Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Of Wool Bands... and Red Hats

On a quick calendar-note (or a couple), the "Vatican year" is ramping toward its end: Tuesday's solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul will see the traditional conferral of the pallium, this time on the 38 metropolitan archbishops appointed during the last year around the globe.

Among the group will be four North Americans -- Archbishops Albert LaGatt of Saint-Boniface, Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee, Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati and Thomas Wenski of Miami. Other notables in this year's crop include the UK's Archbishops Bernard Longley of Birmingham and Peter Smith of Southwark, the freshly-named Czech primate Dominik Duka OP of Prague, his Belgian counterpart Andre-Joseph Leonard of Brussels, and the new archbishops of Sevilla, Cape Town, Douala and Panama City.

(On a curious side-thread, it's worth noting that, next year's US pallium class is already shaping up to be larger than this year's: Coadjutor-Archbishop José Gomez will have succeeded to the archbishopric of Los Angeles by then, and even with no other metropolitan movements beyond his successor in San Antonio and the forthcoming appointees to Seattle and Oklahoma City, the result will yield a Stateside delegation of four.)

Its roots as sacred garb dating to the third century, for most of its history the woolen "yoke" marked with six crosses was conferred on newly-installed archbishops in their cathedral churches. In 1984, however, John Paul II instituted the custom of calling the metropolitans to Rome to receive it as a further underscore of the vestment's symbolism -- namely, the archbishops' particular link to Peter's chair.

* * *
Come the first days of July, B16 will literally head for the hills, remaining in residence at the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo until late September. And on his return, one key decision the pontiff will face is the creation of new cardinals and the date of a consistory to elevate new members of the college which advises him in life and, upon his death, will elect his successor.

As of today, the voting complement of the "Pope's Senate" numbers 108 -- twelve short of its maximum 120; the figure's next drop will come on 7 July as Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick reaches the ineligibility age of 80, with at least another six seats falling open by mid-November.

Given the scenario, a mini-frenzy was had in early March as prominent reports in the Italian press circulated that a consistory to fill the 19 foreseen slots would be held over Christ the King weekend, 20-21 November. However, recent chatter in Rome has cast some doubt over the late fall date, with some indications reporting that -- in an economical move -- the pontiff might just hold off for another six months or so, until mid-2011, by which point another half-dozen electors will have aged out of a hypothetical conclave.

Either way, between the present and the end of 2012, another whole quarter of the voting College -- some 30 cardinals -- will superannuate; add in the dozen who've turned 80 since the 2007 consistory, and the figure exceeds a third of the eventual papal electorate.

Along these lines, it's been noted here before but, given the significance, bears repeating: among the recent or upcoming retirees are a full half of the 12 American electors -- a figure without precedent in such a short time-frame.

As history goes, the period ahead offers Benedict an unparalleled free hand at reshaping the Stateside church's topmost rank... and with this pontificate's picks averaging in their early 60s on receiving the red hat, smart money can easily foresee the coming crop of cardinals holding the helm for a generation, or even more.

As if things weren't interesting enough already, eh?

As always, stay tuned.