OXFORD, England — Spain’s newest cardinal has said his appointment confirms the pope’s determination to keep religious orders center stage in the Church’s life and mission.

“The religious have faced a certain incomprehension and relegation — so pronouncements by Pope Francis, who’s never concealed his Jesuit identity, on the harmony of vocations are significant,” said Cardinal-designate Aquilino Bocos Merino, a former superior general of the Claretian order.

“Laypeople should also have a strong place in the charism of various congregations. … With their help, I’m sure we can gain new enrichment,” he said at a May 22 press conference in Madrid.

The 80-year-old cardinal-designate, who will be elevated during a consistory at the Vatican June 28, said he had felt “overwhelmed” on hearing the news of his nomination via the radio, but also reassured by the pontiff’s personal support for religious orders.

“Here in Madrid, encouragement is given every day, without great speeches, to the bonding of priests, religious and laity,” he said.

“The pope has made extraordinary gestures towards the religious, which could not have been expected during other pontificates, when many felt rejected in some ecclesial spaces,” he said.

Born May 17, 1938, in Canillas de Esgueva, near the city of Valladolid in northwest Spain, Bocos Merino began studying with the Claretians at 12 and entered the order in 1956.

Ordained a priest in 1963, he studied philosophy and clinical psychology at the Pontifical University of Salamanca, going on to serve as spiritual director of the city’s Maronite seminary before becoming director in 1971 of the Claretians’ publishing house and Vida Religiosa magazine. He also co-founded the theological institute of religious life in Madrid.

In 1979, while heading the religious education federation that coordinates Spain’s Catholic schools, he became superior of the Claretians’ Castile province. He was elected superior general of the order in 1991 and held this position for two six-year terms.

The cardinal-designate participated in the 1994 Synod of Bishops that addressed consecrated life, took part in special assemblies in 1999 and 2002, and served on the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from 1994 to 2004.

On his return to Spain, he worked to animate religious life through the Claretians’ publications and visited more than 80 countries to encourage religious vocations.

In a May 20 commentary, Spanish Catholic newspaper Vida Nueva described the cardinal-designate as the “head, heart and voice” of Spanish religious life, adding that he had helped channel the “concerns, problems and desires” of monks and nuns through presentations, retreats and writings.

While his work had often been “downplayed alongside multitudinous church events,” he had made a major contribution to “translating the Second Vatican Council into religious life,” and his work and personality had been instrumental in “thinking and rethinking the Church’s present and future,” Vida Nueva said.

Father Fernando Prado, director of Claretian publications, called Bocos Merino “small in body, but a giant in spirit” whose strong character was “capable of inspiring respect even from the world’s greatest.”

His “is the soft sweetness of someone who knows the brake of austerity and penance, who’s always in God’s presence even during prodigious external activity,” Prado said in a May 23 statement.

In a May 21 interview with the Alfa y Omega Catholic weekly, the cardinal-designate said he believed that the prospects for religious life had “never been better,” but cautioned that order members were challenged to be “true witnesses of Gospel joy.”

“It’s all very well to speak of participation, communion and dialogue, but applying this requires coherence of life and missionary audacity,” he said. “When people say we are too few to go out into the world, I respond that if the Apostles had made such a calculation they would still be arguing today.”