Francis creates 20 new cardinals: Here’s what that means for his legacy

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Pope Francis leads a consistory for the creation of 20 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Aug. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On Aug. 27 in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Francis told the 20 men he had just named new cardinals to set the world on fire.

The pope often uses provocative language to make a point. Recently, when asked about the overturning of Roe v. Wade, he replied that abortion is like hiring a hit man to solve one’s problem. He does not shy away from “lighting a fire,” to the delight of some and to the dismay of others. It’s part of a pastoral style that has been dubbed the “Francis effect,” which has marked his papacy and influenced Church culture.

No one should be surprised, then, that the pope’s pastoral style comes into play in his naming of new cardinals. The style, however, is not to be seen in the ceremony itself, for Pope Francis on Saturday did not deviate from the rite, which took place in the context of an ordinary consistory.

To explain: A consistory can be ordinary or extraordinary. Both instances are opportunities for the pope to consult and/or carry out a solemn act with the cardinals, who advise the pope on Church affairs, administer Vatican offices and govern local dioceses and archdioceses around the world. Cardinals who are under the age of 80 also have the responsibility, when the papacy is absent, to elect a new pope — usually from among themselves — during a closed-door meeting called a conclave. The new pope is elected when two-thirds of the cardinals agree on the person put forward.

An extraordinary consistory is attended only by the pope and cardinals, and an example happens to be close at hand: Pope Francis asked the cardinals to gather today and tomorrow in order to discuss the new constitution of the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium. Saturday actually had two public ordinary consistories, so-called because guests had been invited. One was a brief ceremony to approve the canonization of two new saints (Giovanni Battista Scalabrini and Artemide Zatti). The other was the creation of new cardinals.

Demographic shift

The rite for the creation of new cardinals is actually quite simple. Following a greeting and opening prayer, the pope publically proclaims the names of the new cardinals, which in fact makes them cardinals. This effect is underscored by the unanticipated hospitalization of now-Cardinal Richard Kuuia Baawobr from Ghana, who despite being absent from the consistory was still elevated to the cardinalate when his name was announced by Pope Francis. The naming is followed by a Gospel reading, the pope’s homily, the profession of faith and oath of fidelity by the cardinals, and the reception by the cardinals of their signs of office: the red biretta (a symbol of their willingness to shed their blood for the Christian faith), the cardinalatial ring (their love for the Church) and a scroll detailing the name of their titular church in Rome (their relationship to the pope, the bishop of Rome).

Again, when one considers the celebration of the rite, the following of the rubrics or rules, Pope Francis’ pastoral style is little noticed. It’s when one considers the parts of the rite not written down in the liturgy that one recognizes his style and how he has influenced the Church — in other words, his choice of cardinals and what he says in the homily.

Saturday’s consistory marks the eighth time Pope Francis has had an opportunity to create new cardinals. Including the 20 newly named, the members of the College of Cardinals now number 226. Pope Francis has selected 121 of them. Among the current total membership, 132 cardinals are under the age of 80 and thus able to vote in the next conclave. And among these cardinal-electors, 85 were selected by Pope Francis, which is just shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to elect a pope. These numbers alone demonstrate how Pope Francis has influenced the Church during his pontificate, for the cardinals he has selected are helping him govern the Church, from making policy to selecting bishops.

However, it’s not only the number of cardinals Pope Francis has selected but also the kind of cardinal that directly influences the Church. And his choices in Saturday’s consistory follow the choices he made in the seven previous consistories in two ways: their nationality and their priorities for the mission of the Church.

Instead of selecting cardinals from Europe, which was the tendency of most previous popes, Pope Francis has consistently selected men from the peripheries of the world. For example, after Saturday, the nationality of cardinal electors from Europe is now just under 40%. In 2013, it was 52%. Cardinal electors coming from the Asia-Pacific region used to be 9% in 2013; now they are 17%. And cardinal-electors from sub-Saharan Africa were 9% and now are 12%. This trend continues with the newly named cardinals: for the first time cardinals hail from East Timor, Singapore, Paraguay and Mongolia.

In the mold of Francis

At the same time, while there is great diversity in terms of nationality, the cardinals selected by Pope Francis have tended to be closely aligned to his vision for the Church, seeming to differ from the practice of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who seemed to seek a diversity of thought in order to stimulate dialogue and consensus.

Newly named Cardinal Robert W. McElroy from San Diego, for example, shares the vision and many priorities of Pope Francis — for example, an outspokenness on the Church’s mission to care for migrants and creation. Indeed, Cardinal McElroy is similarly minded to two other U.S. cardinals named by Pope Francis: Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey. Like Pope Francis, these three U.S. cardinals would not press pro-abortion Catholic politicians about their stance — or take a hard line by pushing the Church’s teaching on sexual morality with groups that would like to change that teaching. Again, this causes delight for some and dismay for others.

When, therefore, Pope Francis addressed the new cardinals at the consistory, he probably didn’t need to exhort them in the homily to set the world on fire; it seems they are already at the task. Yet, it’s interesting to note how the pope described the fire; the description is not as provocative as one might expect. He based his comments on a verse from Luke’s Gospel, which quotes Jesus: “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!” Jesus’ fire, the pope said, is twofold: a great fire and a humble fire.

The great fire is the powerful flame of the Holy Spirit fully revealed in the paschal mystery of Christ. This great fire fueled Jesus to follow his mission with courage and zeal. Indeed, Jesus’ heart was aflame with the mercy of God, and it sent him not only to his own people but also to all people. The cardinals, the pope said, should cultivate this great fire from Jesus in their own ministry, in small matters and great ones.

The humble fire, on the other hand, is the charcoal fire that Jesus prepared on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (cf. Jn 21:1-14). It’s a post-Resurrection event, and it reveals the quiet and gentle strength of the Lord, who has cooked a meal for his disciples. At the meal, the pope said, the disciples savor their closeness to the Lord. Pope Francis exhorted the new cardinals to imitate Jesus and to cultivate this humble fire in their work through meekness and tenderness so that those to whom they minister do not need to be told that Jesus is in their midst; it will be evident in the cardinals’ actions.

The pope’s choice of cardinals manifests clearly his vision for the Church: He wants ministers who go out to the peripheries, to reach out to people and groups who are marginalized. The cardinals need to bring the fire of Christ far and wide. Certainly, the cardinals he has chosen fit the mold, but it remains to be seen how long Pope Francis’ influence will endure after he dies or resigns. Despite his efforts to change the Church, much has remained the same, wheat and weeds alike. After all, even the pope remains one man, and it might be good to remember that Pope Francis himself was elected by cardinals mostly chosen by Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II.

David Werning writes from Virginia.