One of the oldest parlour games in curial Rome and its commentariat is speculation on the creation of new cardinals. It is not unusual for the various appointments of the Holy See to be looked at through the scarlet prism of what it might mean for future elevation to the Sacred College.
That game is increasingly more difficult – even pointless – with Pope Francis’s announcement of his second batch of cardinals on January 4 in which, like his first batch in February 2014, he passed over traditional cardinalatial sees in favour of entirely novel red hats, symbolised above all by the sacred purple descending upon the Bishop of Tonga.
Without taking a view on the relative merits of prelates from Cape Verde or Tonga, about which one expects few at the Holy See know very much, it is rather to be welcomed that the College of Cardinals is being shaken up a bit. The patterns that have largely determined its membership, with various historic, populous or wealthy dioceses more or less entitled to entry, along with an increasing number of curial bureau heads, became solidified decades ago in a time quite different from today.
It is easy to decry the clearly disproportionate number of Italians, but it is also entirely suitable to wonder whether the dying churches of Europe should constitute the largest bloc in the college when, by both numbers and vitality, the sources of Catholic life are in the global South. A hundred years after the Great War that ended the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, it is certainly reasonable to ask whether the former lands of that empire need to have more cardinals than, say, Nigeria and Uganda.
To break down the old patterns is more important, at least in the first instance, than exactly what configuration replaces it. Yet what the Holy Father is doing reflects more than what, since the time of Pius XII, has been called the internationalisation of the college. It is rooted in Francis’s oft-repeated emphasis on the importance of the peripheries, which is not to be interpreted primarily in the category of geography.
Pope Francis takes the view that sources of renewal and reform in the Church do not only come, or even mainly come, from the central structures of authority and control. The peripheries are those places – or better, those experiences – removed from influence where perhaps the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is more easily received. And this view is deeply rooted in Papa Bergoglio’s own experience of rejection and exile – something which sets him apart from most of his recent predecessors.
In Austin Ivereigh’s new biography of Francis, The Great Reformer, he recounts how Fr Bergoglio was driven out of his leadership roles in the Argentinian Jesuit province by local opponents who had the support of the Father General in Rome. So painful was this external exile in Germany and internal exile in Córdoba that it provoked in Bergoglio a “great interior crisis”. After he was rescued from ecclesiastical exile in 1992 by Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Antonio Quarracino of Buenos Aires with his appointment as auxiliary bishop of that city, his separation from the Jesuits continued. From 1992 until his election as pope in 2013, Bergoglio never visited the Jesuit general offices in Rome or spoke to the Father General, Ivereigh reports.
This experience of exile – of being pushed to the peripheries of his chosen community – taught Bergoglio that authentic sources of purification and renewal could be discovered there. Ivereigh writes: “In 2003, he told a politician who needed to stand down and was terrified of the decision: ‘Manuel, you’ve got to live your own exile. I did. And afterward you’ll be back. And when you do come back, you’ll more merciful, kinder, and you’re going to want to serve your people more.’ ”
This is not to suggest that the unexpected cardinals are men who have been exiled. Rather, it is that they represent an intuition of the Holy Father that those who have been driven out of – or were never present in – the centre, have a particular gift to offer to that same centre. It is not an altogether novel intuition, for Church history offers many examples of the stone that the builders rejected having become the cornerstone – the words of the psalmist which Benedict XV applied to himself upon his election a century ago. That intuition makes cardinalatial speculation rather more difficult and therefore perhaps less prevalent: a welcome change in itself.
Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald Magazine for the 16/1/2015 issue.