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Reviving the ‘C9’

Pope Francis leads a meeting of the C9 council of cardinals (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Pope Francis was elected five years ago with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia. He had a clear goal: to shift power and responsibility away from the Vatican and towards local bishops’ conferences. As he put it in his famous pre-conclave speech to cardinals, the Church had become “self-referential” and needed to turn its gaze outward again.

But while Francis had a strong vision of curial reform, he seemed uncertain how to realise it. And so precisely a month after his election he formed a council of eight cardinals from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas to advise him. A year later, their number increased to nine when Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, gained a seat at the table.

The Council of Cardinals seemed to have a twofold purpose. On the one hand, to advise the Pope on the governance of the Universal Church, drawing on the cardinals’ deep local experience. On the other, to create a blueprint for the structural reform of the Roman Curia.

When the “C9” cardinals gather at the Vatican next week, there will be a valedictory air. This meeting is expected to be the last before Francis makes significant changes to the council’s membership. When they were appointed in 2013, the cardinals seemed fresh and eager to lend their expertise. But in 2018 they look preoccupied and weary.

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, returned to Australia in June 2017 to fight historical abuse allegations, effectively stepping down from the council. Another member, Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, retired as Archbishop of Kinshasa last month. Next year, he will turn 80 and no longer be able to vote in a conclave. The South American representative, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, is facing abuse cover-up allegations (which he denies) back in Chile. He appeared to retire from the council during a trip to Rome last month (though the Vatican has not confirmed this). Meanwhile, the council’s coordinator, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, has faced claims of mismanagement. He has firmly denied these and won the Pope’s public backing.

So there seem to be at least three vacancies on the “C9”: one for Oceania, one for South America and one for Africa. Obvious candidates for Oceania include Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney and Cardinal John Dew of Wellington, though the Pope may wish to look beyond Australia and New Zealand. For South America, the front-runner is reportedly the Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto. The 74-year-old Jesuit
Archbishop of Huancayo is already helping to organise next year’s eagerly anticipated Amazon synod.

There is no shortage of candidates from Africa. Prominent figures there include Ghana’s Cardinal Charles Palmer-Buckle, Nigeria’s Cardinal John Onaiyekan and Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga of the Central African Republic.

Despite its recent troubles, the Council of Cardinals has finally delivered its blueprint for curial reform to Pope Francis. This is likely to form part of a new apostolic constitution, provisionally called Praedicate Evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), setting out a new structure and vision for the Curia. The contents are currently unknown, but they may include a five-year limit on priests serving at the Vatican, after which they must return to their dioceses.

While reflecting on whom to appoint next to the Council of Cardinals, Pope Francis is likely to have asked himself whether he still needs a council at all. After all, with the new apostolic constitution, the C9’s most significant extended task is finished. The Pope may have also questioned whether a small group of cardinals can be truly representative of the Church’s 1.2 billion members. And even if they can, were the nine he chose the most qualified to oversee the reform of one of the world’s oldest bureaucracies?

Whatever doubts he may have had, Francis appears to have overcome them and decided to renew the Council of Cardinals for another five years. If he does so, the council is likely to become a permanent feature of the Church. Given Catholicism’s vast global reach, the council is, on balance, a welcome innovation. But it will need energetic new members and a clear sense of direction if it is to serve the Pope fruitfully in the years to come.