Sunday, February 19, 2012

At the Consistory, A Changing of the Guard

Keeping with longtime custom, the American Cardinals present at this Consistory gathered around the group's newest members for an updated "family portrait" at the Pontifical North American College following yesterday's rites.

To be sure, a few are absent: Chicago's Cardinal Francis George and Philadelphia's retired Justin Rigali -- both in Rome for the weekend -- didn't make the shot, while Detroit's twin emeriti Adam Maida and Edmond Szoka ostensibly stayed home, as did Cardinal Edwin O'Brien's Baltimore predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler, whose condition kept him from making the trip.

With the creation of O'Brien and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a significant milestone has come to pass: not even seven years after Pope Benedict's election, for the first time, a majority of the Stateside bloc able to elect his successor are now appointees of the reigning pontiff.

Of the US' 12 cardinal-electors in a hypothetical Conclave, seven have now been chosen by B16, and their effect is only set to grow over the next five months. By late summer, the American voting group drops to ten as New York's retired Cardinal Edward Egan reaches the ineligibility age of 80 on April 2nd, followed by the onetime Denver archbishop and Vatican official Francis Stafford on 26 July.

By contrast, as of today, the average age of Papa Ratzinger's seven picks sits at just a few weeks over 67. Yet even if the nation's traditional complement of two new cardinals was maintained at this Consistory, the Stateside church actually lost three electors since the last intake in November 2010: the Vatican's longtime "Voice of Christmas" Cardinal John Foley died last December at 76, while Keeler and Boston's scandal-felled Cardinal Bernard Law both turned 80 during 2011.

To be sure, the same effect is being felt in the wider College -- by year's end, Benedict will have the openings to have tapped just shy of two-thirds of the cardinal-electors: in other words, the supermajority needed to make the next Pope.

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In each of his four additions to the College of Cardinals, Benedict has chosen his US nominees according to a consistent rubric -- one head of a domestic archdiocese (by turns, Sean O'Malley, Daniel DiNardo, Donald Wuerl and now Dolan), and a prelate based at the Vatican (William Levada, Foley, Raymond Burke, now O'Brien).

With at least 16 more electoral slots to open over the next year on age grounds alone, the next Consistory is almost certain to be held by Spring 2013, and -- according to some -- possibly even before the end of this year.

However, under the traditional protocols for the elevation of American cardinals, the queue for a red hat from these shores is suddenly nonexistent. With Dolan and O'Brien now in the "purple" -- the Italian term for cardinal red -- everything's caught up for the next several years.

Given that unusual scenario, were even the first part of Benedict's pattern to hold next time around, a US prelate would need to be named to head a Curial office in the interim. As the move placing O'Brien, 72, in line -- his appointment last August to lead the Order of the Holy Sepulchre -- stoked widespread surprise among the hierarchy, it's entirely possible that the soon-to-be 85 year-old pontiff has another unexpected move up his sleeve. (On a side-note, the American presence in the Vatican's top tier is likely to decrease by one later this year with the expected retirement of the CDF prefect Cardinal William Levada, who turns 76 in June. The LA native and former San Francisco archbishop will, however, retain his key dicastery memberships until reaching age 80.)

On the other hand, the residential side of the equation is likely to prove even trickier. Once Egan turns 80, another US-based cardinal won't lose his conclave rights until Rigali ages out in April 2015, and with the former's successor and latter's protege -- namely, Tim Dolan -- now elevated, the distribution of red hats to their customary American destinations is now at its full complement.

As previously noted, the scenario opens the door to either of two unusual possibilities -- at least, under the "rules" long in place.

In one potential course, the Pope could extend the red hat to a Stateside city that's never previously seen one.

Of course, Benedict did that in 2007 when -- in order "to recognize the growth and vitality of the church in the southern United States" -- he elevated DiNardo, head of the 1.5 million-member fold in the nation's fourth-largest city. Texas' unprecedented red hat marked the first time since 1953 (when Pius XII elevated Los Angeles' Archbishop James Francis McIntyre) that a new region of the country was given representation in the College.

Were the pontiff to continue reflecting American Catholicism's dramatic demographic shift of the last half-century by similarly shuffling around its scarlet, the most likely contenders for the honor are widely thought to be the heads of the Southeast's two largest dioceses: Archbishops Thomas Wenski, 61, the Harley-riding, famously intense polyglot and policy wonk who now heads the 1.3 million-member Miami church, or Wilton Gregory, 64, the finessed, eminently-regarded president of the US bishops during the 2002 eruption of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, now the leader of an Atlanta fold that's grown sixfold since 1990, today comprising a million Catholics.

The son of Polish immigrants to South Florida, while the Dolanesque Wenski is claimed as an adopted son of the Cuban and Haitian communities with whom he's worked closely for decades, the Chicago-born Atlanta prelate -- the standout protege of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin -- would become the first African-American cardinal.

In the second possible scenario, while the nation's historic "cardinalatial sees" are now each assured of a vote should a papal election arise over the next three years, two of those electors -- Rigali and LA's Cardinal Roger Mahony, 76 next week -- have recently retired from running their archdioceses, but still enjoy Conclave privileges. Accordingly, if Benedict opted to maintain the historic configuration of red hats on these shores, he could break custom by expediting the elevations of their respective successors, whether LA's Archbishop José Gomez, 60, or the new Angeleno prelate's mentor, now Philadelphia's archbishop, the Capuchin Charles Chaput, 67.

Born in Mexico and now a naturalized citizen, the Opus Dei-formed Gomez now leads the largest diocese in the four-century history of American Catholicism, its 5 million members forming a bigger crowd than LA's runners-up in New York and Chicago combined. In addition, the sitting Pope is believed to be quite intent to place the historic red hat on the head of the US' first Hispanic cardinal, crowning a Latin ascent soon to boast a majority of the nation's 70 million faithful (one that, already, comprises 60 percent of the Stateside fold younger than age 30).

At the same time, even beyond his signature approach in the public square, Chaput's well-burnished record of tackling daunting assignments from Rome -- first leading two high-stakes Vatican investigations, then last year's crucial appointment to a Philadelphia church brimming with scandals and challenges -- signals a level of Benedict's trust that's arguably unparalleled among the American bishops, as well as indicating the pontiff's considerable esteem for the diligence and sensitivity with which each mission has been carried out.

In this, a parallel can be drawn to O'Brien (above), who won high marks in Rome as an equally thorough, effective hand -- in his case, on the key matter of priestly formation -- first as a rector tasked with heavy lifting at the NAC (now the largest American seminary) before overseeing the 2005-6 Apostolic Visitation of the 225 US seminaries, and then serving as Dolan's lead deputy for last year's on-site examination of the Irish church's two houses.

While the new grand master of the Holy Sepulchre -- the second non-European ever to head the thousand year-old order -- now has his primary residence in Rome, it's emerged that the 72 year-old cardinal will keep a Stateside base, not in his native New York, but in Baltimore, where his stewardship of the Premier See wraps up on the installation of his yet-unnamed successor, a choice on which the field is believed to remain very wide open.

Among O'Brien's global cadre of knights and ladies dedicated to supporting the church's works in the Holy Land, a majority live in the US.

PHOTOS: Whisperazzi(1); L'Osservatore Romano(2-4); Getty(5)