ROME — Recently a veteran cardinal, who’s been in Vatican service for the better part of 20 years and who knew the ecclesiastical lay of the land well before that, said that in the 2013 conclave that elected Pope Francis, he knew personally at least two-thirds of his fellow cardinals who took part.
Such familiarity obviously gave him an advantage in terms of being able to assess personalities and agenda for the next papacy. Were another conclave to take place today, that veteran cardinal said, he’d be lucky to know one-third of the prelates participating, meaning that his familiarity is significantly reduced.
That’s just one unscientific survey of the College of Cardinals, but I suspect that if you repeated the experiment across a broad range, you’d get more or less the same result: Cardinals today, to an extraordinary degree, are strangers to one another.
On May 29, Pope Francis announced a consistory for Aug. 27 in which he’ll create 21 new cardinals, including 16 under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote for the next pope. That event is to be followed by two days of meetings, on Aug. 29 and 30, in which all the cardinals of the world are slated to discuss the recent reform of the Roman Curia decreed by Pope Francis in his document “Praedicate Evangelium” (“Preach the Gospel”), published on March 19, the feast of St. Joseph and just a few days after the ninth anniversary of Pope Francis’ election as pope.
Granted, it’s natural that cardinals should be briefed on the reform, although its broad outlines are already well known. In essence, smaller departments are being subsumed into bigger ones, the idea being to promote greater coordination and economy of scale, and also laypeople are henceforth to have the opportunity to play important leadership roles.
Whether that will achieve real change remains to be seen; the Vatican’s old guard, as has often been observed, has a special genius for riding out waves of purported reforms while preserving business as usual.
In the meantime, the unfamiliarity of cardinals with one another suggests another, and possibly unintentional, motive for the Aug. 29-30 gathering: to afford cardinals the chance to take one another’s temperature, and to assess who might have the qualities to step into the papacy whenever that moment should come.
To be clear, there is no indication of a papal health crisis at the moment. While Pope Francis recently has been compelled to cancel a series of public events because of knee pain, that’s not a life-threatening condition, and he’s still got an ambitious travel schedule for the summer: South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Canada, to say nothing of a planned excursion to southern Italy in September.
However, whenever the pope’s health is compromised, for whatever reason, there’s a natural tendency in Rome to begin speculating about what might come next. That inclination has been turbocharged by the announcement of a consistory that seems top-heavy with Pope Francis loyalists likely to support continuity whenever the next conclave arrives.
In reality, however, both those cardinals supporting continuity with Pope Francis and those hoping for a break face a similar problem: They’re trying to influence a College of Cardinals they just don’t know, because of the pope’s preference for reaching out to the peripheries when distributing red hats.
In general, Pope Francis prefers to bypass established centers of power when creating new cardinals, in favor of places and personalities who have never before enjoyed papal favor. Consider that in the crop announced May 29, Pope Francis skipped the Archdiocese of Milan, which has been led by a cardinal for centuries, in favor of the much smaller Diocese of Como just 30 miles away, and he bypassed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, among the largest and most complex in the world, for the much smaller nearby Diocese of San Diego.
In his first consistory in February 2014, Pope Francis created new cardinals from Nicaragua, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Burkina Faso, and Haiti, all of whom were prelates without any detailed profile on the global Catholic stage. He’s repeated that pattern in all of his cardinals’ appointments, including the most recent one, which features new red hats from Nigeria, India, East Timor, Ghana, Singapore, Paraguay, and Mongolia.
The idea is to recognize the demographic realities of Catholicism in the 21st century, in which almost three-quarters of the global Catholic population is outside the West. Still, an inevitable consequence of that choice is also to ensure that forecasting the next conclave is all but impossible, because so many of the cardinals are relative unknowns.
This insight brings us by a short path to the true significance of the Aug. 29-30 gathering of cardinals, which will be the first real time members of the college have been able to spend any real face time together since the onset of the COVID pandemic.
As of Aug. 27, Pope Francis will have named 83 out of 132 total voting-age cardinals at that point. That’s extremely close to the 87 cardinals it would require to achieve a two-thirds vote, should all 132 of those electors actually take part in a conclave.
Under other circumstances, that math would clearly augur a pope in the mold of the pope who created all those cardinals. Aside from the fact that Pope Francis was elected by a conclave populated with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI appointees, the fact these cardinals don’t know one another also suggests a significant degree of unpredictability to the next papal election, whenever that might come.
In turn, it also suggests that the “getting to know you” session in late August may turn out to be among the most fateful moments of the Francis papacy.