VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis’ new cardinals, who will be formally installed on Saturday (Feb. 14), represent everything the pope says he wants for the future of Catholicism: a church that reaches out to the periphery and the margins, and one that represents those frontiers more than the central administration in Rome.
That’s why he picked cardinals for the first time ever from countries like Myanmar and Cape Verde, as well as one from the Pacific archipelago of Tonga, which has just 15,000 Catholics out of a population of 100,000 spread across 176 islands.
The 15 new cardinals who are of voting age — five new “honorary” cardinals are over 80 and ineligible to vote for the next pope — come from 14 countries and include prelates from Ethiopia, Panama, Thailand and Vietnam, and from places in Europe far removed from the traditional power dioceses of Old World Catholicism.
In fact, only one new cardinal comes from the Roman Curia, the Italian-dominated papal bureaucracy that Francis is struggling to tame in the wake of a series of scandals that revealed a deep dysfunction at Catholicism’s home office.
But will diversifying the College of Cardinals make it look more like the church’s global flock of 1.2 billion members? Or will it leave the electors so fragmented by geography, language and viewpoints that they won’t be able to serve as a counterweight to career churchmen in Rome?
“Prelates who have no Vatican experience, who don’t speak Italian, and who don’t themselves have the experience of running a large and complex ecclesiastical operation, may feel a natural tendency to defer to the old hands” who have been blamed for Rome’s troubles, veteran Vatican expert John Allen wrote on the Catholic news site Crux.
“The bottom line is that Francis may run the risk of bolstering the old guard rather than cutting it down to size,” he said.
Certainly the breadth and depth of the transformation in the College of Cardinals is remarkable.
In the 2013 papal conclave that elected Francis — an Argentine and the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere — Europeans made up 52 percent of the electors; today they account for just over 45 percent, the lowest level ever. The new cardinals bring the total voting-age membership of the College of Cardinals to 125.
Meanwhile, cardinal-electors from the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the majority of Catholics live, now comprise about 41 percent of the electors, up from 35 percent in 2013 and their highest level ever.
At the same time, the percentage of curial officials has dropped in these two years, from 35 percent to 29 percent.
But while their numbers are smaller, could the curialists have a home-field advantage that would allow them to slow reforms or run the table at a future conclave? Several cardinals and church officials say they don’t think so.
Archbishop John Dew of New Zealand, one of the newly minted “princes of the church,” argued that Francis has already shifted “the balance of power” away from Europe by appointing leaders from “the end of the world,” as Francis referred to himself at his election.
“It’s an opportunity to have a voice and to be heard so (that) it’s not just the curial cardinals speaking, which it’s tended to be for a long time,” said Dew, 66. “So it isn’t all the Roman mentality, the European mentality” dominating church governance.
Dew also noted that Francis is deliberately bringing all the cardinals together in regular meetings to advise him on challenges facing the church and on reforming the Curia. He is also convening regular synods, or meetings of top bishops together with leading cardinals who come from outside Rome.
That leadership approach has two effects. One, it lets the Curia know that the bureaucracy is there to serve the wider church, not the other way around.
And two, it allows the cardinals — who are the ones who will have to elect the next pope from their ranks — to get to know each other better, and to work together. “That does give a sense that we’re in this together,” Dew said.
“You see the function of cardinal, the position of a cardinal, is changing,” Cardinal-designate Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Ethiopia told National Catholic Reporter. “It’s no more a big honorific task.”
“This is more those who will be nearer to the Holy Father — when he asks our views, our opinions, he will be able to get them,” Souraphiel said.
In the past, such gatherings of cardinals in Rome were so infrequent, or had so little to do with governing the church, that cardinals really didn’t know each other very well. That’s changing fast, and along with it the dynamics of how the church operates, with a much greater stress on decentralization.
“This is a very healthy thing that we are seeing,” Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl said during a break between the series of meetings that the pope has been holding with his cardinals over the past week.
Wuerl, who has long experience dealing with Rome and is today a key American adviser to Francis, said that on a practical level, Francis’ efforts to diversify the College of Cardinals — and the Curia — has suddenly made the Vatican much less Italian and therefore much easier for cardinals with little Roman experience to contribute.
Wuerl recalled that as recently as a synod meeting in 2012, months before Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI resigned, Latin was the official language of the discussions.
The next year, after Francis was pope, Italian replaced Latin, and now cardinals are increasingly simply speaking in their mother tongue.
“I think we are already seeing a way of dealing with the fact that not everybody has to speak Italian, which is the lingua franca of the Curia,” Wuerl said. “If you speak in English or French or Spanish, chances are everyone in the room will understand what you are saying.”
“I’ve never experienced that before,” he said.
KRE/AMB END GIBSON