Change of direction: Pope Francis looks to cement his radical vision for the Church
Pentecost was an appropriate day for Francis’ announcement; throughout his five-year papacy, when selecting “Princes of the Church” – not a phrase he is much inclined to use – he has tried to follow the spirit that “blows where it will”. His new choices mean that everything is now set for a conclave to choose his successor that could again astonish the world, as it did in 2013 with the choice of the cardinal from Buenos Aires.
While some prefer a predictable, steady as-she-goes approach, this Pope relishes surprises. He is famously averse to the phrase: “But it’s always been done this way.” This includes the way he makes his appointments. Francis keeps the names of his choices close to his chest. Even cardinals-to-be themselves are not told in advance, as they were under previous papacies. They often learn of their appointments from excited parishioners who have heard the news on social media, or from journalists seeking their reactions.
All of this upends the old system that saw bishops of certain dioceses or leaders of Vatican departments automatically receive red hats. Instead, Francis has linked his appointments to bishops who have shown exemplary witness or service to the people of their diocese. So, a red hat has gone to the papal almoner, an ancient charitable office, held by Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, a Polish priest who has given over his home to Syrian refugees and walks the streets of Rome, helping the homeless. “You can sell your desk,” the Pope said when he appointed him. “You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican.” Krajewski, 54, took him at his word.
Another choice in that mould was the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez, who was made a cardinal last year. A close collaborator of Oscar Romero, despite being an auxiliary bishop, he had remained a parish priest. He had been planning to retire when the news arrived that he was to be given a red hat. Then there are the cardinals who have been named from sometimes neglected corners of the world, reflecting the Pope’s belief that the real work of the Church happens quietly at the peripheries, led by shepherds who know their flocks and roll up their sleeves and work to bring the balm of mercy to a wounded world.
Francis’ choices of cardinals are clear demonstrations of his geo-political pastoral concerns. The latest batch includes Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, and the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphaël I Sako.
The Pope aims to ensure that “every nation under heaven” is represented at the next conclave. On Sunday, he also announced a new cardinal for Madagascar, which follows his award of red hats to bishops from places that include Tonga, Cape Verde, Panama, Myanmar, Laos and Sweden – many countries that never had them before. A number of his new choices represent the Church’s pivot to the East, corresponding to the Pope’s view that the future of Catholicism lies partly in Asia. It is from this vast continent that a future pope may well be chosen.
The future leadership of the Catholic Church now hinges on how these unknown cardinals from diverse corners of the globe cast their votes in the Sistine Chapel, and on how they navigate those heady and intense days of discussions that take place in Rome before a conclave. They appear to be independent-minded pastors who would never have expected to find themselves in the highest echelons of the Church.
This has its advantages, as it might make them harder to co-opt into a voting bloc; they may be more likely to vote simply with the needs of the people of their local church in mind. But it is also true that because many of these new cardinals barely know each other, some of them might find navigating the internal politics of a conclave a challenge.
Some observers complain that with his very personal choice of cardinals, Francis is stacking the deck. They argue that John Paul II and Benedict XVI followed the accepted conventions, even when it meant appointing cardinals with whom they disagreed, and that it was a mistake to pass over places like Los Angeles – the largest diocese in the United States, with a significant Hispanic immigrant population – Paris and Milan. The last two, it should be pointed out, however, have retired archbishops who can still vote in a conclave.
Along with his surprise choices, Francis has chosen two prefects of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as cardinals, Gerhard Müller and (included in the latest batch) Luis Ladaria, along with Pietro Parolin, his Secretary of State. The new cardinals also include Giovanni Becciu, the “sostituto” at the Secretariat of State, the equivalent of deputy prime minister. All this shows a recognition that the Roman Curia needs weighty figures if it is to be run efficiently, and that the Pope is willing to balance reform with respect for tradition.
Nevertheless, Francis’ approach to the creation of cardinals has been quietly revolutionary; it has shifted the direction of the Church for years to come.