(RNS) — San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy said he was stunned and shocked when he received a 3 a.m. call Sunday (May 29), notifying him that he had been named by Pope Francis as one of 21 new cardinals.
As a member of the College of Cardinals, McElroy, 68, will be part of the church body that assists the pope in running the global Catholic Church and electing a new pope after the sitting one dies or resigns. He will remain in San Diego and will continue to serve as bishop in the U.S.-Mexico border region that serves more than 1.3 million Catholics.
“I’m deeply honored by this appointment. I’m particularly pleased that I’m remaining here in San Diego because it will allow me to continue ministry here. It’s a beautiful city and I didn’t want to have to leave it,” McElroy said at a news conference Tuesday.
Despite having to travel more, McElroy said he doesn’t expect his life to change very much. McElroy said he had no clue that his appointment was being discussed but believes the pope had been seeking a cardinal for the West Coast. There is no cardinal west of Houston, he said.
“This pope is very concerned about migrants and refugees, and we’re a diocese on the border. We face all of those issues, and we have a very large immigrant population,” McElroy added.
In selecting McElroy, Francis passed over more highly ranked churchmen in cities that have traditionally had cardinals as their bishops. McElroy said he has taken a pastoral approach in his leadership, rather than a “strict doctrinal orientation.”
McElroy will be installed as cardinal Aug. 27 at the meeting of the cardinals, known as a consistory, at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was the only new cardinal appointed from North America.
News of McElroy’s appointment is being celebrated by the faithful who advocate for LGBTQ people, immigrants and labor rights, as well as among those who stand against the politicization of the Eucharist.
McElroy has criticized the move to exclude Catholic politicians who support abortion rights from Communion, accusing supporters of the idea of having “weaponized” the Eucharist. He has condemned the bullying of LGBTQ youth, recently joining other bishops in signing a statement insisting that “all people of goodwill should help, support, and defend” them.
McElroy also told the National Catholic Reporter that he is in support of allowing women to be ordained as deacons of the church. And as employers began mandating COVID-19 vaccines last summer, McElroy instructed priests in his diocese that there is no basis in Catholic teaching to offer a religious exemption.
The Rev. Allan Figueroa Deck, who served with McElroy on the board of directors of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, said his appointment is in line with the pope’s desire to name cardinals “in more distant places on the margins,” pointing to McElroy’s push for inclusivity through his pastoral care of LGBTQ people and his outspokenness about denying Communion to abortion-rights politicians.
“It’s not a change in morality, but it’s a change in approach,” said Deck. “It’s a change in how we reach out and how we seek for ways to accompany people, even when they aren’t always living up to ideals that we propose for our faith.”
McElroy has been described as one of today’s “most brilliant minds in the Catholic hierarchy,” having earned a doctorate in political science from Stanford University and a doctorate in moral theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.
McElroy, a native San Franciscan, was ordained a priest in 1980 and assigned to the San Francisco Diocese, where he rose to auxiliary bishop in 2010 before moving to San Diego in 2015, early in Francis’ pontificate.
“Over the last decade, he has demonstrated his intellectual and pastoral attentiveness to public theology and the church,” said Meghan Clark, associate professor of moral theology at St. John’s University.
Clark said she met McElroy in 2011 when he was on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ domestic justice committee. She was a lay consultant at the time and said McElroy “really listens and (is) always engaging both people and ideas.”
Carlos González Gutiérrez, the consul general of México in San Diego, said McElroy’s appointment is “a motive of pride” for the millions of Catholics, many of them Mexican, in the Diocese of San Diego.
Catholic activist John Gehring said McElroy is an “exceptional pastoral leader with a heart for social justice.” He lauded a speech McElroy gave after Trump’s election, saying that as “President Trump was the candidate of disruption … we must all become disrupters.”
The Rev. Bernardo Lara, a Catholic priest in San Diego currently studying in Rome, said McElroy arrived as bishop of San Diego when he was a deacon preparing to become a priest. The previous bishop had died and Lara was unsure who would ordain him. McElroy adopted him like a son. “I had the blessing of being ordained by the bishop (McElroy),” said Lara.
Lara said McElroy has always lent a listening ear. “He understands you. When you speak with him, you realize he paid full attention to you,” said Lara, a moral theology student at Pontifical Gregorian University.
Lara, who will serve as a parish priest of three churches in the city of Brawley when he returns to California this summer, said McElroy’s designation as cardinal is a historic moment for San Diego, a region that he said has been “witness to the dreams and tears of many people who have arrived as immigrants.”
With this move, Lara said Francis is “opening the doors … reaching places we didn’t think we’d reach.”
“This is a gesture of what the church is, a church that walks with everyone. A church that is not foreign to people’s lives.”
The Rev. Thomas Reese and The Associated Press contributed to this report.