways to exert lots of control.

The second thing that occurs to me is that the pope is upsetting “the system” and, especially, the expectations that system inculcated. There was a clear career track in the Church: Work as a bishop’s secretary, spend some time at a desk in Rome, get appointed an auxiliary of a large see, then ordinary in a medium-sized see, then a big metropolitan archdiocese that will, in a few years, come with a red hat. If anyone thinks they can rely on that system to acquire a cardinal’s hat now, they are deeply mistaken. Ask the Archbishop of Turin and the Patriarch of Venice. One of the ways you frustrate the ambitious is to call them to conversion of heart. Another, is to make it impossible for them to calculate how their own actions will aid or hinder their climb. We all know enough about the Church to know that there is a kind of competition for the major sees, and we did not need Vatileaks to tell us so. That whole game, all the posturing, all the campaigning, all of it is now thrown into doubt. As Rocco pointed out, passing over Venice and Turin for Ancona and Agrigento would be like passing over New York to give a red hat to Newark or Brooklyn.

Thirdly, the pope did not pull these names out of a hat. Anyone who thinks the Holy Father is not well informed about the state of the Church around the globe is terribly mistaken. In addition to the formal channels that bring information to him, which would have yielded a different list of names, he must have developed some informal channels for finding out who among the current crop of bishops fits the mold of a pastor he is looking for. And, as well, I detect in the list the influence of Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, most obviously in the selection of Archbishop Menichelli of Ancona, who was consecrated a bishop by +Silvestrini. +Silvestrini, you will recall, was sidelined because of his association with Cardinal Casaroli and the “Ostpolitik” that Pope John Paul II shunned, but he was a remarkable personality and dedicated churchman who, now, can promote talented candidates who were long overlooked but who have much to offer the Church.

A final thing that occurs is that the Holy Father does not seem to be considering age in making his selections. Some of the new cardinals are close to 75 already and Bishop Mafi of Tonga is only 53. I have no idea what this means for the pope’s ruminations about his own age and what those ruminations might portend for his decision to resign eventually. But, at a time when our culture worships youth, which is more ridiculous than worshipping Zeus in my book, I like the idea that Pope Francis looks at a man in his mid-seventies and concludes he still has a lot to offer the Church.

I confess that I was hoping an American would get the nod, either Archbishop Cupich in Chicago, whose predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, would not be able to attend a conclave due to health problems, or Archbishop Jose Gomez in Los Angeles, who should be the first Latino cardinal in the U.S. and probably will be once his predecessor ages out next year. I also held out hope for Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, in part because the American South has never had a red hat and in part because +Wilton is just a great guy who should be rewarded for many things, not least his leading the conference through the worst of the sex abuse crisis in 2002. Also, as racial relations in the U.S. seem to be deteriorating, it would be a good time to name America’s first black cardinal. But, one thing is clear. +Cupich and +Gomez and +Gregory may yet get the red hat, but it will not be automatic on account of their leading large archdioceses. It will be because the pope sees them as pastors after the heart of Jesus.

So, Pope Francis has done it again, surprising the Church, upsetting the apple carts, and pushing the Church forward. It reads like a novel, but it is real, and the future of the Church is now being staked on this pontificate in indelible ways – Bishop Mafi from Tonga will have a vote in conclave until 2043 – and we can all hope that this reboot of the sacred college brings new energies and life to the Church. 

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