Pope Francis’s appointments to the College of Cardinals seem almost always to bear his distinctive stamp. Altogether, Francis has selected 49 cardinals so far. A few are saintly men beyond voting age, such as Loris Capovilla, secretary to Pope St. John XXIII, or Ernest Simoni, the Albanian priest who was condemned to death for saying a Mass after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (his sentence was later commuted to 25 years hard labor). The rest are a quite diverse group. Many have pastoral backgrounds and share Francis’s concern for the poor. They do not style themselves as “princes of the church.” Sometimes they come from poor countries or mission lands, though not always. Another characteristic seems to be that they have a strong moral sense, without moralism. They meet contemporary challenges with a positive, gospel-centered attitude — which one would expect of those chosen by a pontiff who wrote “The Joy of the Gospel.”
Let’s zoom in on the most recent five, who will be elevated in June, and take a closer look.
When the name of Juan José Omella y Omella, Archbishop of Barcelona, was announced at a time near to a scheduled vote on Catalan independence, some interpreted this as a gesture of solidarity from the Pope toward that movement. But one does not need to look far into Omella’s biography to see strong reasons Francis would choose him quite apart from secular politics. He was a parish priest for twenty years. He trained with the Missionaries of Africa, and spent a year in Zaire. He has a long track record of championing the cause of the poor, and is head of the Social Pastoral Commission of his episcopal conference. Recently, he succeeded in getting the entire Spanish conference of bishops (only nine votes opposed) to approve a statement he wrote, entitled: “Church, Servant of the Poor.”
In 2005, when the notoriously combative Cardinal Ruoco Varela, then Archbishop of Madrid, organized a public demonstration against gay marriage with 30 bishops attending, Omella was not among them. But he did attend the march against poverty held in Madrid one week later.
Rome Correspondent Eusebio Val, writing in La Vanguardia about Omella’s selection to be a cardinal, sees the choice as one of delicate balance politically in the charged atmosphere surrounding the question of Catalan sovereignty. But he also credits Omella with an important role in what many have called the “springtime” that Pope Francis has ushered in for the church of Spain—a season of pastoral renewal rather than continuing battle in the culture wars.
Jean Zerbo is from Mali, a Muslim-majority nation which ranks among the ten poorest countries on earth. Zerbo is especially known for his role in peace-making. He took part in the negotiations of 2012, held in Burkina Faso, when his country was torn apart by civil war. His continuing work with Caritas, a Catholic international aid organization, is also noteworthy.
Violent conflict and terrorist activity continue in Mali, but Zerbo is a tireless advocate for peace. As reported by Luca Atenasio in Abouna.org, he said “Malian Christians are undergoing a test that may be comparable to that of the early disciples,” and also this:
“We hope for the end of the conflicts, But never in the end of men. This is not a Christian feeling: peace can only be achieved through the conversion of the hearts regardless of faith. We Christians are always called to an effort of reconciliation.”
Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun of Laos serves in a mission territory rather than a diocese—he is the apostolic vicar of Paske, an area with a population of 14,500 Catholics out of a million people. His mission is focused on evangelization of the people in the mountains of the southern part of Laos, who are animists. In 2015, when he was in Rome for the Synod on the Family, he gave an interview to AsiaNews.it in which he gave a snapshot of what he calls his “baby diocese”:
“The positive thing is that we have married catechists who are true missionaries, who go to live in the villages and become the ‘roots’ of evangelization. They go, live, they begin to build bonds … We offer this experience to the seminarians. Seminary students must study three years, then they must stop for at least a year, up to three years to mature in their decision, but also for pastoral experience as catechists, carrying medicines, aid, prayers for the people of the mountain. They integrate with the villagers, live as the villagers do in everything.”
Because Pope Francis has encouraged us all to think of ourselves as “missionary disciples” the presence of actual missionaries in the College of Cardinals is quite a good thing. Indeed, this missionary territory in Laos offers us a golden example of trust in the laity and of the use of an apprenticeship model in the formation of clergy for mission.
Gregorio Rosa Chávez is auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. He was a close associate of Oscar Romero, and his selection is seen as homage to that great martyred churchman. When he heard the news that he had been chosen to be a cardinal, the first in El Salvador, he thought it was a joke (he is 75 and was preparing his resignation letter) and said very humbly that he felt it was unmerited. Yet he brings with him the experience of El Salvador, both tragically war-torn and beautifully loving. He is close to the grassroots, a quality that many ordinaries of large and more prosperous dioceses may lack. He currently serves as a parish priest and leads a youth group, God bless him. He is also president of Caritas (a Catholic international aid organization) for El Salvador, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Anders Arborelius of Stockholm, a Carmelite, is the first Swedish-born Roman Catholic bishop since the Reformation. Catholics make up about 1% of the population of Sweden, and although 60% are registered Lutheran it is a secular society. In the current debates swirling around refugees and migration in which Sweden is embroiled, the Catholic Church under Arborelius’s leadership has been a strong advocate and help to the dispossessed.
His commitment to ecumenism emerged in a very public way through his co-hosting of the Pope’s recent visit to Lund to commemorate the Reformation with leaders from the World Lutheran Federation—but this was not just a photo-op. Arborelius has affirmed that Swedish Catholics really are interested in moving “from conflict to communion,” a reference to the consensus document issued in 2013. His joint statement with Archbishop Antje Jackelén (primate of the Church of Sweden) explained the connection between the church service in Lund and the Pope’s appearance at Malmö Arena: shared prayer is backed up by commitment to shared action.
Arborelius does not shy away from controversy. In 2009 he reported honestly in a television documentary that he had informed the Vatican of then-SSPX bishop Richard Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust prior to the lifting of the excommunications. This unleashed angry criticism from Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, but he stood his ground. He wrote, “my personal opinion [is] that the good that came out of last spring’s turbulence was that all of us had to show our true colours.”
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Four out of five of these men are from countries which have never had a cardinal before (Mali, Laos, El Salvador, and Sweden). This is certainly a cause for wonder and rejoicing. But, as we have seen, the distribution of red hats is not only about recognition of far-flung places in the world. It also recognizes rare and valuable gifts that these individuals, and their home countries, bring to the universal Church.
The French news magazine, Le Monde, has alleged that three Malian churchmen, including Cardinal-elect Zerbo, appropriated and concealed approximately 12 million euros in secret Swiss bank accounts, beginning in 2002. The bishops’ conference of Mali has denied any wrongdoing.