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2020 consistory: Pope Francis’ mixed signals

By: - Arts and Books Editor / @LitoZulueta
/ 05:10 AM December 13, 2020

With his latest consistory, the seventh of his seven-year papacy, Pope Francis has sent mixed signals about his unorthodox elevation of the clergy from the “peripheries” to the cardinalate and, hence, in a position that would make them candidates to become the next pope. He has again bypassed Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma and other heads of older and more established churches whose leaders have traditionally been made cardinals, and promoted those coming from newer churches, such as Archbishop Jose Advincula of Capiz, which became a diocese only in 1951.

Established as a diocese in 1595, Cebu is the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines. It is the biggest diocese in Asia in terms of land area (5,000 sq. kms.) and population: There are 3.7 million baptized Catholics out of Cebu’s 4.1 million population. In comparison, Capiz may be considered a church of the “peripheries.” In fact, Cardinal Advincula’s pastoral priority has been to establish mission stations and mission schools in the remoter regions of Capiz (land area 2,595 sq. km.).

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Capiz has 741,000 baptized Catholics compared with the less than 20,000 of the Apostolic Vicariate of Brunei, but whose head, Cornelius Sim, has been elevated to the cardinalate. It is very remote for Cardinal Sim to establish mission stations since Brunei Darussalam is a Muslim monarchy where Christian evangelization is prohibited. And he has only three priests, so how could the peripheries be addressed?

But it is exactly such minority situations that the Pope’s unorthodox consistory seeks to address. The periphery that receives the red hat becomes a Christian beacon where it is not exactly welcomed. Its connection with Rome is likewise enhanced, so that it moves to the center of the concerns of the Church. As what Pope Francis said during the 2015 consistory, the cardinals “manifest the indissoluble link between the Church of Rome and the particular churches present in the world.”

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But the 2020 consistory may belie all of this, or at least it sends mixed signals. Of the 13 new cardinals, six are Italians who hardly belong to the churches in the periphery. If one added to their number Cardinal Mario Grech from the island republic of Malta just 80 miles off Sicily, then more than half of the new cardinals could hardly be considered as belonging to marginal churches.

Grech and four of the new Italian cardinals are below 80 years old and they would be eligible to take part in a conclave, increasing the chances of restoring the papacy to the Italians. In any case, the rather high equity of Italians in the latest consistory tends to go against the conviction of Pope Francis, himself half-Italian, that the Church is a global institution that must become less Italian-centric.

Moreover, the elevation of Washington, DC, Archbishop Wilton Gregory to the cardinalate sacrifices tradition and puts the American Church in an uneasy situation. The appointment bypasses Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the oldest diocese in the US, which, according to a Vatican issuance approved by Pope Pius IX in the 19th century, has “prerogative of place” over other dioceses. This gives the Baltimore archbishop precedence over other US bishops—except cardinals.

No Vatican official or papal spokesperson has explained the appointment of Gregory, the first African-American bishop. But he himself told AFP he was a “symbolic individual” and that his elevation was “a sign of the importance of and respect for the African-American community” accorded by the Pope.

So if Gregory’s elevation owes to peripheral concerns, then why wasn’t the red hat given to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, the first Mexican-born American prelate? Or to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, the first native American archbishop?

Gregory is metropolitan of the world’s only superpower. Like the naming of an inordinate number of Italians to the cardinalate, the Pope’s appointment of Gregory sacrifices geopolitics. It adds to the number of American cardinals eligible to vote in a conclave. Washington, DC as a church in the peripheries simply does not convince.

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Lito B. Zulueta is a veteran journalist who covered the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, and the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2013. He teaches at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Santo Tomas.

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TAGS: Commentary, Lito B. Zulueta, Pope Francis, unorthodox consistory
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