Arguably, no single thing any pope ever does is more consequential than choosing the cardinals who will elect his successor. When a pontiff reveals his picks for new members of the Church’s most exclusive club, therefore, it always delivers a powerful statement not only about where the Church is today, but where it may be going in the future.
On Sunday, Pope Francis announced that he’ll create 14 new cardinals, including 11 under 80 and thus eligible to vote for the next pope. He explained the choices in terms of promoting a spirit of universality in the Church, with new cardinals hailing from Iraq, Pakistan, Peru, Madagascar and Japan.
Here are seven quick take-aways about what Sunday’s choices mean.
1. Sako makes a statement
In his 2016 consistory, Francis made a strong statement of solidarity with the suffering Church in Syria by naming his ambassador in the country, Mario Zennari, as a cardinal while leaving him in place, virtually an unprecedented step in terms of the customs of papal diplomacy.
On Sunday he delivered basically the same gesture for Iraq, naming Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, as a cardinal and an elector. In both cases, the move shines a spotlight not only on the individuals but on the Christian communities they serve, which have been devastated by the rise of the Islamic State and the bloody civil conflict in Syria.
Francis has spoken repeatedly about the “new martyrs,” referring to a vast “ecumenism of blood” created by assaults on Christians in various parts of the world. By making both Zennari and Sako cardinals, in effect he’s handed them a larger megaphone to ensure that the voices of those suffering churches stand a better chance of being heard.
It’s also worth noting that the elevation of Sako comes at a time when Iraq is trying to form a new government, so, in context, it could be read as a message about the importance of religious pluralism and the security of the country’s Christian minority in particular.
Finally, Sako is just the second figure from one of the Eastern churches tapped as a cardinal by Pope Francis. Should he follow up by naming Sako to his “C9” council of cardinal advisers, it would address a consistent gripe from the Eastern churches that the pope’s kitchen cabinet doesn’t include their voice.
2. The significance of Becciu
One of the new cardinals is Angelo Becciu, currently the substitute, or number two official, in the Vatican’s all-powerful Secretariat of State. The appointment confirms the profile of Becciu, who’ll turn 70 on June 2, as a real power center in the Francis papacy, playing a key role from the course of financial reform to policy on China. It’s highly unusual for one cardinal to serve under another, suggesting that in the near future Becciu will be assigned another Vatican post. What will be fascinating to watch is whether he’ll continue to exercise the same level of influence from that perch, or whether this is actually a case of promoveatur ut amoveatur – promoting to remove.
3. So much for “de-cardinalizing” the Curia
For a while, it seemed that one way Francis would defang the bureaucracy in the Vatican would be by breaking the traditional link between heading a Vatican office and getting a cardinal’s red hat. Francis seemed to think that it wasn’t all that important that these offices be headed by Princes of the Church, since they’re supposed to be about service rather than power.
In the end, however, it turns out that at least in some cases, the tug of tradition is simply too strong, as Francis returned to form by making both the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – the Vatican’s historically powerful doctrinal watchdog, known as la suprema, or “the supreme” office – and the Vicar of Rome, who governs the diocese in the pope’s name, cardinals. (Technically the vicar isn’t a member of the Roman Curia, but in practice whoever holds the role usually functions like one.)
Additionally, there’s the Realpolitik point that no matter what your ecclesiastical or theological theories may be, in the Vatican, sometimes it just takes a cardinal to get anything done.
Speaking of the vicar …
4. Eyes on De Donatis
April this year brought an anomaly, in that when time came to present Francis’s new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate to the world, the choice fell not to any of the usual heavyweights of the Curia, but rather the Vicar of Rome, 64-year-old Angelo De Donatis. It appeared to cement De Donatis’s reputation as a key Francis ally, someone who enjoys the pope’s favor and trust.
As it happens, Francis first met De Donatis early in his papacy during a lunch with ten well-known Roman priests hosted by Becciu. Since then, he’s showed his favor multiple times, tapping the prelate to lead the annual Lenten retreat of the Roman Curia held in Arricia, outside Rome.
“Maybe on that occasion, a deep sharing [of outlook] was born,” De Donatis said in April, referring to the retreat. And it would seem so, because Francis in quick succession named De Donatis an auxiliary of Rome and then vicar.
De Donatis, in other words, is a key Francis ally and a bellwether for where this papacy is going.
5. A deeply personal consistory
Popes don’t always know their new cardinals personally, and that’s probably the case with several of the picks Francis announced Sunday, such as the new Princes of the Church from Madagascar and Japan.
On the other hand, this is also a deeply personal crop for Francis, in that three of the key figures of his papacy are on the list: In addition to Becciu and De Donatis, there’s also Archbishop Konrad Krajewski of Poland, who administers the pope’s personal charitable activity in Rome, and who’s long been a close ally to the pope. At just 54 years old, Krajewski is now positioned to be a key point of reference in Catholicism for a long time to come.
In these three figures, at least, you have a good chunk of the people in the Vatican upon whom, at least up to this point, Francis has counted the most – a sort of “top three” within the list of 11 electors and 14 new cardinals overall.
6. Americans have to wait
In his 2016 consistory, Francis delivered a surprise by naming three Americans as Princes of the Church: Kevin Farrell, formerly of Dallas and now head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Family, Laity and Life; Blase Cupich of Chicago; and Joseph Tobin, then of Indianapolis but soon transferred to Newark. So far, however, that’s been the lone Francis consistory in which there were any Americans on the list, and once again this time the Church in the U.S. came up empty.
In terms of who might have been picked, speculation usually centers on Archbishop Jose Gomez in Los Angeles, who would become the first Hispanic cardinal in the country’s history, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, since the City of Brotherly Love traditionally has had a cardinal. Given that this is Pope Francis, however, in theory a new American cardinal could come from anywhere – but, clearly, not this time.
7. Bypassing centers of power
One sense in which Francis maintained his own personal customs in this crop of cardinals is by bypassing the usual centers of ecclesiastical power in a country and creating a new Prince of the Church in an unlikely spot. The clearest example is Italy, where Francis skipped Archbishop Mario Enrico Delpini of Milan, one of the world’s “super-dioceses” where taking over the top job once meant an automatic red hat, and instead lifting up Archbishop Giuseppe Petrocchi of L’Aquila, which was hit by a devastating earthquake in 2009 that left 308 people dead, and where the city and region are still struggling to recover.
On the other hand, those traditional centers of power weren’t completely dismissed. Despite the clear universality of Francis’s picks on Sunday, by including three Italians among the 11 new cardinal-electors, Francis has also ensured that no matter what happens in his next few consistories, the Italians will hardly be under-represented in the College of Cardinals.