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Explainer: Three Vatican consistories and 21 new cardinals

The pope's surprise summer consistories are beginning this weekend in Rome. Briana Huddleston dives into the most striking storylines.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington receives the red hat during the consistory in November 2020 where he was elevated to the cardinalate as its first-ever African American. (Vatican Media)

On Saturday, Pope Francis will hold the first of three consecutive consistories at the Vatican and create 21 new cardinals. Five of the cardinals are over the age of 80, while 16 are not—making them eligible to vote in the next papal conclave. The cardinals-elect come from diverse regions around the world, including Nigeria, India, Mongolia, and Singapore. For several such nations, it will be their first time being represented among the cardinals.

As Pope Francis campaigns for his advisors to proportionally reflect the Church universal, a new poll shed some light on the demographics of the cardinals elected since the start of Francis' pontificate in 2013. Published in mid-July, it found that the historically Europe-heavy cardinalate has begun to see a rising number from countries such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America (the Global South).

In 2015, Pope Francis chose cardinals from Tonga, New Zealand, and Myanmar. A few years later, in 2018, he selected a number of prelates from the Middle East. Saturday's meeting will bump the count in the Asia-Pacific region to 17% of all cardinals, up from 9% in 2013. Likewise, Sub-Saharan Africa will see a similar spike from 9% to 12% in the same period. In contrast, cardinals from Europe will have declined from 52% of the total to 40%.

Pope Francis has spoken about diversity consistently throughout his papacy, including in his general audiences. Recently, he also wrote about the blessing of embracing it in his book “Diverse Yet United” released last year.

While Europe was integral to the spread of Catholicism in the medieval era, recent data shows that only 24% of the global Catholic population today lives in Europe. Latin America and the Caribbean now take the lead, making up roughly 40% of the world's Catholics. As of now, only 18% of the College of Cardinals represent the two regions.

At the pope’s 2014 consistory, Archbishop Emeritus Kelvin Felix of Castries became the first cardinal from the English-speaking Caribbean. Similarly, in 2014 Pope Francis also appointed the first-ever Haitian cardinal, Bishop Chibly Langlois of Les Cayes. Before Pope Francis’ era, there were also cardinals named from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, including three from Cuba, two from the Dominican Republic, and one from Puerto Rico.

Who are the new cardinals?

Six of the current cardinals-elect are from Asia, including the countries of India, Mongolia, South Korea, and East Timor. Four are from Europe, including Italy, Spain, the UK, and France. Two cardinals are from Africa, namely Ghana and Nigeria. One is from the US, and three others are from Latin America.

Among the new cardinals is Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego. He is known for his outspoken stance on social justice issues and has faced criticism from right-wing Catholics for his belief that politicians shouldn't be barred from Communion, as well as his open and unapologetic support of LGBTQ youth in crisis. McElroy is also known for his support of Pope Francis on liturgical reform, and the preservation of the environment.

Also included is Bishop Peter Obere Okpaleke of Ekwulobia, who famously faced criticism of his ethnicity from members of a diocese he was assigned to in 2012. Okpaleke has recently discussed the conflict in depth, as well as the ongoing issues facing Nigeria, such as terrorism and drug addiction. Korean archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik is currently serving as prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, which handles matters related to diocesan clergy. He is the first-ever Korean prefect and the country’s fourth cardinal.

What will the cardinals discuss?

The latter two consistories this month will gather all the world's cardinals, the first being to set dates for the canonization of Blesseds Giovanni Battista Scalabrini and Artémides Zatti. The former was the founder of the Scalabrinian Missionaries, to whom belongs the United States’ most recently appointed Black bishop, Jacques Fabre-Jeune of Charleston. The order, also known as the Missionaries of St Charles Borromeo, serves migrants and refugees and has been heavily involved in assisting Ukrainian war refugees. Zatti, an Argentinian like Pope Francis himself, was a Salesian religious brother who ran a pharmacy and hospital serving the poor for 40 years.

The finale of the upcoming consistory trio will address “Praedicate Evangelium,” the pope’s groundbreaking new reform of the Roman Curia. Okpaleke has said he also hopes to discuss the growing terrorist attacks in Nigeria, including the massacre in early June that killed 40 people during a Sunday Mass. Other hot-button issues that could come up are the recent restrictions on the Tridentine liturgy, alongside the recently inflamed conflicts between North and South Korea as well as China and Taiwan.

As the college of Cardinals continues to grow in diversity, we can expect to hear of issues with worldwide impact. With conflicts in China such as the imprisonment of Cardinal Zen, the need for social justice reform in the US, and growing terrorism in other nations, the new cardinals will have plenty of important conversations to explore as they get to know one another—and perhaps a lot to teach the Church at large on how diversity and universality can move us all forward.

Saturday’s consistory will stream live on the Vatican News’s Facebook and YouTube pages at 9am CT.


Briana Jansky is a freelance writer, author, blogger, and host of the Geeks For Jesus podcast.


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