ROME – By now, we already know much of what’s on Pope Francis’s plate in 2017, including two confirmed trips — Fatima in May, and India and Bangladesh probably later in the year — and the likelihood of a couple more, one to Africa (perhaps Congo and South Sudan) and one to Latin America (beginning with Colombia.)
The pontiff will also make quick stops in Milan and Genoa inside Italy, meet bishops from around the world in Rome making ad limina visits, receive dignitaries and heads of state, preside over the usual liturgies for Holy Week, continue meeting with his C9 council of cardinal advisers to wrap up an overhaul of the Roman Curia, and so on.
With Francis, however, it’s often what you don’t see coming that really tells the tale.
Trying to predict what this maverick pope will do is a fool’s errand. Yet we can at least say that in 2017, he’ll have the chance to continue doing something arguably more important than almost anything else in terms of framing his legacy and shaping culture in the Church, which is naming bishops.
As a longtime friend of mine who works in the Vatican likes to say, in the Catholic Church a good bishop can do an enormous amount of good, and a bad bishop can do an even greater amount of harm!
Bishops generally enjoy wide latitude to run their shops as they see fit – a point that’s been given an exclamation point of late by the contrasting ways various bishops have chosen to implement the pope’s document on the family, Amoris Laetita. As a result, perhaps no single thing any pope ever does is more consequential than the kinds of bishops he appoints.
We got another small but telling reminder on Wednesday, when Francis replaced Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary in Canada with Bishop William McGrattan.
Henry is a hero to the strongly pro-life camp in the Church, among other things because of his refusal to permit a government-backed vaccination program against a sexually transmitted disease in Catholic schools because he believed it promoted promiscuity, while McGrattan is seen as a more “Pope Francis” kind of bishop whose focus is generally on dialogue and cooperation over confrontation.
In keeping with Church policy, every one of the world’s more than 5,000 Catholic bishops is expected to submit a letter of resignation when he turns 75. It’s up to the pope whether to accept it, but 75 is generally the threshold at which thoughts of a transition begin to beckon.
In major Vatican positions, officials who are already past 75, or who will turn 75 in 2017, include:
- Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
- Cardinal Angelo Amato, Congregation for the Causes of Saints
- Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Congregation for Clergy
- Cardinal George Pell, Secretariat for the Economy
- Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, Council for Culture
- Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Synod of Bishops
- Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Pontifical Academy of Sciences/Social Sciences
Honestly, the smart money is that most will stay on the job. The pope has already openly confirmed Pell beyond his 75th birthday, and Coccopalmiero, Stella, Ravasi, Baldisseri and Sánchez Sorondo are all seen as his kind of guys.
The one to watch may be Amato, who is rumored to be on his way out, and who turns 79 in June. If Francis does replace him, that would leave only the Congregation for Bishops under Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, and the Economy secretariat under Pell as major Vatican offices not led by figures either appointed by Francis or seen as broadly on the same page on most major issues.
Catholic liberals would probably vote for the 69-year-old Müller as the Vatican official they’d most like to see gone, given his track record of taking fairly tough positions on matters such as the Amoris debate.
On the other hand, Francis may think about it the way St. Pope John Paul II once thought about naming Cardinal Agostino Casaroli as his Secretary of State. The Polish pope knew he was going to make a strong anti-Communist push, and he wanted a man of détente to provide balance.
Doctrinally speaking, under Francis it’s sort of the other way around: He’s a pope of détente, and maybe he likes having a doctrine czar around inclined to be sure the baby doesn’t get tossed out with the bathwater.
In terms of prelates in dioceses around the world, here are a few big players already over 75 or who will cross that milestone in 2017:
- Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, Kinshasa
- Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington, D.C.
- Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, Durban
- Cardinal Angelo Scola, Milan
- Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, Mexico City
- Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, Paris
- Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, Tegucigalpa
- Cardinal John Ton Hon, Hong Kong
- Archbishop Peter Okada, Tokyo
Once again, there’s no rule that says the pope has to replace any of them, and in fact most seem safe bets to go on for a while, prominently including Wuerl in Washington.
However, the drama of 2017 probably pivots on the possibility of a transition in three places: Durban, Mexico City and Milan.
All three are tone-setting archdioceses for the Church on an entire continent, and they’re all places where the incumbent is conventionally seen as not quite the dictionary definition of a “Francis bishop.” Napier was a vocal part of the more conservative bloc at Francis’s two synods, Rivera is seen as an old-school cleric comfortable with power and privilege, and Scola is more of an evangelical “JPII” sort of thinker and leader.
If Francis were to do in Milan, Durban and Mexico City what he recently did with his cardinal’s picks in the U.S., meaning to elevate personalities clearly seen as in sync with his own outlook, it’ll likely be read as him nailing down his legacy in various parts of the world.
On the other hand, if he cuts in the other direction and names figures seen as more traditional or conservative, it might be taken as a gesture toward unity, trying to reassure those groups he still wants to be their pope too.
There’s no way of knowing when, or if, these choices might come in the next twelve months. What’s certain is that whenever they do come, they’ll matter — and, given the nature of the Church, not just a little bit.