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Eyeing Catholic demographics, and maybe his successor, Pope Francis shakes up his cardinals

VATICAN CITY (RNS) By next month he will have made cardinals in 13 countries who’ve never had them before, including places such as the Pacific island of Tonga, Haiti, and Myanmar.

Cardinals attend a consistory led by Pope Francis as he names 20 new cardinals at the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2015.  
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has been appointing cardinals from far-flung parts of the world — choosing men who appear to be toiling away at pastoral work with little or no interest in becoming “princes of the church.”

Next month, during their council, or consistory, Francis will formally induct five more of them into the exclusive club, meaning that he will have appointed close to half of those who will elect his successor.   

It is these prelates who, at an unspecified date in the future and providing they are under the age of 80, will process into the Sistine Chapel during the next conclave. Dressed in their scarlet robes and in front of the dramatic frescoes of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” they will cast their ballot about who should be the Catholic Church’s next leader. 

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Critics have pointed out that the college is unrepresentative of a rapidly globalizing church. The group that elected the first Latin American pope in 2013 was 52 percent European (and even they are overwhelmingly Italian), even though less than a quarter of Catholics came from the continent.

This is a criticism that the pope shares. On May 21, when he announced the new group that includes, for the first time, bishops from Laos, Mali, El Salvador and Sweden, he noted that they “come from different parts of the world, showing the catholicity of the church.” 

According to the Pew Research Center, the pope has now reduced the number of Europeans to 45 percent, although Europeans remain heavily overrepresented. Latin America, which has 39 percent of the Catholic population, still only has 17 percent of its Cardinals.  

Yet more than thinking of strategically handing out papal elector votes as if he was restructuring the electoral college, Francis’ choices have been about following a “last shall be first” policy. On June 28, when he distributes the new red hats, he will have made cardinals in 13 countries who’ve never had them before, including places such as Tonga, Haiti, and Myanmar.    

Pope Francis and Sweden’s Catholic Bishop Anders Arborelius arrive at Malmo Arena in Sweden for a Mass on Nov. 1, 2016. Photo courtesy of TT News Agency via Reuters/Emil Langvad

And it’s not just the geographical peripheries but the “existential” ones he is reaching out to. By appointing the first Catholic bishop of Swedish origin since the Reformation, Francis is bringing in a representative from a secularized country, with just 150,000 Catholics, where the tax office is more trusted than the churches. 

Stockholm Bishop Anders Arborelius, who converted to Catholicism at the age of 19, admitted being chosen was “a real surprise.” 

The other big shock was Gregorio Rosa Chávez, an assistant bishop in the Archdiocese of San Salvador. He worked closely with Oscar Romero, the martyred former archbishop of the archdiocese who was murdered while saying Mass after speaking out against injustices in his country. 

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After 35 years working as an “auxiliary” bishop, where he lived in a rundown parish, Rosa had given up hope of being put in charge of a diocese of his own.  

“You’re dizzy, overwhelmed, taken aback and you don’t know how to react,” he said about the pre-dawn phone call in which he was told about his appointment. Unlike his predecessors, Francis likes to let his newly appointed cardinals find out when he announces it from the balcony of St. Peter’s Square.  

Francis has also overturned the tradition of choosing bishops who are in charge of prestigious dioceses or Vatican departments as cardinals.

In the United States, the pope surprised many last year by appointing Archbishop Joseph Tobin both as leader of the Newark Archdiocese and a cardinal at the same time. Archdioceses such as Los Angeles and Philadelphia — traditionally places led by a cardinal — were passed over.

What Francis’ new system has done is pull the rug from under those with ambitions to be transferred to a particular diocese or Rome job with the hope that a red hat will follow. With this pope, a clergyman seems more likely to be made a “prince of the church” — as cardinals are traditionally known — if he’s put that thought completely out of his mind. 

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Critics say Francis is filling the college with his overly personal picks whereas his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, respected convention and selected cardinals who had a different vision from theirs.

Francis’ supporters disagree and note that John Paul and Benedict also tended to pick like-minded conservatives. And they note that Francis has given red hats to conservatives like Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the German who heads the Vatican’s powerful office on doctrine.

There is also considerable doubt over how far Francis can go to ensure his successor is made in his own image. After 35 years of conservative cardinal appointments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, very few expected this freewheeling, reform-minded pope to be elected. 

The pope is also faced with something of a dilemma when it comes to choosing more cardinals. So far, he has selected 49 out of the 121 under the age of 80 and eligible to vote, meaning he has gone just over the 120 self-imposed limit that was set by Paul VI in the 1960s. That number is loosely based on the New Testament passage of Acts 1:15 where 120 disciples had been assembled. 

Progressive Catholics would like Francis to break through the ceiling and “stack the deck” to ensure his people are in place, and his legacy guaranteed. They point out that by the end of next year just six more slots will become available by those reaching the retirement age. 

Catholic teaching says that papal elections are guided by the Holy Spirit: with his new cardinals, Francis is trying to give the spirit some room to do its work.  

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