It doesn’t take a deep historical sense – or an overly romantic imagination – to be moved by the great formal events that the Vatican conducts several times a year. They take you to some other place and time. There’s nothing quite like them in the modern world – (though the British monarchy under the great Elizabeth II, occasionally strikes similar, if lesser notes.) My preference is for the large events held outdoors in St. Peter’s Square under the milky blue Roman skies, which make you think of great public liturgies in ancient Jerusalem and Rome.
Yesterday’s ordinary consistories, which confirmed twenty new cardinals and canonized two new saints, took place inside St. Peter’s, perhaps because of the August heat. But it was a glorious affair all the same: The rhythms of Latin, the universal language of the global Church, were lovely. (Ironically, now-Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and merciless TLM hatchet-man, gave a rather substantial opening discourse in his English-inflected Latin.) The music and colorful vestments and rich décor made it clear that God was being honored with all the beauty and skill of which our poor fallen species is capable.
The only snag was the difficulty of getting the Cardinals’ new red birettas to stay on their heads. Almost all seemed too small, a problem I remember also seeing at the consistory in 2001 when the American Jesuit Avery Dulles had the same “wardrobe malfunction.” This year it seemed a near-universal problem. Don’t the tailors know clerics have big heads? Still, it was inspiring to see those princes of the Church, from all over the world, decked out in clerical finery. (But . . . was that dismissed Cardinal Becciu lurking among them?)
This crop of Cardinals, however, was far different than their counterparts in the past. To begin with, it was not top-heavy with Italians. Three Italians and one Colombian – all past eighty and ineligible to vote for the pope in the next conclave – were honored with red hats, basically out of recognition for services rendered to the Church. And a former bishop of Ghent (also over 80) chose to decline because of remorse over his failures to handle sexual abuse in his diocese. But the remaining sixteen were selected from a much larger geographical pool than in the past.
Latin America has three new cardinals (two from Brazil and a first-ever Cardinal from Paraguay). And there’s one each from Spain, France, Italy, the UK, and the United States. By far, though, the new Cardinals were chosen from less traditional places, Pope Francis’ beloved “peripheries”: Korea, India (two, one a lower-caste “untouchable”), East Timor, Singapore, Mongolia (n.b., an Italian missionary), Nigeria, and Ghana. And even in more familiar countries, the distribution is odd: Marseilles not Paris; Como not Milan; San Diego not Los Angeles.
Almost everyone is, of course, interested in the specific men Pope Francis has chosen to help him lead the Church and in how he sent them off to spread the fire of the Gospel in places large and small.
But many are also now wondering how the Cardinals will vote when the time comes to select the next pope. As anyone familiar with the history of conclaves knows, most of the time the predictions are wildly off. To take the most recent case, the Cardinals that elected Jorge Bergoglio in 2013 were for the most part appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A pope who would continue their general line, elaborated over three and a half decades, from 1978 to 2013, was only to be expected. Instead, we got a pope who has been actively reversing much of what they did.
Francis was not well-known to the electors, and several expressed a bit of buyer’s remorse afterwards. And given that the whole College of Cardinals has not met as a group since 2015 – many still don’t know one another very much – another surprise is quite possible at the next conclave.
I mentioned in this space yesterday that Francis has also diversified the College in two ways. His picks from the peripheries are quite likely to be more traditional than Francis himself. It was the African bishops, for instance, who were primarily responsible for keeping pro-LGBT+ language out of the final document produced at the 2018 Synod on Youth. The results of that synod were so slim that a large chunk of it, out of nowhere, introduced an emphasis on “synodality” itself as a subject for another synod.
The second way he has diversified the College is by more ideological choices, and we see that perhaps most clearly – at least for an American – in the selection of Cardinal Robert J. McElroy.
In the past, popes deliberately chose Cardinals from different ideological orientations to create a kind of balance in the College. So, at the 2001 consistory, which I attended as a friend of Cardinal Dulles, other Americans named Cardinals were of various views: McCarrick and Edward Egan, along with the Germans Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann, and a fellow named Jorge Bergoglio. That was JPII’s doing, a very mixed crew.
I don’t think it’s just because I am an American, but it seemed to me that Pope Francis was particularly animated in his brief private talk with San Diego Cardinal Robert McElroy immediately after the formal conferring of office. He even made what looked like a sweeping gesture with his hand, while smiling broadly, as if to suggest something large in the future.
San Diego is a large diocese with almost 1.4 million Catholics. But Los Angeles is much larger (4.4 million), and its current archbishop José Gómez is both Hispanic (born in Mexico) and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Gómez was the logical choice if there was to be only one new U.S. Cardinal.
But for years McElroy has been working along similar lines to Pope Francis – though his is definitely a minority voice in the U.S. bishops’ conference. Indeed, in 2019 McElroy tried to push the U. S. bishops to include a paragraph from one of the pope’s Apostolic Exhortations (Gaudete et Exultate) in a document about voting and “faithful citizenship” that he, McElroy, claimed showed the pope did not regard abortion as the pre-eminent priority. Other issues, McElroy claimed were equal in importance and to say what the U.S, bishops had been saying for years would be “discordant” with the pope and “a grave disservice” to the faithful.
Then Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput disagreed. Vehemently. He rose to say he didn’t mind including what McElroy proposed:
But I am against anyone stating that our stating it [abortion] is “preeminent” is contrary to the teaching of the pope. That isn’t true. That sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father, which isn’t true. . . . I think it’s been a very clearly articulated opinion of the bishops’ conference for many years that pro-life is still the pre-eminent issue. It doesn’t mean the others aren’t equal in dignity. . .
Many of the U.S. bishops present applauded Chaput.
This is admittedly just one incident, but it makes clear the kind of Church Francis, now via McElroy, would like to see in America. It wouldn’t challenge a Biden or Pelosi, not really. It would be willing to accept that several hundred thousand children killed in the womb yearly has to be balanced off against government-sponsored social programs and climate change.
Chaput as a bishop was concerned about the poor and creation, too, but like many of the U.S. bishops, he had a sense of urgency about the destruction and insults to human life occurring on an industrial scale right now. Every day.
America’s bishops will pretty much remain what they are after this new crop of Cardinals, as will American Catholicism. It remains to be seen what Francis’ opening up of the College to small and distant Catholic communities around the globe will do to the Universal Church. If the Synod on Synodality fizzles out in bureaucratic swamplands, as it seems likely to do, Saturday’s new Cardinals may be the real future of the Church in the world. We may see some of what that may mean in the discussions at the “closed-door meetings” this coming Monday and Tuesday.
*Image: Pope Francis gave a “red hat” to Robert W. McElroy yesterday. (Photo: Paul Haring/Catholic News Service)