The first Consistory (the formal event where the pope elevates new members to the College of Cardinals) that I ever attended was in 2001. That year, John Paul II named Avery Dulles, the great American theologian and a personal friend , a cardinal, along with N.Y. Archbishop Edward Egan (also a friend). At the time, we did not notice that the list also included  Walter Kasper, later famous for Communion for the divorced/remarried. Or an obscure Argentine prelate: one Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Fifteen years is not a long time in the life of the Church. Or the world. But to compare the list of cardinals then – mostly from Europe and the Americas, along with one Egyptian and an Indian – with the recent list announced  by Pope Francis, shows how a short span can produce large changes. Seventeen new cardinals will be elevated on Saturday (thirteen eligible to vote for the next pope). And nearly half were selected from small, non-Western nations that have never before been so honored: Syria, the Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, and Lesotho.
Then there are the Americans: Archbishops Blaise Cupich and Joseph Tobin, and Bishop Kevin Farrell (Irish-born and headed to Rome to become prefect of the new Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life). Cupich was expected. L.A. Archbishop José Gomez – the highest-ranking American Hispanic – did not make the list, nor did the fearless and energetic Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput.
There are enough surprises and outright oddities in all this that we thought at The Catholic Thing that you might appreciate some coverage of the Consistory. And given that, just this week, four senior cardinals (it’s said many more did not want their names revealed) publicly released a letter they sent privately to the Holy Father  in September, asking for clarifications on various confusions stemming from Amoris Laetitia, it’s impossible not to see the crucial importance of the College of Cardinals at this juncture in Church history.
I’m in Rome today and will be doing a live television report on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo this evening. I’ll also be offering daily news and analysis from now until Sunday (the last day of the Jubilee Year of Mercy) on a special page – similar to what we’ve done in the past during the conclave, synods, and papal trips.
A consistory is obviously not as major an event as, say, a papal conclave. But the men Pope Francis has named will play significant roles in the Church’s future – and most will be among the electors of the next pope. It’s worth getting to know them and their concerns, individually and as a group.
Here’s one for today: Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of the Central African Republic, a smallish, landlocked country with a history of political violence over the past decade. He’s dealt with a quarter-million displaced persons, helping them find sanctuary whatever their religious backgrounds. CAR has also created a large number of refugees, one of the pope’s highest concerns. It may be that Francis thought giving the archbishop a red hat might help him deal with the refugee situation. But several questions then arise: should a cardinal be named because of how he might affect some secular situation? Or is he admitted to the College of Cardinals primarily to help govern the Church? Or does Pope Francis think handling refugees is part of that governing – it’s rumored that he oversees such efforts personally – and wants collaborators with relevant experience?
It’s clear that Pope Francis wants to make the College of Cardinals less Eurocentric and more representative of a global Church, even if that introduces some disproportion in representation. In the first consistory (2014) of his pontificate, he chose two new cardinals from smaller countries such as the Ivory Coast (with about 6 million Catholics) and Burkina Faso (with about 3 million). The following year Ethiopia (only 0.7 percent Catholic), Myanmar (a half-million Catholics), Thailand (less than 1 percent Christian), Cape Verde (tiny), Mozambique (one-quarter Catholic), and Tonga (only 15,000 Catholics) were so honored.
Papal appointments are often viewed through political lenses of liberal and conservative, terms that often don’t apply well to the Church. The earlier consistories, for example, were “liberal” in that they created new leaders from the developing world, but they tend to be traditional on matters such as marriage, contraception, homosexuality, etc.
On the American front, it must be said, things do seem more ideological. Archbishop Cupich has said and done much that puts him on the leftward edge of our episcopate, and seems deliberately chosen for that, though liberals often call him “moderate.” Tobin is a personal friend of the pope, well liked by people of various stripes, a bit unknown since he’s been bishop of a relatively small diocese (Indianapolis). In an odd move, he’s been transferred now to Newark, N.J.: for the first time, two cardinals will face one another across the Hudson River.
Bishop Farrell, whom I had some dealings with when he was in Washington, is a genial and fair man, who said something odd: “If you find Pope Francis ‘confusing’ – you have not read or do not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” With all due respect, there are many well-informed and well-intentioned Catholics – and non-Catholics – who often find themselves unable to figure out the pope.
If the good bishop meant that Francis is trying to follow Jesus, as he understands Him, that’s one thing. But it’s simply wrong to suggest that tens of millions of Catholics – often the most loyal and active – are at fault. Farrell has surely read the transcripts of the pope’s airborne press conferences – sometimes requiring Vatican emendation after the fact. Just for starters.
There’s much of interest to be examined in these days, the reshaping of the College of Cardinals and of the Church for decades – and beyond. Stop back here daily on our special Consistory page. And I hope many of you will be watching EWTN this evening. I’ll be the jet-lagged guy.