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Pope Francis, the ultimate headhunter

Pope Francis attends his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Nov. 16, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-TRUMP-TRIP, originally transmitted on May 18, 2017.

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis is often referred to as the “pope of surprises” for many reasons. One of them is the unexpected churchmen he chooses to elevate to the rank of cardinal, as he will do with 16 bishops and an elderly priest on Saturday (Nov. 19) in St. Peter’s Basilica.

These new cardinals include prelates from 11 dioceses and six countries that have never before had a cardinal, and from places far outside the traditional European orbit of ecclesiastical influence: Albania, for example, plus the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea.

But the real surprise in these picks, as in past appointments, is that they came as a complete surprise to many of the new cardinals themselves, and to the pope’s closest collaborators.

Cardinal-designate Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, for instance, found out about his red hat in the early morning hours on Oct. 9 when he turned on his iPad to say his morning prayers and saw the news that the pope had included him among the list of new cardinals announced at the Vatican.

“I am shocked beyond words by the decision of the Holy Father,” Tobin tweeted a few moments later.


READ: Pope Francis’ cardinal choices bring surprises, especially for US


The Rev. Ernest Simoni, an 88-year-old Albanian priest who spent years in jail and under forced labor during the communist dictatorship, was watching Francis on television as he read the list that same day and was stunned to hear his name as well.

“I did not believe either my ears or eyes,” Simoni told Reuters. “The pope said it, but I could not believe it. ‘Can he be talking about another Ernest?’ I said to myself.”

In a previous round of appointments, in early 2015, Cardinal Jose Lacunza Maestrojuan of Panama – also a country that had never had a cardinal – first heard about his elevation when his sister in Spain texted him on the instant messaging service WhatsApp: “You have nothing to tell me?” she wrote. Lacunza thought it was “crazy” and didn’t believe her until he got a congratulatory phone call from a cardinal in neighboring Nicaragua.

Doing it his way

So how does Francis go about finding candidates and deciding which to grant such a critical honor – the right to vote in a conclave to choose a new pope from among their own ranks?

If he is not following the normal custom of simply giving red hats to bishops in traditional “power” dioceses and in the Roman Curia, then he has to do a lot of due diligence to find men who represent the open and pastoral approach to ministry he favors, or who send a message about where the church’s priorities should be.

Francis certainly seems to prefer doing it his way.

More than three years into his pontificate, it’s common knowledge in the Vatican, and a source of some frustration, that Francis likes to set his own schedule and dispense with the usual protocols and gatekeepers. He keeps his own datebook, calls who he likes when he likes on his own cellphone — and seems to be his own best executive search firm.

Vatican observers and Francis’ track record in selecting 55 cardinals (44 of them under 80 and eligible to vote in a conclave) in three rounds of appointments since his election in 2013 indicate that the pontiff’s vetting process tends to involve three main strategies.

The first is that he goes with his gut. Francis places a high value on personal encounters with individuals, and in the case of Simoni, Francis was moved to tears when he visited Albania in 2014 by the priest’s description of the two decades of imprisonment and torture he suffered for refusing to renounce his faith.

Such fidelity and humility are qualities Francis wants to highlight, and because a cardinal over 80 cannot vote in a conclave, giving a red hat to someone like Simoni is more a personal honor than a statement about who the next pope might be.

He is his own Rolodex

Secondly, Francis has an impressive mental Rolodex and it often turns out that the pope knows potential candidates better than they thought he knew them.

Tobin, for example, said he was flummoxed that Francis would choose him, given that he was in a relatively small, low-profile diocese. Francis in fact likes to honor out-of-the-way places as a way of showing that the “peripheries” of the church matter more than the power centers. Plus, Tobin’s pastoral style matches up well with that of the pope.

But in speaking to reporters earlier this month when he was introduced as the new head of the Newark Archdiocese in New Jersey (also a surprise move by Francis), Tobin recounted a story that indicates how well Francis remembers people.


READ: New Jersey meets its new, and first, Catholic cardinal


The cardinal-designate noted that he and Francis – then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires – first met during a weekslong Vatican meeting in 2005. Tobin speaks fluent Spanish so he and Bergoglio were in the same Spanish-language small group in the synod and they sat next to each other.

One day during a coffee break Tobin told Bergoglio that while they were all happy with the election of then-Pope Benedict XVI, who had become pope a few months earlier after the death of John Paul II, “in all honesty, Cardinal, you were my mother’s favorite candidate” to be chosen. (Bergoglio was reportedly a strong contender in that 2005 conclave.)

Bergoglio was surprised at hearing this. “How does your mother know me?” he asked. Tobin explained: “Well, she read in the newspaper that you pick up after yourself, you cook your food, and you drive a modest car. And frankly, she’s had it up to here with princes of the church!”

Bergoglio laughed, but never forgot. Five years later when Benedict chose Tobin to take a job in the Roman Curia, the papal bureaucracy, Tobin was surprised to receive a brief note from Bergoglio in Argentina telling him he was praying for him and adding, “I remember our conversations and I remember your mother’s good taste.”

Three years later, in 2012, Tobin was effectively exiled from Rome and sent to Indianapolis because he disagreed with what proved to be a disastrously unpopular Vatican investigation of the American nuns over doctrinal orthodoxy.

A few months after that, Benedict resigned and Francis was elected, and he let it be known that he did not like how Tobin had been treated. And now he is making Tobin a cardinal.

Asking around

The third method Francis has for vetting personnel is the time-honored system of asking around. The Catholic Church is essentially a global village where even six degrees of separation from one churchman to another would be considered unusual.

“It’s obvious that every time he is thinking of the next consistory” – the ceremony in which he formally elevates cardinals – “Francis is looking for information about qualified people,” said Andrea Tornielli, longtime Vatican beat reporter for the Italian daily La Stampa.

The pope will ask bishops and others he trusts, Tornielli said, especially if he is looking to use an appointment to call attention to a far-flung area that he knows little about, or to send a message about a particular issue, as he did by naming the Vatican ambassador to war-torn Syria a cardinal – also a first for a Vatican diplomat.

“Every pope has special channels and friends he asks to collect information, for getting other points of view,” Tornielli said. “This is not such a novelty.”

What Francis is especially good at is keeping his final choices to himself.

Talent-spotting

Some critics wonder if Francis consults widely enough to avoid making questionable picks, while others worry that making the College of Cardinals so geographically and culturally diverse so quickly could make it difficult to act as a cohesive body that can come together to advise a pope on particular matters or deliberate together to choose a new pontiff.

But the more common opinion is that Francis is simply a good talent-spotter, and that he is willing and able to keep looking until he finds candidates who embody the type of churchman he thinks the church needs for the future.

As Tobin said: “Sometimes I think Pope Francis sees a lot more in me than I see in myself.”

This story is available for republication.

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

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