ROME — Let’s begin with a consistory quiz. Which of the following church leaders to be given a red hat today, in the following places, is the odd one out?
Is it Anders Arborelius, the Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden? The Archbishop of Bamako (Mali), Jean Zerbo? Juan José Omella, the Archbishop of Barcelona? Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez, an auxiliary of San Salvador? Or the bishop who rejoices in the name of Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun, Apostolic Administrator of Vientiane, Laos?
If you were following the Twitter feeds out of Rome yesterday, you might opt for Zerbo, because he is the only one under a cloud over misuse of church funds, and the only to have been suffering from a stomach blockage that has kept him in hospital until just before today’s ceremony.
But that would be far too clever. The answer I was looking for is more straightforward.
It is, of course, Barcelona, because the Catalonian capital and Spain’s second city is a cardinal see — that is, a big urban archdiocese which, by tradition, always gets a red hat.
None of the other four places (or their countries) getting red hats today have ever had cardinals, whereas Juan José Omella will be the eighth archbishop of Barcelona to be so honored — as were his three immediate predecessors.
In other words, the choice that sticks out is what used to be the traditional one. Put another way, it is a sign of how unorthodox Francis’s cardinal picks have become that the biggest surprise of this consistory was that Francis didn’t surprise.
And that surprised Omella (pron.’Omeya’), who was shocked to learn on May 21 that he was to be made a cardinal.
“I didn’t think Barcelona would continue to be a cardinal see,” he told journalists yesterday, “because Pope Francis appeared to have changed the criteria, opting for bishops from the periphery.”
That’s certainly true of the other four. Only half of El Salvador’s 6 million population are Catholics, and they are very poor. Less than two percent of Mali’s mostly Muslim 17 million people are Catholics, while Laos has 45,000 Catholics – less than one percent of the population – and no dioceses. Sweden has just one diocese with 113,000 Catholics (about 1.15 percent of the population).
Why the pope broke the mold in the case of Barcelona is a mystery to Omella. He hasn’t spoken to Francis since he learned, “in fear and trembling,” of his appointment while on a pastoral visit to one of his parishes.
But seeing him up close yesterday, it wasn’t too hard to guess why. The seminarian from the little fiesta-loving Aragonese village of Cretas only ever dreamed, he said, of being a pueblo priest or a missionary in Africa.
For 20 years he did both – a year in Zaire, followed by 19 as a parish priest – before being named episcopal vicar and auxiliary bishop of Zaragoza diocese in 1996. He became bishop of Calahorra and Calzada-Logroño in 2004 and was named Barcelona’s archbishop in 2015 after many years as national chaplain to Manos Unidas, the impressive Spanish anti-poverty charity which funds projects across the developing world.
Jovial, simple-living, committed to the poor, and above all pastoral, Omella is a classic Francis pick. He even echoed – I presume unconsciously – Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s words on being made a cardinal in 2001, that he didn’t see it as a promotion but an invitation to serve more fully.
Omella said he had been meditating on the model of Jesus’ service in the letters of St. Paul and saw it not as an honorific but a kind of self-abasement.
“What is asked of me now,” Omella said, “is a service to the universal Church, but in the way the pope is teaching us when he washed the feet of people in prison.”
Being a cardinal, he said, means “serving the Christian community, serving the people of God, and serving the society where we’re sent – that’s what my life’s got to be from this moment forward.”
Asked to identify particular challenges at this time, Omella mentioned three. The first was building up the family, which he said is undergoing “difficult moments across Europe” (a recent study in Spain showed a dramatic collapse in sacramental weddings from 70 per cent of the total in 2000 to 27 per cent last year). The second was work with young people, whom he said lack employment and meaning.
The third challenge, he said, was to implement chapter four of Francis’s Magna Carta in his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which is concerned with putting concrete love into practice by caring for the poor.
If those on the margins – spiritually and socially – do not find in the Church concrete commitment to action to assist them, Omella warned, “our message of prayer and catechesis and preaching ends up hollow.”
He went on to quote an old Spanish refrain, “Obras son amores y no buenas razones” which in English means something like, “fine words don’t butter parsnips.”
But Omella is equally committed to prayer (spending time with the Lord, he told journalists, was what kept him serene and passionate) and to Marian devotions: he is a regular on pilgrimages to the Virgin.
He told Crux that a group in his archdiocese was developing teaching materials from Amoris Laetitia to be studied in parish groups so that the exhortation could be better known and understood.
Amoris, he said, developed traditional moral teachings and practices, was rooted in the Catechism and was clearly in continuity with Familiaris Consortio.
“We have to move forward in the accompaniment of people in their process in which they meet Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the Church and the Gospel,” he said, adding that because these were processes that required accompaniment and discernment.
“Because it’s not all black and white,” he said, “this work of accompaniment is vital.”
Barcelona’s new cardinal had little time for the four cardinals who have publicly dissented from Amoris Laetitia in public letters to Francis calling on him to defend the exhortation from charges of heresy.
“When you are an adviser to the pope, which is what a cardinal is, and you don’t agree with him, then you should tell him, but I don’t agree with having a public fight with him,” Omella said. “Obedience to the pope means walking with him. A public fight is neither appropriate nor edifying for the people of God.”
Was he expecting, I asked, any news on the canonization of the great Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí, creator of the Holy Family cathedral?
Omella said the cause was advancing and they had great hopes that he will soon be declared a saint, adding with enthusiasm that Gaudí was a layman, an architect and an intellectual who had a particular sensibility towards the poor, one who “defies all the preconceptions” and whose work continues to lead people of no faith to an encounter with the Gospel.
“A man whose love of God led him to great love of others,” Omella summarized. “Don’t tell me that’s not the Gospel.”
Today’s consistory brings the total members of the college of cardinals to 225, of whom 121 are under 80 years and can vote in a conclave if it were called tomorrow.
Of the electors, 19 were appointed by John Paul II, 53 by Benedict XVI and 49 by Pope Francis.
This is Francis’s fourth consistory, which has again expanded the number of non-European cardinals.
In the conclave that elected Francis in March 2013, Europe had 60 cardinals, Africa 11 and Asia 10, while Oceania had one, North America 20, and Latin America 13.
After today Europe has 53 cardinals, Africa and Asia 15 each, Oceania four; North America 17, and Latin America 17.
Italy remains a red-hat superpower with 24 cardinal electors, compared with the U.S.’s 10 and France’s five. Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Poland and India each have four.