Shaking things up, making a mess

Pope Francis

Pope Francis is either an anarchist or a man with an unshakable faith in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, he could actually be both.

How else does one describe what the 85-year-old pope did on May 29 when he announced a consistory for late August during which he intends to make 21 mostly obscure figures the Roman Church’s latest cardinals?

The timing of the announcement, the date of the consistory and the names of the cardinals-designate are — as one longtime Vatican official told me with utmost charity — “baffling”.

Even more than his previous seven consistories, this eighth red hat ceremony has all the hallmarks of disrupting previous ways the popes have created cardinals in the past.

Other than the three Roman Curia officials that top the list of the 16 men under the age of 80 who are thus eligible to vote in a conclave, there are only two other men in posts (the archdioceses of Marseilles and Brasilia) that have previously been led by a cardinal.

The Jesuit pope this time around is appointing cardinals to 11 places (four countries and seven dioceses) that have never had one before, accelerating a pattern that he began in earnest in 2015 with his second consistory.

Francis continues to pick cardinals from uncustomary places

After “Consistory No. 8” is concluded, he will have expanded representation in the College of Cardinal to at least 19 new countries and more than two dozen dioceses or other posts where there has never been a cardinal (or has not been one for centuries, as is the case with many of his Italian picks).

The names and biographical sketches of the 21 new cardinals-designate are not the focus of this article. That information has already been provided elsewhere.

The purpose of this piece is to expand on the analysis that was offered in the “Letter from Rome” of May 13, which was published three weeks before the consistory was actually announced.

That article explored what might happen if a conclave were to take place in the relatively near future. And it is safe to say that Pope Francis’ addition of 16 new electors will likely not change the dynamic that the piece tried to spell out.

In other words, these lines from May 13 will be an even more valid description of the body of papal electors after August 27:

The situation is extremely hard to gauge because the cardinals who will elect the successor (and who are also potential candidates themselves) are not that well known — not even to one another.

The group of men the Jesuit pope has put in the College of Cardinals is wildly diverse. Most of them are not household names and a number of them are from outlying areas with small Catholic populations. A good chunk of these men have little international ecclesial experience.

The timing of the announcement and the date of the consistory

One of the great novelties (or oddities) of the upcoming consistory is the long period that will transpire from the time the pope announced it and when he will actually celebrate it.

Usually, popes call a consistory, and publish the names of those who are to be created cardinals, only four-to-six weeks before the event is to take place.

But Francis announced this latest one a full three months in advance. And it is not clear why. Neither is the date he’s chosen to hold the ceremony — August 27, the tail end of the Roman summer.

People who live and work in the Eternal City usually don’t start trickling back to town until then. And in the Vatican and other parts of ecclesiastical Rome, the daily rhythm doesn’t return to normal till at least midway through September if not in early October.

Why an August consistory? Perhaps because the pope feels he’s got too much to do in Rome and on the road the next two months, including making trips in July to Africa and Canada.

But why announce it three months in advance? This is more difficult to answer.

However, it does create the possibility for him to more easily add or subtract names from the list of newly designated cardinals. For instance, should it be discovered that one of them has been involved in a scandal, the pope could remove the man before he even gives him the red hat.

Geography is a tricky indicator

Much has been made of the fact that Francis has significantly changed the geographical constitution of the College of Cardinals, especially among the electors.

For example, it is noted that there were 10 Asian cardinals at the conclave that elected him in 2013, whereas there will be more than 20 after the next consistory.

This is an impressive development but it is hard to predict what it will actually mean when it’s time to elect a new pope.

The Asian continent, so-called, is vast and extremely diverse — religiously, culturally and economically. It includes, but is not limited to, the Middle East, South-East Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and Far-East Asia, all with their own internal diversity.

Is it realistic to speak of an Asian candidate in such a context? Probably no more than it is to speak of a European candidate, given the historical-religious diversity that continues to exist on the Old Continent.

Even the cardinals from Italy, the country with the single largest number of electors, will be hard pressed (once again) to be able to agree on one of their own as a candidate for pope.

More Francis “firsts”: what do they mean?

This time the pope has given the cardinal’s hat to a Dalit from India and a Nigerian bishop who was prohibited from assuming his post as diocesan ordinary because the local priests and people rejected him on tribal grounds.

Francis has made quite a statement against racism by doing this. But this tells us next to nothing about the quality of the two new cardinals-designate who were discriminated against.

What kind of priests and bishops are these two men? Was the decision to make them cardinals based only on sort of an ecclesiastical “affirmative action” plan to open up opportunities for minorities?

Take Bishop Peter Okpaleke, the 59-year-old Nigerian who was victim of tribal opposition.

Based on what criteria and upon whose recommendation did Benedict XVI appoint him to the episcopate back in December 2012?

The nuncio in Nigeria at the time was a Ugandan named Archbishop Augustine Kasujja. He would have submitted the terna to the Congregation for Bishops, which was headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet and stacked with some rather conservative cardinal-members like Raymond Burke, George Pell, Mauro Piacenza, Paul Cordes and others… Not a single African was a member of the congregation.

As for Cardinal-designate Okpaleke’s background, we know he studied canon law from 1999-2002 at Opus Dei-run Università di Santa Croce in Rome. Afterwards he became chancellor of his home diocese for nine or so years. During his final year before being named bishop, he was the pastor of a parish, evidently his only experience of full-time parish ministry.

The point is that not much is known about the newly announced cardinals. And just because they have been unjustly discriminated against, that distinction alone is unhelpful to understanding how they will make a make a valuable contribution to electing the next pope.

Pope Francis is fond of telling young people, especially, to “hacer lío” — a Spanish phrase that some translate as “to shake things up”, and others render “to make a mess”.

And certainly, hacer lío is something he has done consistently with the College of Cardinals, perhaps this latest round more than ever before.

It cannot be repeated enough that the members of this select group do not know each other well. Most of them do not have international profiles or extensive experience with the workings of the Roman Curia.

And that may be one of the reasons why the pope has decided to keep all the cardinals in Rome following the August consistory for two days of meetings to reflect on Praedicate evangelium, the new apostolic constitution on the reformed Curia.

But that may be only part of the reason for having a full meeting of the College of Cardinals, something he’s done only two other times in his pontificate.

It may also be the occasion and forum for Francis to make an important announcement about the future of his pontificate and when the cardinal-electors will have to exercise the one function reserved to them alone — elect the Bishop of Rome.

  • Robert Mickens is LCI Editor in Chief.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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