We’ve entered a new period in Catholic life that always fills Church affairs junkies with delight, which is a fresh round of speculation about the creation of new cardinals.
Trying to anticipate who the next Princes of the Church may be is all the more interesting under Pope Francis, since he doesn’t follow the traditional script, so his choices are far more difficult to handicap and thus more entertaining to contemplate.
By consensus, the most likely window for Pope Francis to stage his next consistory, which will be his third, is late November, to coincide with the close of his Holy Year of Mercy on Nov. 20. Probably, the pontiff would find attractive the idea of having all his cardinals on hand to ring out what he considers the spiritual cornerstone of his papacy.
A “consistory,” which comes from the Latin con-sistere, meaning “to stand together,” is the name for the event in which new cardinals are created.
If that’s the scenario – and assuming Francis sticks to the custom of having 120 cardinal-electors, meaning cardinals under the age of 80 and therefore eligible to vote for the next pope – by that point he would have 13 slots to fill. (That’s counting Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Sarr of Dakar, who turns 80 on Nov. 28).
Waiting until February 2017, a more traditional moment for a consistory since the feast of the Chair of Peter falls on Feb. 22, would only buy Francis two new openings, so there may not be a compelling reason to delay.
For Americans, among the most intriguing questions are:
- Will the States get a new cardinal?
- If so, who?
Francis didn’t name any new Americans in his first two consistories, in February 2014 and February 2015, but there are good reasons to believe he may do so this time around.
He was favorably impressed by his September 2015 visit to the United States, by the warmth of his reception and the dynamism of American Catholicism. (Recall that on his way back to Rome, the pontiff actually invented a new word to describe the off-the-hook atmosphere in New York: stralimitata, which doesn’t actually exist in Italian, but basically what he meant was “beyond any limits.”)
He’s also on something of a roll with nods to the States this summer, having named an American journalist as his new chief spokesman and an American bishop as the first head of a key new Vatican office.
Further, when Francis was elected in March 2013, there were 11 Americans inside the Sistine Chapel. Since then, the number of American cardinal-electors has dropped to seven, so he may feel the U.S. is due.
If he does tap an American, who’s it likely to be?
As of this week, there’s potentially a new contender: Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, appointed by Francis on Wednesday to head up his newly created dicastery (the formal Vatican term for a department) dedicated to laity, family and life issues.
(By birth Farrell is Irish, but he’s spent the last 31 years in the States, including 14 as an American bishop.)
Although Francis often is not one to stand on tradition, he nevertheless understands that in the world of the Vatican, generally the way you signal something is important is by putting a cardinal in charge of it. Given how central the family is to his agenda, Francis may want Farrell to have the ecclesiastical gravitas he’ll need to move the ball.
(As a footnote, it struck many Vatican-watchers as curious that Farrell was not made an archbishop and assigned a titular diocese at the time of his appointment, which is normal practice for a new dicastery head. Part of the picture may be that Francis doesn’t want Vatican jobs to automatically come with ecclesiastical entitlements, but an additional factor could be that if he’s already planning to name Farrell a cardinal, making him an archbishop now may have seemed superfluous.)
In terms of other American prelates who may be in line, the exercise used to be much easier. You would look around at major archdioceses known informally as “red hat sees,” meaning those usually led by a cardinal, and do the math.
In the United States, that would mean the contest should boil down to four places: Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. There would be a clear logic in each case.
- In L.A., Archbishop José Gómez would become the country’s first Hispanic cardinal.
- In Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich was Francis’ first major tone-setting pick in America and is perceived as a key papal ally.
- In Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput was the pope’s host last September for the World Meeting of Families, and tapping him would also bolster Francis’s standing among Church conservatives.
- In Baltimore, Archbishop William Lori leads America’s original Catholic diocese that was home to the country’s first-ever bishop, John Carroll. Lori is also the point man for the U.S. bishops on religious freedom issues, so making him a cardinal would be a signal of papal support.
Francis, however, typically doesn’t think in those terms. This is a “Pope of the Peripheries,” and his cardinal’s selections to date have been of a piece with that outlook.
In Italy, for instance, Venice and Turin still do not have cardinals, but Ancona in the Marche region, with a population barely over 100,000, and Agrigento in Sicily, both do.
Francis also likes to award red hats to places that have never had them before, such as Myanmar, Cape Verde and the island nation of Tonga. Even then, he tends to bypass traditional centers of power in favor of more peripheral locales. When he named Haiti’s first-ever cardinal, for instance, it wasn’t in the capital of Port-au-Prince but the small diocese of Les Cayes.
Assuming Francis does decide to name one or two Americans, therefore, be prepared for a surprise.
It’s entirely possible, just to float one plausible scenario among many, that Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, could be still abed one Sunday when someone calls to say they just heard the pope announce his name as a cardinal during the Angelus address. (El Paso is eight hours behind Rome, so noon would be 4 a.m.)
That would be a way of shining a spotlight on one of America’s peripheries, and, for bonus points, it would also be a statement on immigration.
Francis met Seitz during his stop at the U.S./Mexico border in February, telling him on the tarmac in Ciudad Juarez that “I want to thank you for organizing that event in El Paso,” referring to a gathering of 28,000 people in Sun Bowl Stadium to celebrate the pope’s visit Seitz had organized, and then thanked Seitz publicly during the papal Mass, so there’s a personal connection.
On the other hand, this is Pope Francis we’re talking about, so all bets should probably be off.