On the flight home from Azerbaijan earlier this month, Pope Francis summed up his approach to picking cardinals. “A little bit of everywhere,” he said, “as the Church is everywhere in the world.” The list of new cardinals that he revealed on Sunday did indeed give us “a little bit of everywhere”: the 17 cardinal designates come from 11 countries on five continents.
During the airborne press conference, the Pope explained that, through his choices, he wanted “to show the universality of the Church in the cardinals’ college, not just the, let’s say, European centre”. He has certainly achieved that goal: only five of the 17 are European (and one of them is currently Apostolic Nuncio to Syria). When the cardinals are installed on November 19, six countries will have their first cardinals: Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, Lesotho, Malaysia, Mauritius and Papua New Guinea.
Several of the non-Europeans are likely to serve in the College of Cardinals for decades. Central African Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga is only 49, which means he will become the world’s youngest cardinal.
Pope Francis’s steps to make the Sacred College reflect the geographical shape of 21st-century Catholicism are most welcome. In just three years as Pope, he has named roughly a third of cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave. Nevertheless, Europe remains the dominant continental block. As the Pope turns 80 in December, the continent is likely to play an outsized role for years to come.
The Pope’s choice of three new American cardinals is telling. Archbishop Blase Cupich, Archbishop Joseph Tobin and Bishop Kevin Farrell are all described as “moderates”, “pastoralists” or “theological liberals” (depending on which churchy parlance you prefer). The Pope evidently wants to tilt the balance of the US hierarchy, which is currently packed with “theological conservatives”, “culture warriors” or “orthodox bishops” (again, take your pick). But this effort may not succeed: Archbishop Farrell will no longer be serving in Dallas, but at the Vatican. And Archbishops Cupich and Tobin are relative newcomers to the US bishops’ conference, rather than well established and influential figures such as Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia (both of whom were passed over for the red hat).
Perhaps the most interesting of all the new cardinals is a humble, white-haired Albanian priest called Ernest Simoni. The 87-year-old is one of the last survivors of Albania’s communist persecution. During the papal visit to Albania in 2014, Fr Simoni recalled that the regime had tried to wipe out the Church with “arrests, torture and killings of priests and lay people for seven straight years, shedding the blood of the faithful, some of whom shouted ‘Long live Christ the King!’ as they were shot.” He was arrested in 1963. Despite being tortured, he refused to abandon the faith.
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