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Letter from Rome

Pope Francis confirms he will call a new consistory at the end of the year or early next year

Letter from Rome

Pope Francis waves as he arrives in Accumoli on Oct. 4, after an earthquake hit the area on Aug. 24, a disaster that claimed nearly 300 lives. Pope Francis made an emotionally charged visit to the Italian mountain communities devastated by the earthquake, praying silently amid the ruins and urging survivors to have faith in the future. (Photo by AFP)

Robert Mickens, Vatican City
Vatican City

October 6, 2016

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Pope Francis has confirmed what many have been speculating for some time now — he will "soon" hold the third public consistory of his pontificate and create more cardinals.

During an in-flight interview on Oct. 2 on his way back to Rome from a weekend visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, he indicated that the cardinal-making ceremony would likely be "at the end of the year, [or] could be the beginning of next year."

He added that he wanted to give the red hat to men from a diverse array of countries in order to more fully reflect the global face of the Catholic Church.

Here’s exactly what he said:

The criteria will be the same as the other two consistories. [I’ll choose] a bit from everywhere, because the church is present in the entire world.… I’m still studying the names, but maybe there will be three from one continent, two from another and one from somewhere else; one or the other, or one per country … but, I don’t know. The list is long, but there are only 13 slots. And you have to think about keeping an equilibrium. I like to see, in the College of Cardinals, the universality of the church — not just its "European" center, shall we say; but everywhere; [from] the five continents, if possible.

When Francis was asked specifically if he’d already decided when the consistory would take place, he replied:

No, because I have to study the list [of names] and set the date. It could be the end of the year or it could be the beginning of next year. For the end of the year there’s the problem of the Holy Year, but that can be resolved.… Or the beginning of next year. But it will be soon.

Let’s unpack all of this.

First of all, the pope said there are only 13 available slots to fill. Most people read that as his affirmation of retaining the 120-member limit that Paul VI set for the number of electors; that is men who are 80-years-old or younger.

But Francis, who himself becomes an octogenarian on Dec. 17, is not bound by that arbitrary number. (And given how he responded to another question [see below], his apparent assurance of keeping to the 120 limit should not be seen as cast in stone.) 

As argued before, in fact, the first New World pope should consider raising the number of electors in order that "his" cardinals make up the majority at the next conclave. This would better ensure the election of a successor that is more likely to continue the reform of church mentality and its institutions he has painstakingly begun.

If the Jesuit pope were to set the number of electors at, say, 153 — symbolic of the miraculous catch of "large fish" in John 21, 1-11 — it would also allow him greater freedom to choose new cardinals from far flung places and make its college — as he so desperately desires — less European and more reflective of the universal church.

Second, there is the date.

Pope Francis says the next consistory could come at the end of this year, except that it might conflict with the current Jubilee of Mercy.

This suggests that he’s thinking of the liturgical year rather than the current calendar year. That’s because the Jubilee’s conclusion is on Nov. 20, the Feast of Christ the King and the last Sunday in the church’s liturgical year. The new church year begins a week later with the first Sunday of Advent.

So, look for Francis to hold his next consistory on Nov. 20 or, more likely, on Nov. 27. If this is the case, then he should make the official announcement of the event within the next couple of weeks.

As for the names.… Ah, that’s another question altogether.



The pope had much else to say during his in-flight press conference on Oct. 2.

For example, he made headlines with his remarks about gender theory, causing controversy especially by implicitly criticizing (and not exactly accurately) French schools for teaching "gender ideology" to young children.

France’s prestigious independent Catholic daily, La Croix, sought to put the pope’s remarks into a broader perspective. But it also published an article in which he is gently accused of being manipulated by fundamentalists who are pushing a "misinformation campaign" on the issue of gender.

During the same interview, Pope Francis also announced that he was planning to travel to India and Bangladesh in 2017, as well as go to the Marian Shrine of Fatima (Portugal) and hopefully to a country in Africa.

And among other things, he also confirmed that he’s waived the five-year waiting process and instructed the Congregation for Saints to start preliminary steps for the beatification of Father Jacques Hamel. He’s the French priest who was killed by radicalized Muslim youths last July as he celebrated Mass.

When a journalist asked the pope when he would make his promised visit to the Central Italian towns devastated by a massive earthquake last August, he replied:

Three possible dates have been proposed. Two of them I can’t remember very well; the third, which I do recall, is the first Sunday of Advent. I said I’d choose the date when I get back [from Georgia and Azerbaijan]. There are three and I must choose. And I will go privately, alone, as priest, as bishop, as pope. But alone. That’s how I want to do it. And I would like to be close to the people. But I still don’t know how.

As it turned out, the pope made the choice very quickly or actually only pretended not to remember the proposed dates. He went to the earthquake-struck area about 36 hours after returning to Rome.

Of course, there was a reason why he may have deliberately kept this from journalists. He didn’t want to cause a media hoopla.

"I didn't come earlier so as not to cause problems, given your condition," Francis told quake survivors on Oct. 4 in the worst hit town of Amatrice.

"I didn't want to be a bother," he added.

Nonetheless, the extremely moving papal visit on Oct. 4th — Feast of St Francis of Assisi — did not come as a complete surprise.

Just a few hours after Pope Francis was back at the Vatican, the Rome-based daily, Il Tempo, had already published a story announcing his daylong trip to comfort and encourage survivors. Links to the article were posted numerous times on Twitter, a digital cache of information where most journalists spend considerable amounts of time.

A number of the scribes heeded Il Tempo’s "scoop" and rushed to Amatrice to be in place for the pope’s arrival that morning. Nonetheless, they still tweeted and wrote articles, saying the papal visit came as a "total surprise."

It looked like an attempt to further hype Francis’ important and deeply pastoral response to a group of wounded people.

That’s what one calls "gilding the lily," something that is not really necessary in this pontificate.



The Pontifical North American College (PNAC) celebrated the ordination of 30 transitional deacons on Sept. 29 at the Altar of the Chair in St Peter’s Basilica.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, one of the nine members of Pope Francis’ special advisory group (C-9), presided at the ordination Mass.

Prominently beside him were two other American cardinals who live in Rome — James Harvey, the 67-year-old archpriest of the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls; and the 84-year-old J. Francis Stafford, former Archbishop of Denver and retired head of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

All together 13 bishops concelebrated the ordination liturgy for the latest crop of PNAC deacons. Among them was yet another American cardinal and former rector of the college — Edwin O’Brien, 77, currently the Rome-based Grand Master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher.

It came as a bit of a shock to some that one of two other men who joined Cardinals O’Malley, Harvey and Stafford at the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer was Archbishop John Nienstedt.

The 69-year-old archbishop was forced to resign as head of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in June 2015 after he was judged to have badly mishandled sexual abuse cases.

Several reliable witnesses, most of them priests or seminarians, had also given sworn testimony accusing Nienstedt of making inappropriate homosexual advances or engaging in compromising behavior.

You won’t see the disgraced archbishop in the group photo of consecrators and ordinands on the main page of the PNAC website, but you will find him on the college’s publicly-available photo stream.

He’s the one at the far right of the altar.

If you look at the far left-hand side of that same altar, you can see Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. He’s the former papal nuncio to the United States who forced the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to halt the carefully documented investigation into Archbishop Nienstedt’s alleged sexual misconduct.

So here we have two archbishops — one an official of the Holy See; and both involved in what can only be described as clerical cover-ups — playing a key role at the ordination of men attending one of largest seminaries that prepares future priests for the church in the United States.

Does no one at the Vatican or the US Conference of Catholic Bishops find anything troubling about this?


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