Less than a month from turning 80, Pope Francis may not have many years left to reshape the Catholic Church and make his reforms survive his papacy. But one red hat at a time, he is picking the voters who will elect the next pope. And they’re looking more like his idea of church.
Many in the Vatican bureaucracy, in the College of Cardinals, and in the American hierarchy don’t approve of his vision for the church. He wants to make it more about mercy and outreach to the poor. He wants pastors and bishops to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” But his critics say he has gone too far, blurring too many once-bright doctrinal lines.
At this consistory, a gathering of cardinals that begins Saturday in Rome, the pope will give the scarlet zucchetto to 17 new cardinals, including men from countries that have never had a cardinal — an honorary title, with one big power: electing popes. Three are Americans. One conservative Catholic writer called this consistory “the most liberal in the recent history of the church.” Maybe. But this much is clear: Though Francis does not rant or tweet angrily at his opponents, his choices are sending a clear message of reform.
Take Blase Cupich (SOUP-itch). The pope personally scouted him and appointed him archbishop of Chicago. Now he’s giving a red hat to Cupich, who is much more of a Francis-style bishop than his predecessors. Unlike too many my-way-or-the-highway American bishops, he listens and consults.
In 1989, when Cupich became rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum seminary in Ohio, he sought help from Sister Katarina Schuth, who had just published a book on seminaries. “He immediately called upon me to work with his board and his faculty, to go through the kind of findings that I had discovered in the process of doing this book,” she recalled. In 1998, when Cupich became bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota, he called on Schuth and another nun to help him develop a spirituality center.
“It’s a pattern of leadership, that he really counts on and respects the views of people who are closer to whatever the situation might be than he can be as a person in charge,” Schuth said. So, message sent: Francis wants bishops who listen.
Francis is also giving a red hat to Joseph Tobin of the previously cardinal-less Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Soon after announcing Tobin’s red hat, Francis named him the next archbishop of Newark, replacing controversial conservative John Myers. The refreshingly self-deprecating Tobin stood up for Syrian refugees in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence resisted them. “He’s got a broader base than just the Syrian refugees,” said Rev. John O’Malley, an eminent Jesuit church historian. “He was very helpful to the women religious, when they were in trouble.”
The third American, Bishop Kevin Farrell, was recently appointed to run the Vatican’s new agency for laity, family and life. In Dallas, in an open-carry state, he spoke out for gun control.
Another message from Francis is the red hat that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia won’t be getting. Chaput didn’t like the pope’s two-part Synod on the Family, ending in 2015. He said it projected confusion, which is “of the devil.” Nor does he like “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s post-synod document on marriage and family.
With this group, Francis has named about 40 percent of the 120 cardinals now eligible to choose his successor. “One more consistory will do it,” O’Malley said. Let’s hope the next one includes people like Sister Simone Campbell, who runs Network, a social justice lobby. Yes, Francis just reaffirmed the church’s ban on ordaining women, but cardinals don’t need to be ordained. He could give women red hats. And if he wants his reform legacy to endure, he needs strong, unafraid, Francis-style people like Campbell voting for his successor.
Bob Keeler is a former member of the Newsday editorial board.