Pope Francis recasts the role of cardinals in the church

By Christopher Lamb
Sunday, November 27, 2016

VATICAN CITY — Three and a half years into Francis’ papacy, and it’s clear that one of his major reforms has been his upending of how cardinals are chosen, along with a dramatic re-focusing of what their role is all about.

On Nov. 19, the pope placed red hats on the heads of 17 new “Princes of the Church,” including the archbishop of Chicago. Traditionally, becoming a cardinal has been seen as the moment when a priest or bishop is elevated into the highest ranks of the Church.

There was also a well-worn route for a red hat that churchmen could follow, meaning that if they were appointed to certain dioceses or positions within the Vatican their nomination as a cardinal was assured.

But Pope Francis has changed all this.

First of all, he has a new category for choosing cardinals that involves him scrutinizing the pastoral record of candidates, favoring risk-takers and servant-leaders rather than those following a career path.

He’s now looking for pastors rather than princes — and this has led to some surprising choices. On Saturday five of the prelates receiving red hats came from countries that had never received them before: Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and Lesotho. The same thing happened in the last consistory with Cape Verde, Tonga, Burma and Panama.

“I like people to see the universality of the Church in the college of cardinals, not just the center, let’s say Europe, but cardinals from everywhere,” Pope Francis said earlier this year when explaining how he made his choices.

Second, he’s tapping into the original idea of what wearing the scarlet biretta is all about. The title of cardinal comes from the Latin word “cardo,” which means “hinge,” and Francis sees his men in red as bridges between Rome and local churches. The globalizing of the membership reflects the shifts in Catholic populations to Africa, Asia and Latin America and ensures these countries are represented in a future conclave. After all, the primary task for a cardinal — if they are aged under 80 — is to vote for the next pope, and Francis’ picks ensure those choosing his successor share his vision for the church.

The pope is also highlighting why a cardinal wears red, and it’s this: he must be ready to give up his life, with the color of his robes a symbol of the blood he should be prepared to shed. In the formula of the creation of new cardinals, Pope Francis called on them to “be fearless witnesses to Christ and his Gospel in the City of Rome and in faraway regions.”

This had particular poignancy for three of those receiving their red hats on Nov. 19. Take Cardinal Mario Zenari, the papal ambassador to Syria, who is one of the few western diplomats living in Damascus whose life is at risk from the bombs being dropped during the country’s protracted civil war.

His nomination as a cardinal is the first time a serving Vatican diplomat has been given a red hat, and his appointment is a sign of hope for peace.

Then there is Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga, the Archbishop of Bangui, Central African Republic, whose country is being torn apart by warring Christian and Muslim militia. The 49-year-old cardinal, the youngest of the new cardinals, has put his life on the line by trying to mediate between the groups and working with fellow Christian and Muslim leaders in the process. He is also famed for grappling with a knife-wielding militiaman who was threatening to kill a Muslim child.

Finally, there is Albanian priest Father Ernest Troshani Simoni, 88, given the red hat following twenty years of imprisonment, hard labor and torture by his country’s former communist regime. When the pope visited Albania in 2014, he was brought to tears by the priest’s testimony of his ordeal.

The message from Pope Francis with these appointments is clear: being a cardinal is not about enjoying comfort and prestige but instead requires a radical service. Cardinal Cupich explained that the appointments of how the pope “sees the whole world” and also gets to the idea that faith is about “discerning” what God wants and that “things are not black and white documents.”

He was speaking during the traditional “meet and greet” with members of the public that takes place in the Vatican after cardinals are given their red hats. This is a custom that harks back to the time when cardinals were the parish priests of Rome so the people of the city got a chance to greet their new pastors.

Today the event includes many of the visiting pilgrims who have traveled to the Eternal City to see their church leader receive their new honor. In Rome on Nov. 19 groups from Chicago mixed with colorfully dressed people from Central African Republic, Bangladesh and Mauritius. There were also groups from Indianapolis and Newark who came to see Cardinal Joseph Tobin — who will be installed in his new archdiocese in New Jersey next month — and pilgrims from Dallas greeting Cardinal Kevin Farrell, now leading the Vatican’s new office on family life.

Pope Francis also used Saturday’s ceremony to remind the cardinals of another crucial aspect of their role.

“That ritual talked not only about having solidarity and unity but also obedience. There is a new obedience we are called to now, to listen to and be attentive to what the pope is saying,” Cardinal Cupich explained.

The oath cardinals are required to make asks them to be “constantly obedient” to the Gospel, the church and the pope — and in his homily on Saturday Pope Francis warned against a “virus of polarization and animosity” seeping into the church.

The pope’s remarks weren’t simply directed internally but to the world, and he said this virus of animosity is infecting public life.

“We see, for example, how quickly those among us with the status of a stranger, an immigrant or a refugee become a threat; take on the status of an enemy,” Pope Francis said.

“An enemy because they come from a distant country or have different customs. An enemy because of the color of their skin, their language or their social class. An enemy because they think differently or even have a different faith.”

Francis’ papacy has been focused on breaking down walls between people, and his cardinals show how different backgrounds, cultures and customs can come together under one umbrella.

This focus on unity in diversity, peace and reconciliation has been theme of the Jubilee of Mercy, which ended on Nov. 20. The pope, who turns 80 next month, formally ended the jubilee by closing the holy door of St. Peter’s Basilica and urging that while the door has closed, the possibility of mercy always remains open.

This is the compassionate church, one which offers a unity in diversity and with leaders willing to put their lives on the line. It is the vision of Pope Francis — and also, quite plausibly, his legacy.


  • pope francis
  • vatican
  • college of cardinals
  • unity

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