Pope Francis’ vision of “a church of the poor, for the poor” continues to keep us on our toes.
The latest bombshell dropped Jan. 4 when the pope announced the names of 20 new cardinals at the Sunday Angelus. They come from 14 nations and five continents. Most come from the Southern Hemisphere, from the “peripheries,” as Pope Francis likes to say. Many traditional “red hat” dioceses in Europe were passed over.
This “pope of surprises” surprised many with his announcement. Though the date of the next consistory had been announced for Feb. 14, those receiving the red hat were unknown until Sunday.
Vatican commentator Andrea Tornielli wrote that the cardinals were “very personal choices” of the pope. Even those appointed were surprised: “The new cardinals learnt about their nominations on the television. The Italian, Edoardo Menichelli, found out through a friend who called up to tell him the news, which at first he believed to be a joke. . . . Other ‘chosen-ones’ were reluctant to believe journalists as they tried to get a statement. Nothing was leaked and even the timing of the announcement caught many by surprise.”
The appointees share the pope’s pastoral concerns. They do not come from an academic background, but are involved with people’s daily concerns of Christian discipleship in difficult situations.
The new cardinal from Mexico heads a diocese that has been hard hit by drug-related violence. The new cardinal from Sicily has the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in his diocese. Pope Francis visited undocumented immigrants there in 2013. Another Italian cardinal-designate drives around his diocese in an old Fiat Panda and has started initiatives to help fragile marriages.
Myanmar will receive its first cardinal ever. It has a very small Catholic population of 750,000 — 1.3 per cent of the country’s population. Up to now, Myanmar was better known for Nobel Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who was held under house arrest by her political opponents. The church there has suffered terrible martyrdom under the Burmese socialist regime of General Ne Win.
The cardinal-designate from the diocese of the Pacific Ocean archipelago of Tonga, at 54, is the youngest of the new cardinals. Bishop Soane Patita Paini Mafi heads a local church that counts fewer than 14,000 members out of a population of 100,000.
While the new cardinals will enhance the universal nature of the church at the highest level and give greater representation to those countries where the church is growing, Vatican commentator John Allen Jr. points out a possible drawback, which he calls “the law of unintended consequences.”
None of the new cardinals, with one exception, he notes, is an old Roman hand. They will face a number of obstacles.
“Prelates who have no Vatican experience, who don’t speak Italian, and who don’t themselves have the experience of running a large and complex ecclesiastical operation, may feel a natural tendency to defer to the old hands — generally meaning the same Vatican mandarins whom Francis recently excoriated for suffering from ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s’ and the ‘terrorism of gossip.’ ”
In addition, there is an institutional psychology at play. Vatican insiders say that when a cardinal from Cologne or Chicago shows up, he is taken seriously. “It’s not clear that the cardinal of Tonga or Cape Verde will have quite the same muscle, at least right out of the gate,” Allen notes. “The bottom line is that Pope Francis may run the risk of bolstering the old guard rather than cutting it down to size.”
While many will be rejoicing in the new look of the cardinals’ group, the jury is still out in judging its effectiveness and influence.