The new cardinals

Pope Francis gives the red biretta to new Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago during a consistory at the Vatican Nov. 19. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

If Pope Francis had lived in the United States all of his life, he could not have selected three finer, more able, more pastoral bishops to become cardinals than Blase Cupich, Kevin Farrell and Joe Tobin. Saturday, Pope Francis conferred the red hat on the three, inaugurating a new day for the church in the United States.

The ceremony at which the men were "raised to the purple," in the words of one of the prayers of the liturgy, is very simple. After the opening prayer, there is a reading from the Gospels: This year it was Luke 6: 27-36, in which Jesus tells the disciples to turn the other cheek, and give our coat as well, tells us to love our enemies, and warns us that even the sinners are good to those who are good to them. A demanding text to be sure. Then the pope gives a short allocution, he prays for the new cardinals, they recite the creed and they make a special vow of obedience to the pope and his successors. Then, they come up one by one and receive the red skull cap, the red biretta, the cardinalatial ring, and they are assigned their titular church. I especially like the words the pope pronounces when he gives them the ring: "Receive the ring from the hands of Peter and know that your love for the church is strengthened by the love of the Prince of the Apostles." The new cardinals give the kiss of peace to their new colleagues, we all sing the Our Father, the pope gives a solemn blessing and the new cardinals and the pope leave the basilica as the congregation sings a Marian anthem. It was all over in a little more than an hour.

I have never been a fan of these big papal liturgies. They are chaotic, there are so many people crushing against each other as they file through the doors and make for the chairs. Unlike my previous visits, the security procedures have increased dramatically and everyone had to pass through a metal detector. There are now armed guards throughout the city, armed with Uzis, standing at the entrance to all the popular churches. Better to have them, I am sure, so that people are safe in these troubled times, but it is a bit off-putting. And, whereas before one had a pretty good view of the pope when he was at the altar under Bernini's baldacchino, because it is raised up several steps, now you must peer between the outstretched cell phones and tablets taking pictures. Still, in almost all respects, this consistory was like consistories in the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Except, of course, this consistory was different in the thing that matters most: The prelates selected to become cardinals. The traditional address delivered by the first named of the new cardinals to the pope was delivered by Cardinal Mario Zenari, the nuncio to war-torn Syria. Nuncios have been raised to the cardinalate before but only when taking a position in the Roman Curia: for example, Amelto Cicognani, the longtime nuncio to the U.S., only became a cardinal when he was named secretary of state and Agostino Cacciavillan became a cardinal when he left the nunciature and took over the office of Administrator of the Apostolic Patrimony. Zenari, by contrast, will return to Syria, and his selection was a way of calling attention to the suffering of the Syrian people.

For the United States, of course, this consistory marked the ascendancy of new leaders in the Catholic church. Cardinal Kevin Farrell is now stationed in Rome, where his blunt speaking style is already garnering attention: Those who criticize Pope Francis, or who minimize his teachings, have been put on notice that the pope has a new defender. Cardinal Joseph Tobin's easy, and self-deprecating humor, was on full display: At the consistory, before the ceremony started, he stopped to greet members of his family. Pointing to his new scarlet robes, he asked, "Does this make me look fat?" Everyone chuckled, although journalistic ethics requires me to report that no one answered his question. I watched both men greet people at the North American College after the ceremony and they are more "brothers in the faith" than "princes of the Church."

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Cardinal Blase Cupich took possession of his titular church last night, San Bartolomeo all'Isola. He joked that the pope had not just given him a church, but an entire island. He then noted the powerful imagery of an island, that it is a refuge amidst troubled waters. He then went on to say that an island can be approached from all sides. This is the difference between a churchman in the model of Pope Francis and a culture warrior. We see the phrase "culture warrior" and usually focus on the hot-button culture issues that concern them, but the problem with culture warrior bishops is as much the warrior part. I could imagine a different American bishop talking about how an island serves as protection against the flood waters of secularization. Cardinal Cupich called attention not to the isolation of an island, but to its accessibility. How often does Pope Francis talk about accompaniment and encounter? In Cupich, and the others, he has found new cardinals who look for ways to engage, not to denounce.

It is a new day, with a different approach to the ministry of bishop. The three new Americans are not naïve. They are aware of secularizing forces in the culture. But, they look for the ways that God is already at work in the lives of the people they serve. None of the three come across as men thinking they have all the answers, that "the truth" is an abstract concept that the faithful should embrace without question, instead believing that the truth must become real and active in people's lives. All three give witness to the joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium; for them, the faith is not a burden, and neither is everyday life, and when it is burdensome, it is the church's job to make the yoke easier not heavier. All three are as attentive to the lowliest member of the flock as they are to the powerful with whom they will no doubt have important business. Pope Francis says he wants the church to go to the peripheries, and in American society, the peripheries are most obvious in the inner cities, places like Newark and Chicago. These three men are pastors after the heart of Pope Francis and of St. Francis. It was thrilling to watch their investiture transpire and watch the dawn. 

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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