Pope Francis disrupts tradition while drawing firm lines in new cardinal choices

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VATICAN CITY (RNS) — When Pope Francis released last week the list of men he intended to elevate to the rank of cardinal this year, one name and one location jumped out at him: Giorgio Marengo, 47 years. Not only the youngest man to receive a red hat since Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla – later Pope John Paul II – was made a cardinal 55 years ago, Marengo is the Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia, where the number of Catholics is in four figures. .

Marengo’s elevation was also a stark reminder that Milan, whose first cardinal took office in 1451, and Los Angeles, by far the most populous in the United States with more than 4 million Catholics, are still without cardinals.

Since becoming pope in 2013, Francis has favored what he calls “the peripheries” of the Church, far from the historical power centers of Catholicism in Europe and North America. And he has at times been idiosyncratic in his choice of cardinals: in 2015 he appointed the Reverend Ernest Simoni, an ordinary priest he had met in Albania the year before, overriding the requirement that only bishops should be appointed. cardinals.

In the same year, Francis raised Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi, the fourth bishop of the small Polynesian kingdom of Tonga.

In a sense, Marengo’s appointment only continued a trend, but it also punctuated the increasingly pointed statements that Francis seems to be making to each new class of cardinals.

Bishop Giorgio Marengo in 2020. Photo by Amunra Magnus/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

On the one hand, bishops of large and powerful archdioceses should not take the red hat for granted. “These appointments are a continuation of Pope Francis’ design to create a college of cardinals where the traditional cardinal sees are not represented,” Vatican watcher Agostino Giovagnoli said of the new generation of cardinals.

Instead, the pontiff chose “representatives of churches around the world and in particular of churches in the peripheries that Pope Francis considers crucial in selecting his successor,” said Giovagnoli, who teaches contemporary history at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan.

Second lesson: Francis, although he has made dialogue a watchword for his papacy, is not above playing hardball. With the appointment of Bishop of San Diego Robert McElroy to the College of Cardinals, Francis has countered the conservative opposition he has faced in the United States, Giovagnoli said, where some bishops have called for communion to be banned for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

McElroy’s diocese neighbors Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who has at times appeared to ignore the pope’s advice on abortion policy.

Robert W. McElroy, bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, arrives to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament, at the Vatican, November 10, 2017. Pope Francis said on May 29, 2022, he called on 21 men from church to become cardinals, most of them from continents other than Europe, who dominated the Catholic hierarchy for most of the Church's history.  (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

Robert W. McElroy, Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, arrives to attend a conference on nuclear disarmament, at the Vatican, November 10, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)

In Africa, Francis raised Bishop Peter Ebere Okpaleke, whom Francis chose in 2012 to lead the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria, only for local Catholics to resist the appointment because Okpaleke was from a different tribe. Now Bishop of Ekwulobia, Okpaleke’s elevation is a clear message that going against the Pope’s wishes will make you out of a cardinal.

British Archbishop Arthur Roche, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, has also barked at Catholics who use the traditional Latin Rite as a form of dissent against the modernization of the Church consecrated by the Second Vatican Council. Roche is a strong supporter of Francis’ document, Traditionis Custodes, which largely restricted the celebration of Mass in the Old Rite.

Overall, Francis’ new cardinals reflect the more positive concerns of his papacy: inclusiveness, immigrants, the environment, and the fight against clericalism. The selection of Marengo, an Italian missionary in Ulaanbaatar, “shows that missions still matter,” said Reverend Mario Ghezzi, director of AsiaNews, the official news agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions. “For the pope, it is always topical to leave his country and go and announce the Gospel in another country.”

Marengo is also one of six new cardinals in Asia, where Francis increased the number of cardinals to 24 from 11 when he became pope in 2013.

In predominantly Catholic East Timor, a nation of 1.3 million spread across an island it shares with Indonesia, Archbishop Virgílio do Carmo da Silva of Dili “nearly passed out”, said he declared to the press, when he learned last week that he would be among the cardinal class.

“The focus on Asia seems pretty clear,” Giovagnoli said, adding that the continent “is destined to play a growing role in the Catholic Church.”

The push in Asia includes India, where the new cardinals are Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão of Goa and Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, the first cardinal from the Dalit, the caste also known as the “untouchables”. “. The Diocese of Neri Ferrão, although small, has become the hub of vocations and Catholic leaders.

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass the day after the elevation of 13 new cardinals to the highest rank in the Catholic hierarchy, at St. Peter's Basilica, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Mass the day after the elevation of 13 new cardinals to the highest rank in the Catholic hierarchy, at St. Peter’s Basilica, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool)

Francis’ attention to Asia in general recognizes a shift in which seminaries and convents are exploding in many places in Asia, while the pews are becoming increasingly empty in many historically Catholic strongholds in Europe. And while donations in the United States, Germany and other Western countries are dwindling in the wake of sex abuse scandals, in places like Singapore, where Bishop William Goh Seng Chye of Singapore will become a cardinal, the Catholic community is emerging as an “and economically strong reality, with a strong Catholic identity and significant charitable momentum,” Ghezzi said.

The importance placed on Asia is particularly evident in the decision to elevate South Korean Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik, who since late last year has headed the Vatican’s Congregations for Clergy, which oversees all priests not belonging to religious orders.

You is the second highest ranking cleric in the Vatican in Asia. Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, is considered a rising star of Francis’ pontificate.

Asia’s prominence may have played against Bishop Andrew Chan, who has led the Hong Kong diocese since January 2021. The Vatican recently signed a tenuous treaty with China on the appointment of bishops and, given tensions persistent between Hong Kong and Beijing, the pope may have wanted to avoid angering the Chinese government, whose patience is already being tested by the virulent criticism of the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen .

In Brazil, Francis solidified his support for his home continent of South America, creating two cardinals who signify his commitment to the environment (in the face of President Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s indifference) and to young people.

Archbishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner leads the diocese of Manaus, the most populous city in the Amazon, and also follows up on Francis’ 2109 summit on the Amazon region and its peoples. Steiner already heads the special episcopal commission for the Amazon; his red hat shows that the region remains a priority. The pope also made Archbishop Adalberto Martínez Flores the first cardinal of Paraguay, whose borders encompass the second largest rainforest in Latin America.

Paolo Cezar Costa.  Photo of Renascidos at Pentecost via Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Bishop Paulo Cezar Costa. Photo by Renascidos at Pentecost/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

At 54, Bishop Paulo Cezar Costa de Brasilia has been a driving force behind Catholic youth initiatives since serving as director of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.

But geography – coming from all corners of the globe – trumped ideology in this round of nominations. Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr of Wa, Ghana is known for his work with people suffering from mental illness but also for his vocal support of traditional family values ​​against foreign interference. Along with other Ghanaian bishops, Baawobr signed a letter of support for legislation that would make homosexual acts illegal. Although rewarding Baawobr seems at odds with Francis’ openness to the LGBTQ community, it shows he’s willing to respect local mores.

This leaves Europe bearing the brunt of Francis’ message. His choice to disown Milan while making Bishop Oscar Cantoni of Como, Italy a cardinal was met with shock and outrage by Italian media, but was understood as a dual expression of concern for migrants and contempt. for careerism in the church. Cantoni’s small seat also overwhelmingly supports Italy’s right-wing Northern League, a political party led by Matteo Salvini, while hosting the largest share of migrants pouring into Italy from the south and east.

In France, where a nationalist anti-immigration party narrowly lost to centrist President Francois Macron, the pope elevated Bishop Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille, who championed migrant rights.


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Despite the political nature of recent cardinal appointments, “Pope Francis does not want to create his own political party,” according to Giovagnoli, “whether within the Roman Curia or outside.” And among his choices, even among the staff of the curia, there were a few olive branches: Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, who oversees the management of Vatican City State, will become the first Cardinal of the Legionaries of the Christ, a religious order known for its conservative leanings which was greatly discredited following the discovery of child sexual abuse by its founder, the Reverend Marcial Maciel.

“There is a version of the Church that the pope wants to communicate and that inspires his choices,” Giovagnoli said, admitting that some of his reasonings may not be revealed until the next conclave, when Francis is gone or at the end. retirement. For now, the professor added: “What is clear at this point is that Pope Francis is not one to follow the rules.”


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