Pope Francis continues to upend the Vatican’s old system

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Pope Francis elevates the Eucharist as he celebrates Mass marking the feast of Pentecost in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican May 20. Also pictured is Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze. The pope at his “Regina Coeli” announced that he will create 14 new cardinals June 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — The office of papal almoner is an ancient role, with its holder having the responsibility of performing works of charity on behalf of the pontiff. When Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Konrad Krajewski to the role five years ago, he offered him these words of advice: “You can sell your desk,” he told him. “You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican.” 

The archbishop has since given over his apartment to a group of Syrian refugees, walks the streets of Rome helping the homeless and helps struggling families pay their utility bills. On May 20, the pope announced that he was making his almoner a cardinal, elevating Archbishop Krajewski to the highest echelons of church leadership. 

Francis’ choice underlines the upending of the old system for choosing cardinals that this pope has adopted, which has linked giving red hats to service over and above hierarchy or those who might be “next in line.” 

It was once again on display on Pentecost Sunday when the pope, showing the spirit “blows where it will,” chose 14 new “princes of the church” from places such as Iraq, Japan, Pakistan and Madagascar. Francis also relishes the element of surprise in his choices — new cardinals are not told in advance and often learn of their appointment via excited parishioners or journalists. 

There used to be unwritten rules for who would be chosen as a cardinal, including bishops of certain dioceses or leaders of Vatican departments. This, some argued, created a network of preferment where clerical ambition was allowed to thrive: If you could get a certain diocese or job in the Roman Curia then a red hat would follow. 

But this has all changed under a pope who says his least favorite phrase is: “It’s always been done this way.” 

More than any other of his personnel appointments, the first Latin American bishop of Rome is revealing through his choice of cardinals a desire to reshape and internationalize the pastoral priorities of global Catholicism by focusing them onto the new “peripheries” where he believes the church needs to serve.

That means cardinals serving in dangerous parts of the world — such as Syria and Iraq — or those involved in dialogue with Islam and defending the role of Christians (Pakistan, Bangladesh). 

Then there are new cardinals in far-flung parts of the world; bishops renowned for their hands-on ministry in places such as Tonga, Cape Verde, Panama, Papua New Guinea and El Salvador. The idea is that cardinals should reflect a missionary, nimble and service-orientated church.  

Choosing cardinals is also the closest thing to papal succession planning as it is those prelates under the age of 80 who get to vote in a conclave. After June 29, the day of the consistory ceremony where Francis will officially place red hats on the new cardinals, this pope will have chosen 47 percent of those who will help choose his successor. Out of 125 electors, Francis has named 59, Benedict XVI 47 and John Paul II 19. 

All this means a future conclave that is going to be unpredictable, but one that allows voices from the margins to have a say at the center. 

This, it could be argued, is in keeping with the direction of the church following the Second Vatican Council, one which  is less Euro-centric and more global. It was after the council that churches in Latin and Central America began to find their voice, and in October the pope will canonize an iconic figure from the latter: Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador, murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980. 

Francis has announced he will declare Romero a saint along with five others, including Pope Paul VI. Romero and Paul VI can be seen as two pillars of this papacy: the martyred archbishop for his prophetic leadership and Paul VI for his institutional reforms. 

It was Paul VI who shepherded Vatican II to its conclusion, oversaw the early implementation of reforms and appointed Romero as archbishop. He also encouraged the Salvadoran prelate during a meeting in Rome soon after the murder in 1977 of the Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, Romero’s friend (who is now also on the way to sainthood). 

That had been the decisive moment for Romero, turning him from a cautious and hesitant leader into a courageous and radical critic of the brutal Salvadoran government. During that meeting, the late pope encouraged Romero to “guide his people to the end.” 

Francis will canonize the pair during the Synod of Bishops gathering which has taken “young people, the faith and vocational discernment” as its focus. Expect the pope to hold up Romero’s life has a guide for courageous discernment in the 21st century. 


  • pope francis
  • cardinals
  • oscar romero

Related Articles