Arguably, the most shocking day in the modern history of the College of Cardinals was not Jan. 4, 2015, when Pope Francis appointed 15 new cardinals eligible to elect his successor — they being drawn from the highways and byways of the world: Panama, Cape Verde, Myanmar and Tonga, for instance. The historic day was Feb. 18, 1946, when the late Pope Pius XII conferred the red hat on 32 new cardinals.
In that one ceremony, he honored the local churches of Chile, China, Cuba, Mozambique and Peru with cardinals. Making news also was the fact that so few Italians and Vatican officials made the grade. Seven years later, the same pontiff gave Colombia, Ecuador, India and Croatia their first cardinals. It set a trend.
During his short reign, Pope St. John XXIII further internationalized the College of Cardinals, and following him, Blessed Pope Paul VI appointed as cardinals bishops from many places never before so honored.
Pope Paul VI set another trend. For starters, he eliminated the use of the red hat — the galero. Then, he drastically simplified the official vesture of cardinals. He emphasized their roles as bishops and priests, pastors. Few observers of Church life failed to see in these papal actions an affirmation of the principle of the “preferential option for the poor.”
Preferential option for the poor, at its root, means applying the Gospel, fearlessly, boldly, directly, to everything in human life, even entrenched and powerful economic and political conditions.
When Pope Francis was elected, an American radio station interviewed me. I said that the “preferential option for the poor” had returned, even then knowing something about the new pontiff’s record.
True, several of the new cardinals come from economically developed, democratic societies, albeit the current recession: Italy, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain, but they are outnumbered by the nominations of bishops from Cape Verde, Mexico, Myanmar, Panama, Thailand, Tonga and Vietnam, where chronic economic hard times, or political oppression, or both, prevail. Such bad conditions mock Gospel teachings about the dignity of every person, created by God, and bonded with Christ in the Incarnation.
Many also represent, and lead, local churches where that “Second Spring,” envisioned by Blessed John Henry Newman and the Second Vatican Council, seems to have come. True, several are from dioceses tiny in population — Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Hanoi and Yangon — but they are not closing parishes in Thailand.
No Americans were named, hardly surprising. We have many more cardinals than our Catholic population would seem to entitle us to. More interesting are the large, prominent European dioceses overlooked — and now overlooked twice. Being named archbishop of Toledo in Spain, or Turin in Italy, or Vilnius in Lithuania, was virtually tantamount to being appointed a cardinal.
Saints kneel in the pews, thank God, but overall Catholicity is slipping in these places, even here at home, at least by the numbers. Is there a message here?
Creating a new papacy will be the cardinals’ supreme task. Already, Pope Francis’ appointments suggest that, quite visible in the next conclave, will be a significant number of cardinals unwilling to silently watch people suffer. They also point to where the Church is growing in terms of people and vocations.
Anyone who dares to predict papal elections risks looking foolish. Even so, the preferential option for the poor, with boldness and attention to power structures, but essentially to the supremacy of the Gospel, may not go away soon.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.