Pope Francis appoints 13 new cardinals, including Chicago native

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Pope Francis is pictured in a file photo meeting with the College of Cardinals in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

A second wave of COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire across Europe, leading many countries to lock down once again. The cases in Italy continue to surge, and the Vatican is not immune. Pope Francis’ Wednesday general audiences have gone back to taking place in the Apostolic Palace after a person attending one of them on Oct. 21 tested positive for the virus.

Nevertheless, Francis continues to drive forward his pontificate and at the end of this month will create 13 more cardinals from around the world. Appointing cardinals is the closest thing a pope has to succession planning, and the latest group means the 83-year-old pontiff has now dramatically reshaped the body that will choose who comes after him.

Francis has now appointed 57% of the 128 cardinal-electors — those under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a future conclave — shifting the balance away from Europe and toward the global south. After the Nov. 28 consistory, only 41% of the electors will be European, which will be Europe’s lowest share ever, while Asia, Africa and Latin America will have 45%, the highest ever. 

More important than the numbers are the type of leaders the pope is choosing. From the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has given red hats to bishops from unexpected, far-flung places who are renowned for their witness to the Gospel and pastoral wisdom. He has ripped up the old unwritten rule book that saw archbishops, particularly in Italy, automatically become cardinals, and instead ensured his decisions are personal and reflect his vision of the church.

It makes the next conclave very difficult to predict, but one thing is certain: the cardinal-electors will not be swayed by the agenda of some Catholic elites, particularly in the West, who want a culture-warrior church that fights specific doctrinal battles. By contrast, the cardinals Francis has appointed are not ideological, but concerned with the needs of their flocks, the social Gospel and how to grow the church on the peripheries.

Among the pope’s latest choices is the Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, a Chicago native who will become the first Black American to receive the red hat (see story on page 17). Not only does this send a powerful message at a time of heightened racial tensions across many parts of the world, it also honors a church leader who is in the mold of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The appointment of Archbishop Gregory speaks strongly to Francis’ desire to implement the Second Vatican Council.

Also on the list is Archbishop Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, Rwanda, a Tutsi who lost his parents and five siblings during the country’s genocide, and Bishop Cornelius Sim, the apostolic vicar in Brunei, who leads a local church with just three priests.

Then there are the three Franciscans, including Father Mauro Gambetti, who has served as superior of the Convent of St. Francis of Assisi, and two Capuchins: Archbishop Celestino Aos of Santiago, Chile, who routinely wears his brown habit without a clerical collar, and Father Raniero Cantalamessa, former preacher to the papal household, who will serve as a retired cardinal.

For a pope who chose St. Francis of Assisi as a namesake, these choices indicate his hope for a church that models itself on the poor friar from Assisi. When Francis was elected, it was Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a Franciscan, who turned to him saying, “Don’t forget the poor.” It was a biblical injunction that the first pope from the global south has tried to implement.

Yet the new cardinals are created at a time when the Vatican is once again grappling with scandals over financial corruption that show just how far the church is from the Franciscan ideal.

A Vatican police investigation into a disastrous property deal in a large apartment and office complex in Chelsea, London, which cost the Holy See millions due to its complex structure and the payment of exorbitant fees to middlemen, remains ongoing. Meanwhile, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, one of the most powerful figures in Rome, was suddenly dismissed at the end of September amid allegations of embezzlement, which he denies.

“The church remains strong, but corruption is a deep-seated problem that we lost sight of over the centuries,” the pope said in a recent interview. “Unfortunately, corruption occurs repeatedly through history. Someone arrives who cleans things up, but then it starts again. … The first fathers of the church called this [money] the Devil’s dung, and so did St. Francis.”

One thing is different from the scandals in the past. In past years they would be dealt with behind closed doors. Now it is the Vatican’s own internal checks and balances that are flagging problems, as they did with the London deal. It is a sign the pope is making progress.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Nov. 28 consistory event is going to be low-key, and some of the new cardinals may not even come to Rome. The event will be stripped down, but as a result may allow a greater focus on the reality that becoming a cardinal means service, not status. It’s a message the pope has been trying to communicate throughout his pontificate.


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