ROME – Several of Pope Francis’s 13 new cardinals-to-be have spoken out about the decision to give them a red hat, voicing surprise at the choice and offering a glimpse of the issues that hit close to home and hints at what their priorities might be.
On Oct. 25 during his weekly Sunday Angelus address, the pope announced that he would be holding a consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals – nine electors and four non-electors – on Nov. 28, the day before the first Sunday of the Church’s liturgical Sunday of Advent.
Among those who will be given a red hat by the pope are priests and prelates from around the world, including two countries – Rwanda and Brunei – which have never before had a cardinal to represent them:
- Maltese Bishop Mario Grech, the newly appointed secretary general of the Synod of Bishops
- Italian Bishop Marcello Semeraro, who was recently named prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints
- American Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C.
- Archbishop Antoine Kambanda of Kigali, Rwanda
- Archbishop Jose Fuerte Advincula of Capiz in the Philippines
- Archbishop Celestino Aós Braco of Santiago, Chile
- Archbishop Cornelius Sim of Brunei
- Archbishop Augusto Paolo Lojudice of Siena and a former auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Rome
- Conventual Father Mauro Gambetti, who oversees the Sacred Convent in Assisi.
- Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico (non-elector)
- Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi, the Vatican’s former observer to the United Nations in Geneva and a longtime ambassador (non-elector)
- Father Enrico Feroci, pastor of the Shrine of Holy Mary of Divine Love in Castel di Leva (non-elector)
- Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan who for 40 years has served as the preacher for the Papal Household (non-elector)
Following the announcement of their nomination, a number of the cardinal-designates have spoken out, sharing their surprise, gratitude, enthusiasm and commitment to the pope and to carrying his agenda forward.
Speaking to Vatican News Oct. 31, Sim, 69, thanked Pope Francis for “choosing someone from the peripheries,” describing his church as a “periphery within a periphery.”
Francis, he said, understands “that the Church exists in those little places where there is not much publicity,” but where the faith is very much alive, such as Brunei.
“As a Church we are not one little group of people, all isolated on our own in our little bubble,” he said. Rather, Sim insisted that the Church is far vaster and as a global community extends beyond the borders of race, color, or social status, because “all of us are children, sons and daughters of Jesus Christ.”
Sim said the news of his nomination “was bit of a shock and unexpected” given that the Catholic church in Brunei is one of the youngest and smallest in Southeast Asia.
A nation rich in oil and gas, Brunei has a population of around 500,000, roughly 70 percent of whom are Muslim. Catholics number around 20,000, the bulk of whom are foreign workers.
In this context, Sim said he believes the greatest challenge is to “provide a home away from home” for Catholics in the country, which the Church does through financial assistance as well as food programs.
He called on native Catholics, who tend to be wealthier, to be “more conscious and more willing to be engaged” in supporting the local church.
Other priority areas for Sim are young people, who live in their “own world” created by social media, as well as family formation, the care of vocations, evangelization and social welfare.
Calling his nomination “both joy, a great burden, and a challenge” in an interview with Vatican News, Kambanda – who is the first-ever cardinal from Rwanda – said when he first heard that he had been named, he didn’t believe it.
“I never ever dreamt of being a Cardinal. It was the Lord who wanted it,” he said, insisting that he gave his life in service to God, and “being a Cardinal gives me the opportunity to do even much more for the Lord.”
Noting that Rwanda is still in the process of healing from the genocide that bloodied the country from April 7-July 15 1994, Kambanda said the nation has been on a 26-year long journey of recovery, during which “we have worked hard for reconciliation.”
“It was terrible to see a Catholic and Christian community divided and killing each other during the Genocide,” he said, voicing gratitude for the steps taken so far in terms of reconciliation and unity.
Pointing to Pope Francis’s new encyclical on human fraternity Fratelli Tutti, Kambanda said the document was “warmly welcomed” in Rwanda and is something the local church will continue to meditate and reflect on.
“The encyclical will reinforce and facilitate our pastoral work of reconciliation,” he said, pledging to do his best to contribute to forging solidarity “with others who are also suffering violent conflicts and divisions in the communities.”
Offering a message to fellow Rwandans and the inhabitants of the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Kambanda said that his appointment as a cardinal is thanks to the “faith, work, and pastoral care of the entire community.”
He assured of his collaboration and of his efforts to promote solidarity, peace and reconciliation in the region, saying, “We live in times of tension, now mixed with the Covid-19 pandemic. As pastors, we need to guide people towards peace, brotherhood, and sisterhood.”
A longtime collaborator in the pope’s reform of the Roman Curia, Semeraro for served as secretary of the pope’s Council of Cardinals advising him on Church governance and reform from its inception, and both his recent appointment as prefect of the Vatican’s saint-making department after his predecessor left in alleged scandal and his appointment as cardinal show just how much of a key figure he is in the Francis papacy.
Speaking to Vatican News, Semeraro, 72, said he was preparing to retire from his post as Bishop of Albano before he got the surprise announcement of his appointment to head the department for Saint’s Causes, and his nomination as cardinal was “yet another” surprise from the pope.
“I feel extreme gratitude towards the Holy Father for this gesture of trust and also great responsibility and commitment in the service of the Church,” he said, explaining that when he first heard the names being ticked off, he thought of the “synodality” the pope emphasizes so much as “the path of communion of the Church.”
Referring to his role in the saints’ department, Semeraro said “That is another synodality, another communion, it is the communion of heaven. We on earth, serving and living in the Church, must try to reflect that heavenly communion towards which we are in any case moving.”
To be “starting over” after previously preparing for retirement and to be doing it in an environment surrounded by individuals recognized for their holiness “is a great source of comfort, of great encouragement,” he said, recalling how one of his first acts as prefect was to celebrate the beatification Mass for Italian techie teen Carlo Acutis in Assisi.
Sitting in front of Acutis’s tomb, Semeraro said he entrusted his ministry to the teen, asking Acutis “to take me with his dreams on his shoulders to help me live the ministry to which the pope has called me worthily.”
Semeraro said he also sees his role as supporting the pope in his mission, which Semeraro described as the cura animarum, or the “care of souls,” which he said implies “taking care of, helping one another, carrying each other’s burdens.”
“This is what the pope asks,” he said. “The pope is not this gigantic figure drawn by mythology who takes the whole world on himself, it is Christ who has taken upon himself our weaknesses and in his wounds allows us to heal them.”
As head of a universal communion of believers, “it is right that [the pope] feels the need to have collaborators in carrying out his ministry,” Semeraro said. “On the other hand, the world of reforming the Curia that has been carried out in recent years and which is moving towards its completion in recent months is also the design of a great collaboration with the ministry of the Successor of Peter.”
In an interview with SIR, the official news outlet of the Italian bishops, Lojudice, 56, said his appointment also came as a surprise, especially given the fact that he had met with Pope Francis a few days prior to finding out he would get a red had, and the pontiff had said nothing.
Appointed as archbishop of Siena in 2019, Lojudice said a primary objective for him will be to care for the poor and needy, especially in a post-COVID era.
Although Siena does not face the same level of poverty and social insecurity as Rome, as the archdiocese is one forth the size of the Diocese of Rome, “it is not a question of quantity,” he said, adding, “even here in Siena pastoral commitment is an opportunity to push people to pay greater attention to others.”
“COVID was emblematic for this: it pushed us even more toward fraternal solidarity, to rethink how to be part of the city,” he said, noting that while serving as a priest and auxiliary bishop of Rome, he came into contact with different parishes in different social categories, “catapulting” himself into the lives of the most poor.
“I tried to bring what was good,” he said, adding, “every phase of life has its characteristics. What I have always tried to do is try to read reality and make it an opportunity to support, help, guide those in need. As the pope says, the cardinalate is not a career award. The important thing is proximity to people’s lives.”
A Capuchin friar who for the past 40 years has serves as preacher for the papal household, Cantalamessa has served under three popes and is tasked with preaching to the pope and the Roman Curia ever Friday during Advent and Lent, and he also gives the sermon on Good Friday during Holy Week, right before Easter.
Speaking to SIR Oct. 26, Cantalamessa said his red hat is “another way to be close to the pope and to support him with prayer and the Word.”
“It goes without saying that this is a surprise because we know that this is Pope Francis’s way of creating cardinals,” he said, explaining that he sees his appointment more as a recognition of the importance of the Word of God than of his person, “since my service to the Church has been – and, at the express wish of the Holy Father, will continue to be – almost only that of proclaiming the Word, starting with the papal household.”
Cantalamessa said that of all the messages of support he has received for his nomination, the ones he appreciates most come from pastors and leaders of other religious confessions, including several Jewish friends.
“In these years the Lord has put on my heart a great love – totally reciprocated – for Christian unity and dialogue between religions,” he said, noting that a friend who is an evangelical pastor wrote to say he felt as if the pope had created him a cardinal as well.
“Pope Francis often speaks about breaking down walls and building bridges…the Holy Spirit has given me the gift of being able to bring a few small stones to build bridges between Christians, following the example of the much wider bridge-builder who is our pope,” he said.
In a separate Oct. 31 interview with Italian newspaper La Stampa, Cantalamessa spoke of the three popes he has served in his tenure as Preacher for the Papal Household, offering a metaphor – which are often found in his sermons – for each.
St. John Paul II, he said, was “a gigantic personality who lived his whole life in the presence of the world and in the presence of God; Benedict XVI, an exalted mind and at the same time deeply humble, a very rare combination at least in the degree that has been seen in him; Francis, a man of the spirit who does not do new things, but makes things new.”
Summing them each up, Cantalamessa describes his bosses as, “the cosmopolitan, the theologian, the pastor, if a life can be enclosed in one word.”
Cantalamessa said he never once thought of being a cardinal largely because each pope he served “allowed me to be free,” never suggesting a topic or asking to read the text of his homilies before they were pronounced.
Asked about recent financial scandals in the Vatican, Cantalamessa said that given the Church’s lengthy history, he is not surprised, insisting that if one looks at previous centuries, “the Church of today is immensely ‘purer’” than in the past: “Freer of power, of pomp, of wealth, of nepotism, of political intrigues, and what is most important, it is no less rich in saints of the past.”
The fact that current scandals are revealed and reported on, increasingly by the Church itself, “is already in itself a great progress,” he said, and recalled a passage from a novel written by Scottish author Bruce Marshall, who said that ”Jesus Christ collected the most lumpy and shabby pieces of wood he found around the world and, from the good carpenter he had become at the school of his father Joseph, he built a boat with them that, coincidentally, has been sailing for twenty centuries!”
Looking to the future, Cantalamessa said he would like to focus his Advent homilies on the current coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to circle back to “some unspoken truths and realities: death, eternal life, the presence of Christ, thanks to the incarnation, in the boat of this stormy world of ours.”
Both Aos Braco and Gregory also voiced gratitude to the pope for their appointments in brief statements, pledging to work with him in caring for the Church.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen