Pope Francis and his push for openness — toward migrants, Muslims and gay people — may no longer have influence on a global stage where nationalists, populists and the far right dominate the political conversation.
But inside the church is another story.
In a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica on Saturday, Francis will create 13 new cardinals who reflect his pastoral style and priorities on a range of issues, including migration, climate change, the inclusion of gay Catholics, interreligious dialogue and shifting church power away from Rome to bishops in Africa, Asia and South America.
The appointments are a landmark for Francis, who now reaches a tipping point of influence to shape the future church in his image. After Saturday, Francis will have named more than half of the voters within the College of Cardinals, where a two-thirds majority of those under the age of 80 are required to elect his successor.
The longer Francis lives, the more his pontificate matters.
“The longer it lasts, the more there will be cardinals in the spirit of Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who will be one of those made a cardinal this weekend.
Francis has by now made his agenda abundantly clear. Unlike his predecessors, who cracked down on dissent and promoted bishops and cardinals who emphasized fealty to church doctrine, Francis wants an inclusive church that welcomes back into the fold Catholics who felt geographically, pastorally and ideologically alienated. That mission has earned him the enmity of church conservatives, especially in the United States, who feel he is diluting the church’s teaching for the sake of a cheap embrace.
Francis will be 83 in December, and given his age, he has from the start of his papacy six years ago approached the role with a certain urgency, often acknowledging his own mortality.
Though his voice does not seem to carry as far in the world as it once did in an era of populist and right-wing politics, his effect within the church may be lasting.
By appointing cardinals and more than a thousand bishops on the front lines of the faith, Francis is reconstituting a church in his image. It is one that decentralizes power from Rome to the bishops around the world, that is willing to work through the challenges of the modern world together with other faiths, and with atheists.
While liberal critics argue he has not moved fast enough to reform the church — especially when it comes to the role of women — his supporters note that he is at the least willing to talk about and reconsider church policy on married priests, and its stance toward homosexuality and celibacy.
More concretely, he has reshaped the College of Cardinals, making it less white, less Italian and less representative of the Roman curia, the bureaucracy that governs the church.
Instead, he has looked to the church’s newer franchises. He has made it more Latin American, Asian and African. The new appointees among the cardinals will include prelates from Morocco, Indonesia, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And tellingly for a pontiff with a tense relationship with conservative opponents in the United States, he has again passed over America’s traditional feeder schools for the College of Cardinals, especially those occupied by conservatives.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, a vocal critic of Francis, reached the retirement age of 75 in September without receiving a cardinal’s red hat. He is not expected to be asked to stay on for much longer.
Conservatives in the powerful American church have argued that Francis’ emphasis on pastoral openness is eroding the doctrine of the faith.
His backers say that at least he lets them speak out, and that under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, his conservative predecessors, theological critics were censored.
Francis has instead moved them out of power, ignored their complaints and mostly shrugged off their threats to break away.
“I pray that there are no schisms,” he said last month. “But I am not scared.”
Archbishop Hollerich, 61 and a Jesuit, like Francis, is president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union and is one of the church’s most vocal opponents of nationalism.
When it comes to Francis’ vision, he and his fellow new cardinals, “follow the same line,” he said.
He said that Francis was clearly against the traditionalist efforts to restore a Catholic society separate from the world. The attempts by his opponents to slow Francis down, he said, would backfire.
“The more he gets attacked,” Archbishop Hollerich said of Francis, “the more free he becomes.”
The day after Francis elevates the new cardinals, he will inaugurate a major meeting of bishops on the subject of the Amazon.
One of the major questions is whether to allow older married men with grown children and a strong standing in the Church — known as “viri probati” or proven men — to join the priesthood and administer sacraments to Catholics in remote areas that hardly ever see a priest.
Some conservatives worry it is a step on a slippery slope toward undoing priestly celibacy.
One of those running the conference on the Amazon is the Rev. Michael Czerny, 73, a Czech-born Canadian Jesuit that Francis will make a cardinal on Saturday.
Father Czerny, a close collaborator of Francis, declined to talk about the substance of the Amazon synod, except to say that “everything is on the table.”
But broadly speaking, he said the result of a College of Cardinals shaped by Francis was a willingness to take up difficult issues “in a way, in a style, in a spirit” consistent with the Second Vatican Council.
That landmark meeting of the world’s bishops in the 1960s spurred a spirit of openness in the church. It re-examined issues like its liturgy, the language in which people pray and priestly celibacy, which is not a question of doctrine but of church tradition dating back nearly 1,000 years.
But that opening triggered a backlash from conservatives that has lasted nearly a half-century.
Now, speaking about the possibility of ordaining married men, Archbishop Hollerich said if bishops in one part of the world say they need it, “I think the universal church should consider that request.”
While he personally considered celibacy a “great gift” for the priesthood, he added, that “does not mean it should be perhaps the only way.” He said he was far from alone in such views.
And Francis elevated other bishops considered open to change.
Archbishop Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, 64, is the only new Italian cardinal in a college Italy once dominated. His grand uncle was a cardinal once considered a candidate for pope, but the archbishop takes after Francis, dedicating much of his time to the poor.
In 2015 the pope chose him to replace Cardinal Carlo Caffarra in Bologna, a stalwart of Catholic conservatism who publicly doubted Francis’ teaching.
Archbishop Zuppi has come under criticism from the conservative wing of the church for writing an introduction to a book about reaching out to gay Catholics. On Monday, Francis infuriated those conservatives by granting a private audience to the book’s author, the Rev. James Martin, who later said the meeting showed Francis’ “deep pastoral care for L.G.B.T. Catholics.”
In an interview, Archbishop Zuppi said the pope’s new cardinals showed that Francis wanted a “missionary” church that “doesn’t close in on itself.”
The new cardinals, he said, will help the church live “in our present.”
What he and the other cardinals do now will be critical for success in the future, which the church believes lies in Africa, Asia and South America, where the competition with evangelical Christians is fierce. Francis, history’s first South American pope, has consistently sought to elevate cardinals in the global south.
“The pope wants to give his priority to the peripheries,” Bishop Fabien Raharilamboniaina of Madagascar said in Antananarivo, the capital, where Francis appointed a cardinal last year. “Because this is the future of the church.”
Francis’ visit to Africa, like much of his recent travel, has generated less interest than his earlier trips. Archbishop Zuppi acknowledged that Francis was perhaps having less effect on the global stage.
“The pope is often, unfortunately, not listened to” in the secular world, he said. “This is a problem.”
But he argued that Francis’ influence may be more long term than immediate.
Father Czerny did, too. He said that while the pope stayed committed to his core issues, as the unveiling of a new sculpture of migrants in St. Peter’s Square attested, on a global scale it was hard to see Francis’ impact.
The problems the world faced required a grass-roots mobilization that the pope led among his flock of 1.3 billion, he added.
On the issue of climate change, for example, he said churches around the world had heard the pope’s message and were changing their behavior, whether it be recycling or planting trees or saving water.
“There is more good news than appears,” he said.
But the spiritual realm remains the one where Francis has the most influence. Some analysts suggested he would change as much as he could in the church while he held office, given that, no matter how many cardinals he appointed, there was no guarantee that the next pope would follow in his footsteps.
Some of the new cardinals hail from a much more conservative African and Asian culture.
“It’s not automatic that a conservative College of Cardinals elects a conservative pope or vice versa,” said Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican expert. “Francis was elected by cardinals who were appointed by two conservatives like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”
Even Father Czerny, who gets his own vote next week, agreed.
“The person who is elected by the last conclave chooses the people who are probably going to be the majority of electors in the next one,” he said. “This has happened for 2,000 years and the popes don’t all turn out the same. As we’ve noticed.”
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