The new list of cardinals proves Pope Francis understands symbol and gesture

Cardinals and Bishops attend a jubilee mass where the appointment of 17 new Cardinals was announced (AP)

The Pope’s new list of Cardinals, which has come rather sooner than we thought (it had been expected by many for the feast of the Chair of Peter in February) has a rather valedictory air to it, reminding one rather of a Prime Minister’s resignation honours list. Many of the new cardinals are men who are well known to the Holy Father, or men whom he has met perhaps only on a single occasion, but who have made a great impression on him.

Pre-eminent in every sense is the only priest on the list, Father Ernest Simoni, who spent 28 years in a Communist work camp in Albania, for the crime of being a priest, and who was twice condemned to death. His personal testimony, which the Pope heard on his visit to Tirana, reduced the Holy Father to tears.

Another nice gesture can be seen in the raising of the papal nuncio to Syria to the rank of Cardinal. Archbishop Zenari is 70 and has been in post in Damascus since 2008; when he went to Damascus the country was at peace. Now it is a ruin. No doubt the nuncio has been at the centre of the Vatican’s behind the scenes diplomacy with regard to Syria. Given the complete failure of everyone to avoid or mitigate the catastrophe that has overtaken the country, his has been a difficult and unrewarding posting, as well as a dangerous one. That he has now been made a cardinal is perhaps the Pope’s personal thank you to him.

Then there is the case of Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis, whom the Pope first met long before he was Pope when they worked together in the 2005 Synod, as Rocco Palmo reveals. This again could be interpreted as a personal gesture. Again, the new cardinal in Mexico is a former president of the Latin American Bishops’ conference, and, as such, a personal acquaintance, one assumes, of the Holy Father. As for the new Cardinal of Bangui, Central African Republic, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, the Pope would have met him on his recent visit to the country.

On the whole, it strikes me as a very personal list. As several commentators have pointed out of late, the Holy Father is very much alive to the importance of symbol and gesture. Hence his present to Archbishop Justin Welby of a crozier that is a copy of the original crozier given by Pope Saint Gregory the Great to Saint Augustine of Canterbury. How is this to be interpreted? Well, it is a nice gesture, a kind and very personal present. As such it makes it clear to all onlookers that the Pope and the Archbishop are friends, not rivals. But of course, the Pope could have invested the Archbishop with the pallium, which would not have been merely symbolic. But if the Pope had offered to invest Dr Welby with the pallium, would he have accepted it? Could he have done so? Would that not only have entailed the Pope recognising Dr Welby as an Archbishop, but also Dr Welby recognising the Pope as Pope?

Dr Welby could also perhaps have been made a Cardinal. This is not as ridiculous as it sounds. It is said that Archbishop William Laud was twice offered a cardinal’s hat by the Pope of the day, though this may in fact be a legend. If it is true, given the sad end of that Archbishop, Dr Welby might do well to beware of Romans bearing gifts.

Meanwhile, may the new Cardinals have a happier fate than that of William Laud!