ROME — From a journalistic perspective, a consistory, that is, the ceremony in which a pope creates new cardinals, is almost by definition anti-climactic. The news comes about a month early when the names are announced, setting off the inevitable cycles of “Why this guy and not that one?” and “Who here could be the next pope?”
By the time the red caps are actually distributed, these talks have largely run their course, and sometimes even seasoned Church watchers are tempted to tune out.
This is the era of Pope Francis, however, which means you should always be on your toes. Such was the case last week with the pontiff’s eighth consistory, which succeeded in generating a startling degree of interest – mainly, in the end, for what did not happen rather than what did. is produced.
To begin with, this was not your ordinary consistory.
Pope Francis combined the ceremony with two other events, first a day trip on August 28 to the central Italian town of L’Aquila – notable as the final resting place of Pope Celestine V, the last pope to voluntarily resign from the papacy before Pope Benedict XVI. XVI – and two days of meetings on August 29 and 30 with most of the world’s cardinals, about 200 in all, to discuss Vatican reform.
Along with his growing age and physical limitations, the L’Aquila outing originally sparked speculation that Pope Francis could use the gathering of cardinals to announce his own resignation. By the time it actually happened, however, he had pushed back on the idea in a series of media interviews – and, in fact, he went to L’Aquila and back, let alone retire.
By this point, however, the idea that something big must be in the works had taken hold, leading to much speculation in the Italian media and elsewhere about an “August surprise”.
This is partly because consistories are traditionally held either in late February, around the Feast of the Chair of Peter, or in late June, to coincide with the Feast of Saints. Peter and Paul. Other times they could be in October, especially if there is a synod of bishops that requires many cardinals to be in Rome anyway.
The end of August is therefore a strange time, especially in light of the deep-rooted Italian tradition that August is the month of holidays when few natives remain in Rome.
(Fun fact: the last August consistory was held 215 years ago, under Pope Pius VII in 1807, and it was a private ceremony to create a single cardinal”Ipectore», that is to say secretly. The choice fell on Francesco Cavalchini, who effectively ruled the city of Rome on behalf of the pope and who could not be named publicly because he was extremely controversial. One observer at the time described Cavalchini as “deranged” and a “madman” who “had people chained up, beaten and whipped on a whim, if only for a word or a gesture.”)
Given the unusual timing for a consistory, many pundits assumed Pope Francis must have something up his sleeve.
What could it be? Some thought he might be plotting a major overhaul of his Vatican team, others that he might finally be ready to pull the trigger on a doctrinal innovation – ordaining women deacons, perhaps, or the radical overhaul of “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”) which has long been a staple of the Roman rumor mill.
Still others wondered if now would be the time for Pope Francis to decree new rules for the office of pope emeritus. In a recent television interview, he seemed to hint at this possibility, praising Pope Benedict but adding, “In the future things should be delineated more, or things should be made more explicit.
In the end, the biggest “August surprise” turned out to be no surprise, as none of these earthquakes materialized.
As for what happened while the princes of the Church were meeting, reports suggest that they largely stuck to their discussion brief on “Praedicate evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel” ), the pope’s March 19 document outlining his reform of the Vatican.
Insofar as there were tensions, they were centered on the provisions of “Praedicate evangelium” allowing the laity to direct the departments of the Vatican. More traditional prelates have argued that since some of these departments exercise proxy authority on behalf of the pope, the prefect should be part of the apostolic succession and holy orders. Others have argued that it might be a little awkward for visiting cardinals to actually receive instructions from lay people.
Ultimately, a majority seems to support the idea that while some key departments should perhaps still be headed by a cardinal – the Dicastery for Bishops, for example, or Clergy, or Divine Worship – other offices , such as the Secretariat for the Economy or the Dicastery for the Family, could easily be, and perhaps even should be, run by lay people.
But while there have been talks along these lines, the reports don’t suggest any major rifts.
A few cardinals have made more controversial suggestions. German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, for example, proposed that only cardinals living in Rome should be allowed to vote at the next conclave, suggesting that since so many of Pope Francis’ picks come from distant places with little Vatican experience, they could be easily manipulated by unnamed “lobbies.”
Certainly, 93-year-old Cardinal Brandmüller must be given credit for chutzpah, effectively telling a wide range of his fellow cardinals, opposite, that he does not trust them to choose the next pope. Yet, even though they listened to him with respect, there is no indication that his proposal was very successful.
In other words, there just weren’t a lot of fireworks. So the real question is how to read relative calm.
Does it reflect a college of cardinals largely satisfied with the status quo, their silence signifying their consent? Or at least are some prelates just lying in bed, waiting for a different time to lend a hand?
This is, alas, a question to which the end of August 2022 did not really provide an answer – but time, inevitably, will tell.