The cardinals need to know each other, because every time Francis resigns or dies, they will have to choose his successor from their ranks. Given the rarity of such gatherings, this is one of your best opportunities to come together, assess 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 elect the next pope. So we need to listen to each other, get to know each other.”
The Vatican says 197 of the world’s 226 cardinals arrived in Rome this week, a remarkable percentage given the advanced age of the group’s members. (Only cardinals under the age of 80 — at this time, 132 people — are eligible to participate in a conclave that selects the pope.)
Although cardinals generally gather in significant numbers at the Vatican whenever Francis creates new members, something he has done eight times during his papacy, there was no consistory, as is known, in 2021. And the one in 2020 had limited attendance due to to the pandemic. As it turns out, this is the first major gathering of cardinals since 2019, a time when the end point of Francis’ pontificate seemed like a much more distant notion. Some church watchers say one has to go back even further, to 2015, to find a time when cardinals turned up at the Vatican in similar numbers.
In four months, Francis will turn 86, an age reached by another serving pope since the 19th century: Leo XIII, who was still 93 in 1903. Although his health was stable for much of his papacy, last year underwent colon surgery. and he says that he still experiences residual “traces” of the general anesthetic. And recently he has been mostly in a wheelchair due to knee pain. While neither issue has barred his church governance, the events have stood as a reminder of the frailty of old age and have questions intensified about his longevity.
Francis said last month that the “the door is open” to retirement in the event that his health makes it impossible for him to manage the church. But he said he hadn’t gotten to that point yet.
“That doesn’t mean that the day after tomorrow I don’t start thinking [about it]Right?” Francisco said. “But right now, I honestly don’t.”
In earlier times of the church, Francis would have been expected to continue serving until his death. But the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 has created an alternative for modern popes.
Every time Francis leaves the job, there are several crucial questions facing the cardinals who will choose his replacement. One is whether they will seek a successor who shares Francis’ vision of a more inclusive church. Francis, more than nine years into his pontificate, has helped increase the odds of such a scenario, because his appointments now account for 63 percent of cardinals of voting age, according to Vatican statistics. Still, conclaves are notoriously unpredictable. Not all the cardinals selected by Francis share his worldview. And the support of the cardinals handpicked by more conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II would still be needed for any future pope to meet the two-thirds threshold.
Another question is about geography: whether the next Pope will be non-European. Before Francisco, who is Argentine, the church had selected European pontiffs for more than 1,000 years running. But as the church withers in Europe, its geographic 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 potential electors less European. Francis’ latest batch of cardinals represent places like East Timor, Colombia and Nigeria.
On Monday, the cardinals will hold two days of talks on the new Vatican constitution, which was published in March and represented a shakeup of the church bureaucracy. But there is also plenty of time to fellowship. Your time in Rome coincides with the city lockdown in August, as the Romans moved out of the city to the 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 that he had already had time to have dinner 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 coming days are “very basic”: to get to know the other cardinals better.
“You have people who come from persecuted churches. Theologians,” Marengo said. “I hope these days help me learn [from them].”
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