VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis created his first batch of new cardinals on Saturday (Feb. 22) and used the ceremony to launch a new appeal for peace amid the violence racking so many countries.
Francis focused his remarks on the plight of Christians, but in an extemporaneous addition to his prepared text he also called on the church “to fight any discrimination” and “exclusion.”
“The church needs your compassion, especially at this time of pain and suffering for so many countries throughout the world,” Francis told the 18 new cardinals who were present in St. Peter’s Basilica, along with hundreds of other cardinals and bishops whose colorful vestments and diverse origins offered a grand tableau of global Catholicism.
Adding to the drama of the day, retired Pope Benedict XVI was an unexpected participant at the ceremony, making his first public appearance at a Vatican rite since he resigned the papacy on Feb. 28 last year.
It was the first papal retirement in six centuries and paved the way for the election of Francis two weeks later. Benedict, who lives in a monastery on the Vatican grounds, had pledged to remain “hidden from the world” to avoid making himself a distraction.
But Francis has periodically visited the retired pope, and the two have been photographed together, including unveiling a statue last summer in the Vatican gardens. Benedict had never taken part in a public liturgy, however.
In an amusing sign of the potential awkwardness of such a transition, the Vatican’s media guide for Saturday’s consistory reproduced the oath of fidelity that the new cardinals make to the pope, but had them swearing obedience to Benedict rather than Francis.
The mistake was not repeated in the official oaths, although each of the new cardinals immediately went to greet Benedict right after receiving the distinctive red hat, or biretta, from Francis.
The 86-year-old Benedict, who was smiling and seemed in good health, was greeted with applause when he entered the basilica from a side door, walking with the aid of a cane. In a sign of respect to his successor, Benedict stood and removed his own skullcap as Francis warmly embraced him before the beginning of the service.
Throughout the hour-long ceremony, Benedict sat in front of the main altar with the rest of the churchmen – a slight figure dressed in white amid a sea of scarlet and purple.
Amid the pageantry, however, Francis delivered a sobering talk that began with a call for the cardinals to work together and support the pope — a potent line given the dissension that undermined Benedict’s papacy.
“Whenever a worldly mentality predominates, the result is rivalry, jealousy, factions,” Francis told them.
He then shifted the focus abroad, stressing the duty of the new cardinals and the entire church to support “all Christians suffering from discrimination and persecution.”
Francis also went out of his way to broaden his appeal to include “every man and woman suffering injustice on account of their religious convictions.”
Looking up from his prepared text at one point Francis added: “We have to fight any discrimination.”
Telling the cardinals to be peacemakers, he concluded by asking for “peace and reconciliation for those peoples presently experiencing violence, exclusion and war” – again adding the word “exclusion.”
Throughout his nearly year-long papacy, Francis has made it clear that he wants the papacy and the church to have a voice and a role in international diplomatic efforts to end the violence that has often hit minority Christian populations especially hard.
Francis made a major push last year for a ceasefire in Syria, and he has repeatedly amplified those efforts and extended them to other conflicts.
A day earlier, in fact, Francis had opened a meeting of some 150 cardinals who were meeting to discuss church teachings on the family and sexual morality by asking them to endorse a joint appeal for peace in Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Francis’ off-the-cuff reference on Saturday to fighting exclusion and “any discrimination” was also notable in that bishops in Africa in particular have been divided over supporting or opposing efforts in some countries to pass especially harsh laws against gays.
In Nigeria, the law was welcomed by top Catholic leaders even though it prompted a wave of violence against gays after it passed.
Of the 19 cardinals appointed by Francis on Saturday, 16 are under 80 and are therefore eligible to vote in a conclave – or be elected pope – should Francis die or resign.
The other three over 80 received their red hat as “princes of the church” as an honor for their lifetime of service; one of them, Cardinal Loris Capovilla, is 98 and at the last minute could not travel from his home in northern Italy because of declining health. Capovilla still officially became a cardinal, the oldest living member of the College of Cardinals.
But Francis’ picks for the 16 new cardinal-electors were notable for beginning to shift the composition of the College of Cardinals toward the global South where the majority of Catholics live and worship.
Francis, an Argentine who is the first pope from Latin America, also made it clear that he wants to name cardinals from poorer parts of the world — like Haiti, the Philippines and Nicaragua — rather than giving red hats to Europeans who have traditionally enjoyed the title.
He also wrote each of the new cardinals last month and stressed that the new title “does not imply promotion” and he asked them to refrain “from any expression of worldliness or from any form of celebration contrary to the evangelical spirit of austerity, sobriety and poverty.”
KRE END GIBSON