VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis on Feb. 14 added 20 new members to the College of Cardinals, warning the newly minted “princes of the church” from around the globe not to let their new red hats go to their heads.
Rather than seeing themselves as a priestly elite manoeuvring among themselves, Francis said, the cardinals should be models of love and humility.
Above all, he said, they should avoid “that smouldering anger which makes us brood over wrongs we have received.”
“No! This is unacceptable in a man of the church,” Francis warned the new cardinals arrayed before him in St. Peter’s Basilica. “Even if a momentary outburst is forgiveable, this is not the case with rancour. God save us from that!”
Francis seemed to be acting as both a spiritual director and a psychologist for the churchmen as he analyzed the perils of clerical privilege. He also probed how the cardinals — who he chose precisely because they represent the furthest margins of the church — can avoid the very sins and attitudes that he wants to purge from the dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy.
In the week running up to this official installation, Francis held meetings with senior cardinals from around the world who advise him, as well as with the entire College of Cardinals, in an attempt to push ahead with his efforts to overhaul the Roman Curia.
At the same time, he wants them to help him chart a new, reformist course for the Catholic Church around the world.
Nineteen of the 20 new cardinals took part in some of those meetings; one of them, a 95-year-old prelate from Colombia, was unable to make the trip.
The others hail from countries as far away as New Zealand and from an Italian diocese in Sicily at the front lines of the refugee crisis.
Francis also picked cardinals for the first time from four countries that are considered well outside the traditional corridors of church power: Myanmar, Cape Verde, Panama and the Pacific archipelago of Tonga, which has just 15,000 Catholics out of a population of 100,000 spread across 176 islands.
“The cardinalate is certainly an honour, but it is not an honourific,” Francis told the new cardinals before each of them swore an oath of fidelity to the pontiff and the church.
They then knelt before the pope while he placed the distinctive red biretta on their heads. (One of them, Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Ethiopia, received a different type of cap to conform with the style of his church’s ancient rites.)
The new cardinals were flanked by some 150 other cardinals, with a special front-row seat reserved for 87-year-old Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who wore a simple white cassock for one of the rare public appearances he has made since resigning the papacy two years ago.
They were all joined in the cavernous basilica by bishops and priests and thousands of pilgrims who had travelled from countries like Thailand and Vietnam, each of which was given a new cardinal.
The title means that the men — all bishops and archbishops — joined the select ranks of the College of Cardinals and will serve as top advisors to the pontiff.
Fifteen of the 20 new cardinals are under the age of 80, and are eligible to join 110 other cardinal-electors to enter a conclave to vote for a new pope if Francis, 78, retires or dies.
There are now a total of 227 cardinals from 73 countries. In two years, Francis has appointed 31 of the 125 cardinal-electors, who come from 59 countries.
Church policy limits the number of electors to 120, but popes often exceed that by a few to account for cardinals who will soon be turning 80. Francis has yet to name any U.S. cardinals, though that is likely to change in the coming year.
The perks of the rank are impressive, but in his remarks Francis cautioned them that becoming a cardinal, which brings the right to wear eye-catching scarlet vestments, “is not a kind of accessory, a decoration.”
Rather, he said, it is about serving as a model of Christian charity.
“The greater our responsibility in serving the church, the more our hearts must expand according to the measure of the heart of Christ,” said Francis, who took as his guiding text the well-known passage from the New Testament in which the Apostle Paul writes about love as “always patient and kind,” and “never boastful or conceited.”
“All of us, myself first and each of you with me, would do well to let ourselves be guided by the inspired words of the apostle Paul,” Francis said.