In naming 17 new cardinals in October, 2016, Pope Francis moved closer to putting his stamp on the sort of cleric who would follow him as pontiff. Similar to a U.S. president’s power to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, a pope’s power to appoint cardinals who presumably can vote in the next concave is decisive in terms of leaving a legacy. With the additional cardinals, Francis had appointed 40 percent of the cardinals who could vote in the next conclave. The fact that cardinals tend to be old suggests, however, that any lasting legacy would not be long lasting. I submit that the cardinals’ typical age and even other qualities suggest that the rubric a pope uses in selecting clerics for the red hat says a lot about how the pope approaches Christianity.
Among the 17 future cardinals were three Americans. Interestingly, all three had “indicated they support Francis’ efforts to set a tone that is more pastoral than judgmental toward women, gays and Catholics who have divorced and remarried.” Significantly, the pope passed over Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Philadelphia, who had been “an uninhibited critic of Francis on doctrinal matters, expressing concern that his leadership has confused the church by leaving open the prospect that priests may give communion to divorced and remarried Catholics.” In making his picks, the pope was discounting such confusion and highlighting pastoral outreach, and therein putting his mark on the Roman Catholic Church as its leader.
The pope’s mark thus goes further than “making sure that his successor follows his line of thought.” Yet even as much as Francis’s picks highlight pastoral work over ideological differences during Francis’s pontificate, the nature of the picks goes further in terms of what they mean for how leadership itself is to be understood in a distinctively Christian way. Specifically, in bypassing large archdiocese including Venice, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that are accustomed to having cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave, the pope was turning the ways of worldly power upside-down, hence maybe in line with Jesus’s conception of the Kingdom of God. Similarly, in “promoting prelates from many smaller dioceses—not only in the United States, but also in Venezuela and Mexico—who are ‘the classic Pope Francis-type of bishops’” (i.e., more interested in doing pastoral work than influencing cultural battles)—the pope was saying something not only about his pastoral priority and even about the universality of the Church; he was recognizing value in small places. Faith the size of a mustard seed can indeed come from a small place, whereas big places can be overwhelmed by the temptations that go with having the sort of power that the world recognizes, values, and rewards.
In short, Pope Francis was demonstrating a Christian sort of leadership, wherein the last are first and many of the first are, well, lost, even as they suppose otherwise. Reaching outside the power-centers of the Roman Catholic Church, into dimmer corners where the work of the Church was being waged in the streets rather than political debates, says something much more than where the pope stood ideologically and even in terms of the Church being worldwide rather than European- or Italian-centric; the use of power to uplift leaders from meeker circumstances and hopefully attitudes is distinctively Christian, and hence totally in keeping with being applied within the Church itself. Being oriented to eternal spiritual verities is superior to trying to be everlasting via successors.
1. Laurie Goodsetin, “Francis Names Cardinals, Including 3 Americans,” The New York Times, October 10, 2016.