VATICAN CITY – The Catholic Church’s cardinals have converged in Rome for a slate of official events that started Saturday when Pope Francis elevated 20 new churchmen to their exclusive club. Next on the agenda is two days of discussions, beginning Monday, about reforms to the Vatican constitution.
But just as crucially, there is also an unofficial agenda.
The cardinals need to get to know one another, because whenever Francis resigns or dies, they’ll have to pick his successor from among their ranks. Given the rarity of such gatherings, this is one of their best chances to huddle, size up one another, and form opinions about the future direction of the Catholic Church.
“It’s not a casting [call], but we need this moment,” said Cardinal Cristóbal López Romero, the Spanish-born archbishop of Rabat, Morocco. “Sooner or later, we have to choose the next pope. So we need to hear one another, to know one another.”
The Vatican says that 197 of the world’s 226 cardinals have made it to Rome this week – a remarkable percentage, given the advanced age of the group members. (Only the cardinals younger than 80 – at the moment, 132 people – are eligible to participate in a conclave that selects the pope.)
Though cardinals generally convene in significant numbers at the Vatican anytime Francis creates new members – something he has done eight times during his papacy – there was no consistory, as it is known, in 2021. And the one in 2020 had limited attendance because of the pandemic. As a result, this is the first major gathering of cardinals since 2019, a time when the endpoint of Francis’s pontificate seemed a far more distant notion. Some church watchers say one has to go back even further – to 2015 – to find a moment when cardinals turned up at the Vatican in similar numbers.
In four months, Francis turns 86, an age reached by only one other sitting pope since the 1800s: Leo XIII, still sitting at age 93 in 1903. Although his health had been steady throughout much of his papacy, last year he underwent colon surgery and says he still experiences residual “traces” from the general anesthesia. And recently he’s been mostly in a wheelchair because of knee pain. While neither issue has prohibited his governing of the church, the events have stood as a reminder about the frailty of old age and have intensified questions about his longevity.
Francis said last month that the “door is open” to retirement in the event that his health makes it impossible for him to run the church. But he said he had not yet reached that point.
“That doesn’t mean the day after tomorrow I don’t start thinking [about it], right?” Francis said. “But right now, I honestly don’t.”
In earlier eras of the church, it would have been expected that Francis would continue to serve until his death. But the stunning 2013 resignation of Pope Benedict XVI has created an alternative for modern popes.
Whenever Francis leaves the job, there are several crucial questions facing cardinals who will pick his replacement. One is whether they’ll seek a successor who shares Francis’s vision of a more inclusive church. Francis, more than nine years into his pontificate, has helped to boost the odds of such a scenario, because his appointments now account for 63 percent of voting-age cardinals, according to Vatican statistics. Still, conclaves are notoriously unpredictable. Not all cardinals selected by Francis share his worldview. And support from cardinals selected by more conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II would still be necessary for any future pope to reach the two-thirds threshold.
Another question is about geography – whether the next pope will be non-European. Before Francis, who is Argentine, the church had selected European pontiffs for more than 1,000 years running. But as the church withers in Europe, its geographical heart has shifted to places like Latin America and Africa. Francis, with the cardinals he has selected over the years, has made the body of would-be electors less European. Francis’s latest batch of cardinals represent places such as Timor-Leste, Colombia and Nigeria.
On Monday, the cardinals will hold two days of talks on the Vatican’s new constitution, which was published in March and amounted to a reorganization of the church’s bureaucracy. But there is also plenty of time for fraternizing. Their time in Rome coincides with the city’s August shutdown, with Romans having decamped from the city to mountains and beaches, and many cafes and restaurants are closed. The streets around the Vatican are filled with a mix of tour groups and high-ranking prelates.
López Romero, in an interview, said he had already had time to dine with and pray with a cardinal from Guinea, Robert Sarah. The youngest cardinal, Giorgio Marengo, 48, an Italian who has served in Mongolia for many years, said his hopes for the days ahead are “very basic” – getting to know the other cardinals better.
“You have people coming from persecuted churches. Theologians,” Marengo said. “I hope these days will help me learn [from them].”