Pope Francis made history this afternoon by creating the first African American cardinal while placing his mark even more firmly on the body which will elect his successor.
The Archbishop of Washington DC, Wilton Gregory, was made a cardinal along with thirteen others during an unusual, slimmed down, ceremony at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter’s Basilica which lasted 45 minutes.
Cardinals wore masks throughout most of the liturgy and, due to the Covid-19 restrictions, were only allowed to bring 10 guests each to the event, which is known as a consistory and normally attracts thousands of pilgrims to Rome.
Two of the new cardinals – Bishop Cornelius Sim and Archbishop Jose Advincula of Capiz, the Philippines – did not travel to Rome to receive their red hats due to the pandemic and will be handed them at a later date. Those who made it to Rome for the consistory have been quarantining in the Casa Santa Marta, the Pope’s residence in the Vatican.
Along with a first African American cardinal, the Pope has now given the first red hats to Brunei and Rwanda. The choice of Archbishop Antoine Kambanda, of Kigali, who lost his parents and five siblings during the 1994 Rwandan genocide had a special poignancy given the scarlet robes of a cardinal symbolise a willingness to shed blood for the Church.
During the ceremony the new cardinals went up to the Pope and knelt in front of him. Francis then placed a red biretta on their head, gave them the gold cardinalatial ring and a scroll with the title of their new church in Rome. The latter is part of a tradition which links back to the time when cardinals were the parish priests of Rome.
In his address to the cardinals, the Pope, as he has in previous years, emphasised that the role of a cardinal is about service not status. He reflected on the Gospel passage from Mark where James and John ask Jesus to sit in glory on his right and left, with Francis stressing that all priests must follow the road taken by Jesus.
The Pope told the cardinals that a “worldly spirit” can turn their scarlet robes into the “colour of a secular eminence”. When this happens, he stressed, “[you are] no longer a priest close to the people, but just ‘your eminence’.”
Choosing cardinals is the closest thing a Pope has to succession planning.
Francis, who will turn 84 next month, has now selected 57 per cent of the men who will enter the Sistine Chapel and vote for his successor in a conclave. His choices have dramatically reshaped the makeup of the College of Cardinals to make it less European and more representative of the global Church. 45 per cent of voting cardinals now come from the global south – Asia, Africa and Latin America – while 41 per cent are from Europe, its lowest ever share. The African and Asian shares, standing at 14 per cent and 12.5 per cent respectively are now at their highest ever.
It is not just where the cardinals come from, but the type of Church leaders the Pope has selected. He has largely opted for low-key pastoral moderates who share Francis’s vision. Cardinal Gregory, for example, has indicated he wants to find common ground with President-elect Joe Biden, in spite of disagreements on issues such as abortion. At the same time, he has been willing to stand up to President Donald Trump and any attempts to use the Church for political gain.
Many of the cardinals appointed by Francis are averse to the culture wars gripping some elements of the Catholic world, and likely to resist pre-conclave lobbying that is going on among groups who want a Pope who will reverse or tone-down the reforms of this pontificate. One of the new cardinals, Cornelius Sim, told The Tablet this month: “it doesn’t do the Church very much credit to see warring tribes, poisoned arrows, hooks and crossbows. We must be more civilised in our approach to one another.”
Clerical ambition is one of the things the Pope has tried to guard against in the College of Cardinals. He has done this by giving red hats to those who would never have expected to be elevated to the highest ecclesial ranks. Underlining his push for humility, in the latest consistory he chose three Franciscans, including Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, the 84-year-old the Preacher of the Papal Household. Fr Cantalamessa broke with tradition by not being ordained a bishop before receiving the red hat, and during the ceremony wore the simple brown habit of a Franciscan friar.
The Pope, the first to name himself after St Francis of Assisi, as repeatedly held up the 13th century friar from Assisi, renowned for his focus on the poor, care for creation and humility, as a model for the whole Church to follow.
Francis is also pushing for a “synodal Church”, as called for by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and one where bishops, priests and people “walk together”. In the consistory the Pope gave a red hat to Cardinal Mario Grech, who is the new secretary for the Synod of Bishops who had previously been Bishop of Gozo, Malta. He gave the opening address at the consistory and focussed on synodality.
He said a “synodal Church is one that listens” and sees ordinary Catholics, “the People of God” as playing “an indispensable role”. Cardinal Grech said he had written to bishops across the world to offer his services, and that he sees his role as trying to help "bishops and episcopal conferences in the maturing of a synodal style.”
He explained that “the condition of a Christian is that of a pilgrim to live in the world as strangers” and that given the circumstances the world faces there is “even more need” for the Church to be a “universal sacrament of salvation” as the Second Vatican Council set out in Lumen Gentium.
Following the consistory ceremony the Pope and the new cardinals went to visit Benedict XVI at his home in the Vatican gardens, something which has become a tradition during the Francis pontificate. The Vatican said the 93-year-old retired Pope “expressed his joy” at the visit and that they all sang the Salve Regina hymn together.