Francis' First "Red Dawn" – Five Months Early, Pope Calls Consistory
Even if the timing of consistories for the creation of new cardinals has long been one of the Vatican's worst-kept secrets – last time excepted – never has definitive word come like this: confirming a Tuesday report by the French agency iMedia, this morning the VatiSpox Fr Federico Lombardi SJ announced that, indeed, Papa Bergoglio intends to dole out his first batch of red hats on the feast of the Chair of Peter, 22 February 2014. (This adds further heft to a joke that's been making the rounds lately: in a 180 from past practice, these days, "If you want to know a pontifical secret, just ask the Pope – he'll tell you himself.")
What's more, Lombardi detailed a full plate of events surrounding the first gathering of the Pope's "Senate" since the Conclave. Bookended by the third meeting of Francis' "Gang of Eight" and another summit of the (newly-)all-important Synod Council, Francis will maintain the tradition begun by his predecessor and hold a consultation day with the entire College on the eve of the Consistory, its focus reportedly centered on the reform of the Curia.
Far from the usual means of announcement – a declaration by the Pope himself either at the Wednesday Audience or Sunday Angelus a month before the Consistory date – the date was given this far in advance to allow the nearly 200 red-hats to work the week into their schedules. Though the speculation of prior Consistory dates had largely panned out, far-flung cardinals have long complained that the lack of a formal confirmation until weeks before had the effect of holding their calendars hostage.
By late February, at least 14 voting seats will be available to return the College to its statutory maximum of 120 electors younger than 80. However, as both John Paul II and B16 did at points – Wojtyla having famously ballooned the electorate to 135 in the same 2001 Consistory at which Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elevated – the Pope is perfectly free to dispense from the limit, which was established by Paul VI in 1975.
As for the composition of the new intake, it's fair to say that – with a "Pope of Surprises" who's shown little reluctance about setting his own course – all bets are off. Still, it would be little shock if the first non-European Pope in a millennium started into an effort to significantly shift the geographic makeup of the College, which has habitually seen his home-continent (which contains half the world's Catholics) and much of the global church's emerging standard-bearers significantly underrepresented.
For example, despite boasting the bulk of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, Latin Americans only comprised 12 percent of the electors at the March Conclave, its 15 voting cardinals just one more than the North American bloc from a church less than one fifth of its southern neighbor's size. Among other instances of the stark imbalances, among the most glaring is a stack-up between the US church and the Philippines – though both comprise a roughly equal number of members in the range of 70 million, the Stateside voters outnumbered the islands' Cardinal Chito Tagle 11-1 in the Sistine Chapel this spring.
While another 13 seats come open between the February date and April 2015, several ops have indicated that one means Francis intends to use to achieve a geographic reboot is a significant curtailing of the red hats given to Vatican officials, along with a gradual drop of the "cardinalatial sees" in Europe. Taken together, the Curial and Continent blocs accounted for 67 of the 111 electors in March, or precisely three-fifths of the Conclave, just 11 shy of the requisite two-thirds margin needed to produce a Pope.
Among the few bankable names on the coming biglietto – at least, at this point – are but three Curial officials: the new Secretary of State, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, the CDF chief Gerhard Ludwig Müller, and Francis' hand-picked head of the newly-amplified Synod, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri.
On the residential front, meanwhile, Bergoglio's successor as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Mario Poli, especially after his election dropped Argentina's number of resident voters to zero. Yet even more notably, as part of an expected increase of the College's Eastern presence, both protocol and personal ties would see a seat going to the head of the largest Oriental body in communion with Rome – the major-archbishop of the 6 million-member Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, who at 43 would become the youngest cardinal elevated in the last century.
Lastly, as was noted at the February 2011 Consistory, with that round's elevation of the archbishop of New York, the US posts traditionally given a red hat either had a sitting cardinal-archbishop, or his predecessor who remained of electoral age – a scenario which (barring deaths) will remain the case until April 2015. In other words, these shores' quota under the customary understanding is more than satisfied for the foreseeable future.
Accordingly, the case then remains in play now – should Francis seek to further expand the Stateside bloc (already, after the Italians, the second-largest electoral group), a Pope of limited familiarity with the domestic scene will have to choose from one of two possibilities: ramp up the elevation of archbishops whose predecessors still have a vote... or continue Papa Ratzinger's project of reflecting a drastically changed Stateside fold by conferring the scarlet on places it's never gone before.
All in all, it bears watching... and as the timetable of today's announcement blew away the norm – for the sake of i Gammarelli and the arrangement of the pilgrimages – don't be surprised one bit to see the designates' names emerge well before January.