The nearly 200 cardinals who were in Rome for last weekend’s consistory and two days of meetings drew up a sketch of the future pope they will eventually have to elect
“This is not a pre-conclave! We are studying the new constitution of the Roman Curia,” snapped Cardinal Joan Josep Omella of Barcelona on Monday as he left the Synod Hall.
The 76-year-old Spaniard did not hide a touch of annoyance from those who questioned him about the proceedings of the meeting that had begun a few hours earlier.
The participants included 197 cardinals from all over the world – that is, nearly nine out of ten men with red hats – and Pope Francis.
The main focus of the two-day, August 29-30 meeting was to study Praedicate evangelium, the new constitution of the Roman Curia that the pope unveiled last March.
Divided into language groups of about ten people each, the cardinals studied the text that was nearly ten years in the making.
The pope opened the first session on Monday with a short introduction in which he invited the Church’s senior prelates to speak with “great freedom” of tone.
And they did this in the hours that followed.
They began by discussing the pre-eminent place the Dicastery for Evangelization has been assigned by the reform. It is now more important than the Dicastery of Doctrine of the Faith, which was previously placed at the head of the dicasteries.
The cardinals debated the link – which some say is indispensable – between Holy Orders and having responsibilities of governance in the Curia.
With the upcoming Vatican appointments, the basic question was this: should a Vatican official see their responsibility as a pastoral office entrusted to a priest, or is it simply a delegation of power granted by the pope?
“It can’t go on much longer”
Cardinal Omella may be annoyed by talk about who might succeed Pope Francis, but never before in the current pontificate has there been so much talk about what type of pope the Church will need to help it best face future challenges.
The great freedom of tone desired by Francis was also expressed in the corridors, making a rough sketch of the profile of his successor.
“Francis is 85 years old, and his health is what it is,” said an African cardinal. “He had promised to have a pontificate of three or four years, and he is now at nine.”
“It can’t be much longer,” said the same cardinal. “It would be strange to have a pope approaching 90 years of age.”
All the cardinals that La Croix spoke to stressed how important the two-day meeting was to help them to “get to know the others”, since Francis had not gathered the entire College of Cardinals for seven years.
“At the beginning of his pontificate, the pope said it was useless to come to consistories, which he defined as worldly meetings,” said a European cardinal.
“Following his advice, I had not come for years. But a few months ago, I realized there were at least 60 cardinals that I didn’t know!”
This prelate, who is among the one-third of cardinals who already have experience of a conclave, knows well that “the day is coming when we will have to vote”.
“And for that, you have to know the people well,” he added.
He admitted that he has had his aides draw up a file on each cardinal.
The Church shaken up
Sketching the profile of Francis’ successor, this future elector said he and his confreres will need to find a man who is “capable of holding the helm in a turbulent period”.
He said the future pope must be “a solid man” who is able to continue “shaking up” the Church and the Curia as Francis has, adding that the Jesuit pope has “done very well” in this regard.
One of the more influential voices of the College of Cardinals said the one who comes after the world’s first New World pope will have to face the challenge of “secularization” and “digitization”, which are “shaking the world and pushing us to totally review our anthropology”.
“The challenge of the Church today, especially in secularized contexts, is to touch the heart of humanity, to touch peoples’ hearts and souls,” said the cardinal, who hails from a country where Catholics are very much in the minority.
To interact with cardinals from all over the world is to put a finger on the diversity of the problems facing the Church today: secularization in the North, persecution in Asia, exponential growth in Africa.
“There are, however, expectations that are found throughout the world, such as the place of women and clericalism,” said another cardinal, referring to the synodal discussions on the future of the Church that Francis launched in October 2021.
Divisions have “always been part of the life of the Church”
Many also stressed the need for greater unity in the Church at a time when it is experiencing divisions — mainly in the West — over issues such as migrants, bioethics and the liturgy.
But these “divisions were not created by the pope”, said a cardinal who is closely aligned with Francis’ thinking. And another pointed out that divisions have “always been part of the life of the Church”.
Even some of the cardinals who live far from Rome said they could sense a sort of campaigning atmosphere that is typical of the end of a reign.
“Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, sent all the cardinals a book that describes the profile of the future pope that the Church needs, The Next Pope,” noted a European cardinal.
The book was authored by American opinion writer George Weigel, a prominent biographer of John Paul II.
Another member of the College, who does not live in Rome, said he receives phone calls from some of his fellow members wanting to point out the profile of another potential future pope.
“They say, ‘You should vote for so-and-so, or for this other one’,” the cardinal said.
“Me? I don’t necessarily know them, so I observe. I find it interesting,” he said.
During the cardinals’ gathering in Rome, the neighborhood surrounding the Vatican – commonly known as “the Borgo” – was the scene of meetings organized in restaurants or, more discreetly, in private apartments.
The idea was to allow the cardinals an opportunity to interact and get to know each other.
Some of the Africans met to “pray and reflect together” last Friday evening, the night before the consistory to make new cardinals, at the Rome headquarters of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
This was an unprecedented meeting to voice their concerns, including the lack of Africans in senior positions in the Vatican.
But the proximity of a conclave is also, for some, an opportunity to become aware of the “universality” of their role.
“I realize that as a cardinal, I must have the broadest possible knowledge of the challenges facing the Church,” said one.
“The risk would be to arrive at the conclave to choose a new pope based on what I know at home, and thus mistake the problems of my diocese for those of the whole Church,” he admitted.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.