ROME – Pope Francis will create 14 new cardinals on Thursday, 11 of whom will be in a position to elect, and be elected as, the next pope. They come from 12 countries, including Madagascar, Japan, Pakistan, Iraq, Mexico, Peru, Spain and Italy, in another attempt by the pontiff to make the College of Cardinals a reflection of the universality of the Church.
The fact that they come from so many diverse backgrounds makes it understandable that they all have different priorities. On the one hand, there’s Iraqi Patriarch Raphael Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church, who’s dealing with the fallout of years of war and religious persecution; as well as Italian Giuseppe Petrocchi, Archbishop of L’Aquila, who’s still trying to overcome the destruction of an earthquake with a 6.3 magnitude.
Several of the new cardinals spoke with journalists on Tuesday and Wednesday, in “meeting points” organized by the Vatican Press Office. What follows are the sights and sounds of those encounters.
Sako, a sign of hope for a persecuted Church
When Francis announced he was calling a consistory for the creation of new cardinals on May 20, Sako was the first name he read, and many observers say it wasn’t a coincidence.
Arguably, in few countries in the world have Christians suffered as much in recent years as in Iraq, where over a million have fled the country, escaping violence, war and persecution. In 2014, some 120,000 Christians left their homes in the Nineveh Plains to find refuge in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region, and the Catholic Church helped them find housing, gave them food, healthcare and offered an education to the children.
Today, there’s an ongoing project to rebuild the region, with thousands of homes having already been restored.
“We Christians, we are persecuted, this is part of our faith,” Sako said, after telling journalists that he’s convinced that “the future will be much better than now.”
The blood “of love, of fidelity to the faith,” which runs deep in Iraq due to the martyrdom of so many, he said, “will be fertile, fecund.”
The patriarch is convinced that Islam in the region cannot resist pressure from human right groups and the media to “update” its teaching.
“I think the problem of Islam is that they don’t update their own religion,” Sako said. “Their religious speech is 1,400 years old, it doesn’t work for today. To say that the religion of the state is Islam is against other religions. We [Christians] were there before the arrival of Islam in Iraq.”
The patriarch also noted that “in the Middle Ages,” Christians too thought that theirs was the only religion, but “we’ve [learned that we] don’t need to live in the desert, with a tribal mentality.”
For this reason, he added, there are many in the country, including Shia and Sunni Muslim leaders, who are working to change the laws that make Islam a state religion, because no one, regardless of their beliefs, should be treated as a “second category” citizen.
Sako also said that Christians “should have patience and hope,” noting that they are not the only ones persecuted. As a matter of fact, he noted, there are three million Muslims living in camps.
Of the West, Sako said “if what they want is the oil, they can have it and leave us alone,” he said, after stating that “to produce weapons is to ruin the world.”
Talking about his nomination as a cardinal, he said that “nothing changes for him,” he will continue to be a pastor, “not a prince.”
“As the pope says, we’re servants, we must serve our people freely and with joy,” he said, adding that his nomination is an “encouragement for Christians, but also a support of Iraq.”
From Peru, a push for transparency
Archbishop Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno, of Huancayo in Peru’s Amazon region, said that he found out he was going to be created a cardinal through the many messages he received through WhatsApp when he landed in Madrid’s airport on his way to Rome.
Being a cardinal, he said, “is not an honorific title, and I’m clear on this upon thinking about Jesus.”
He told the story that when he was ordained a bishop, the prelate who did so told him that from that point on, people were going to call him “excellency, monsignor,” but that that he shouldn’t let this fact go to his head.
“Jesus didn’t come to hand out honorific titles; he came here to give crosses,” Barreto said. “Being a cardinal won’t change who I am: a servant of the Church, of Christ, and at the disposition of the Holy Father.”
On the diversity of the countries, with Francis having appointed many cardinals in recent years from countries that never had one before, Barreto said it’s a way of showing that the Church is “catholic, and as such it’s universal, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the renewal [of the college of cardinals] sees every culture represented.”
The pope is “conveying the fact that the Church has to respond to Jesus’ mandate, that we’re called to go to the whole world, and we are in the whole world,” he said.
Barreto recently met with Francis, and he was asked by journalists if they’d spoken about the “open wound” that is the situation of the lay organization known as the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, founded by layman Luis Fernando Figari, who’s been found guilty by his own organization of sexually abusing minors, and also of abuses of conscience and power.
“I cannot reveal what we spoke about,” he said. He went on to endorse “zero tolerance in front of any type or sign of corruption, be it sexual abuse or financial corruption.”
The great sin of the Church, Barreto said, is that victims were “treated as enemies,” so beyond being victims of sexual harassment or pedophilia, “they felt that the Church was rejecting them.”
From Spain, a close friend of the pope
Father Aquilino Bocos Merino is a Spanish Claretian, who’s 80 years of age, so he won’t participate in a future conclave to elect the man who succeeds Francis.
Bocos was actually watching the pontiff, whom he’s known for decades since the two coincided in Buenos Aires, when he heard his name being said as one of the three cardinals over 80 Francis was creating.
He told reporters on Tuesday that Francis “deserves to be recognized, valued, respected and followed,” because he’s a man who transmits “an extraordinary message” rooted in the Gospel, proposing values that “I will continue to support and defend because they’re from Jesus’.”
From central Italy, the “visible face” of a devastating earthquake
Petrocchi, archbishop of L’Aquila, told reporters that he would like to see the pope go to his diocese, which “could be the start of the restoration of the cathedral, which has been in ruins for nine years.”
Talking about the victims of several earthquakes that have hit central Italy in recent years, Petrocchi said that “there is a visible face of the earthquake, illuminated by the attention given to it by the institutions and social media, but also a face covered, in the shadows, unseen,” and that’s the damage that the event caused in the soul of those affected by it.
“The first place of hospitality is the heart,” he said.