Today, the first Council of Cardinals of the new era of Pope Francis’ pontificate begins. Of course, it is not the first Council held after the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium, the reform of the Curia, which was the main reason why the Pope decided to gather around himself a group of eight cardinals, who later became nine with the addition of Cardinal Parolin. But it is the first Council that is born around the generational change of the pontificate.
At the beginning of March, Pope Francis renewed the Council. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State —who initially had not even been included in the Council, and who was then included by the Pope without any official appointment— remained. Others remaining are Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, archbishop of Kinshasa; Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay; and Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston.
The new entries are those of Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, president of the governorate of Vatican City State; Cardinal Juan José Omella Omella, archbishop of Barcelona; Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, archbishop of Québec; Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg; and Cardinal Sérgio da Rocha, archbishop of São Salvador de Bahia (Brazil).
Therefore, five out of nine members were renewed. Probably the only case of replacement by function is that of Cardinal Vérgez, who goes to occupy the post in the Council that belongs to the governor of Vatican City State, previously Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello.
For the rest, the profile of the chosen cardinals is varied. Cardinal Omella was created by Pope Francis in 2017, just two days after the meeting with the new presidency of the Spanish Conference of Bishops, which, at the time, had elected Cardinal Ricardo Blazquez Perez as president and Cardinal Canizares as vice president. Omella’s choice was not in conflict with tradition, being archbishop of Barcelona and having his predecessor just passed the age of 80. But, in a consistory of only five cardinals, with particular attention to the suburbs, the choice of Pope Francis was a clear signal of wanting a generational change, a turning point also in the mentality of the Conference of Bishops.
Cardinal Lacroix has grown a lot in consideration, and some even place him in the indexes of “papabilità” for the succession of Pope Francis. Lacroix also has nine years of experience in war zones in Colombia, likes the Pope very much, and successfully managed the Pope’s recent trip to Canada.
Cardinal Hollerich enjoys a lot of media visibility and has given several interviews, even with daring openings on doctrinal topics. Like when he noted that “the Pope does not want a female priesthood, and I am completely obedient to him, but people continue to discuss it.” The Pope appointed him general rapporteur of the Synod on synodality and has now nominated him to the Council of Cardinals, showing a certain sympathy for him.
Finally, with Cardinal Sergio da Rocha, Pope Francis includes a Brazilian in the Council of Cardinals following the departure of Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, who is over 80 and is, therefore, the first victim of the generational change. Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga had been a protagonist of the wave of reforms at the beginning of the pontificate, with a strong media presence that only began to decline when he left all his posts.
It will remain to be seen what the weight of the Council of Cardinals will now be and whether the suggestions of the cardinals will be listened to by Pope Francis or whether he, on the other hand, will continue to govern alone. Indeed, the recomposition of the Council is part of a more general change of era that does not only concern the people closest to the Pope but the entire Roman Curia.
Bishop Robert Prevost was sworn in last week as the new prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, replacing Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who will remain in Rome and devote himself to studying the Theology of Synodality.
Now, of the great dicasteries of the Curia, all that remains is to appoint a new prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. The possibility of the appointment of the German bishop Heiner Wilmer to the former Holy Office has not yet been completely ruled out. The rumor of his selection had circulated, immediately arousing concern in the traditionalist environment for some of Wilmer’s positions, but then the appointment did not take place. It must be said that the possibility of appointing Prevost to bishops also began to circulate in January 2022, more than a year and a half before the decision of Pope Francis.
But the change of era does not concern only the Curia.
Caritas Internationalis is meeting in two weeks to appoint a new secretary general after months of receivership and the sudden and almost inexplicable cancellation of the previous management, following an apostolic visit that had found neither abuses nor financial problems. There are five candidates for the post of president of the federation, with Cardinal Tagle outgoing and with a possible role for Cardinal Mafi of Tonga or the archbishop of Tokyo Kikuchi, and a difficult path to find a new secretary general who can stand pressures. In fact, who would accept a role in Caritas after the last sudden beheading and the decisive entry into the management of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development?
Then, on 3 May, the Council Complete of State of the Order of Malta will elect the new Grand Master. There, too, Pope Francis intervened forcefully, first imposing the reform of the Statutes and then decapitating the leaders de Imperio by going to elections. While it is true that popes have always had the possibility of intervening in the Order of Malta, and popes in the past did so, it is also true that, in the current international context, the Pope’s actions set a perilous precedent that could jeopardize the Order’s sovereignty. Pope Francis, however, has chosen the direct route of handling things.
By the end of the year, the College of Cardinals will be made up of only 114 cardinals with the right to vote in the Conclave and, therefore, Pope Francis could convene another consistory and thus strengthen the presence of red hats created by him in the College of Cardinals. The Pope, except for just one year, has convoked a consistory every year.
Currently, there are 123 cardinal electors; of these, Pope Francis created 81, which represents 65 percent of the electors. Three cardinals created by Pope Francis will turn 80 this year, and, if there is a consistory in the list of new cardinals, there will be at least two dicastery prefects who are not yet cardinals: Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, and Bishop Robert Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops.
There are, for Pope Francis, many decisions to make. After all, his recent hospitalization seems to have accelerated his decisions, already publishing two motu proprio in the last week, and, in any case, appearing to be intolerant of discussions. There is a lot of talk about synodality, and much of the debate seems to be in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops. However, what is missing is collegiality, the government of the Pope together with his brother bishops, a collegiality that seems almost wholly irrelevant in the face of personal and non-institutional relationships and sympathies.
We must also consider this when we analyze the change of era. After all, this change of age occurs while the Pope reads reality though a perspective of being in overtime and with an anti-Roman lens as a bishop from the periphery. Pope Francis maintains that one sees the world well from the peripheries.
It is unclear whether the Pope will be able to find a balance in carrying forward this generational change or if his decisions will lead to other imbalances and steps backward. In ten years of pontificate, laws have been made and unmade, and bishops have been left free to speak and then sometimes marginalized for what they said. It even happened that the Pope called two people he trusted to work in the Curia, overcoming obstacles, just to later let them go, for different reasons but in a similar way, like Bishop Zanchetta and the theologian Luigi Maria Epicoco.
“Motus in fine velocior,” movement becomes faster at the end , says an ancient Latin motto. Pope Francis has undoubtedly accelerated many decisions and will probably focus on those he deems most crucial. There will be many appointments, several motu proprio, and a general climate of uncertainty. Because the missionary project is so beautiful, it betrays a different important point: that the Pope is, above all, the guarantor of the unity of the Church.