VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis created 21 new cardinals at a ritual-filled ceremony Saturday, including key figures at the Vatican and in the field who will help enact his reforms and cement his legacy as he enters a crucial new phase in running the Catholic Church.
On a crisp sunny morning filled with cheers from St. Peter’s Square, Francis further expanded his influence on the College of Cardinals who will help him govern and one day elect his successor: With Saturday’s additions, nearly three-quarters of the voting-age “princes of the church” owe their red hats to the Argentine Jesuit.
In his instructions to the new cardinals at the start of the service, Francis said their variety and geographic diversity would serve the church like musicians in an orchestra, where sometimes they play solos, sometimes as an ensemble.
“Diversity is necessary; it is indispensable. However, each sound must contribute to the common design,” Francis told them. “This is why mutual listening is essential: each musician must listen to the others.”
Among the new cardinals was the controversial new head of the Vatican’s doctrine office, Victor Manuel Fernandez, and the Chicago-born missionary now responsible for vetting bishop candidates around the globe, Robert Prevost.
Also entering the exclusive club were the Vatican’s ambassadors to the United States and Italy, two important diplomatic posts where the Holy See has a keen interest in reforming the church hierarchy. Leaders of the church in geopolitical hotspots like Hong Kong and Jerusalem, fragile communities like Juba, South Sudan, and sentimental favorites like Cordoba, Argentina, filled out the roster.
Francis’ promotions of Prevost and his ambassador to Washington, French Cardinal Christophe Pierre, were clear signs that he has his eye on shifting the balance of power in the U.S. hierarchy, where some conservative bishops have strongly resisted his reforms. Between them, Pierre and Prevost are responsible for proposing new bishop candidates and overseeing any investigations into problem ones already in place.
“I think I do have some insights into the church in the United States,” Prevost said after the ceremony during a welcome reception in the Apostolic Palace. “So the need to be able to advise, work with Pope Francis and to look at the challenges that the church in the United States is facing, I hope to be able to respond to them with a healthy dialogue.”
The ceremony took place days before Francis opens a big meeting of bishops and lay Catholics on charting the church’s future, where hot-button issues such as women’s roles in the church, LGBTQ+ Catholics and priestly celibacy are up for discussion.
The Oct. 4-29 synod is the first of two sessions – the second one comes next year — that in many ways could cement Francis’ legacy as he seeks to make the church a place where all are welcomed, where pastors listen to their flocks and accompany them rather than judge them.
Several of the new cardinals are voting members of the synod and have made clear they share Francis’ vision of a church that is more about the people in the pews than the hierarchy, and that creative change is necessary. Among them is Fernandez, known as the “pope’s theologian” and perhaps Francis’ most consequential Vatican appointment in his 10-year pontificate.
In his letter naming Fernandez as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Francis made clear he wanted his fellow Argentine to oversee a radical break from the past, saying the former Holy Office often resorted to “immoral methods” to enforce its will.
Rather than condemn and judge, Francis said he wanted a doctrine office that guards the faith and gives people hope. He also made clear Fernandez wouldn’t have to deal with sex abuse cases, saying the office’s discipline section could handle that dossier.
It was a much-debated decision given Fernandez himself has admitted he made mistakes handling a case while he was bishop in La Plata, Argentina, and that the scale of the problem globally has long cried out for authoritative, high-ranking leadership.
On the eve of the consistory to make Fernandez a cardinal, clergy abuse survivors including a La Plata victim rallied near the Vatican, calling on Francis to rescind the nomination.
“No bishop who has covered up child sex crimes and ignored and dismissed victims of clergy abuse in his diocese should be running the office that oversees, investigates, and prosecutes clergy sex offenders from around the world, or be made a cardinal,” said Julieta Añazco, the La Plata survivor, according to a statement from the End Clergy Abuse.
With Saturday’s ceremony, Francis will have named 99 of the 137 cardinals who are under age 80 and thus eligible to vote in a future conclave to elect his successor. While not all are cookie-cutter proteges of the 86-year-old reigning pontiff, many share Francis’ pastoral emphasis as opposed to the doctrinaire-minded cardinals often selected by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Such a huge proportion of Francis-nominated cardinals almost ensures that a future pope will either be one of his own cardinals or one who managed to secured Franciscan cardinal votes to lead the church after he is gone, suggesting a certain continuity in priorities.
Europe still has the most voting-age cardinals with 52, followed by the Americas with 39 and Asia with 24.
The ceremony officially installing them followed a ritual in which each man takes an oath to obey the pope, remain faithful to Christ and serve the church. Francis reminded them that they were wearing red as a sign that they must be strong “even to the shedding of blood” to spread the faith.
One of the 21 new cardinals couldn’t make it because of poor health: Cardinal Luis Pascual Dri, a 96-year-old Franciscan from the pope’s native Buenos Aires. He is one of the churchmen over age 80 who cannot vote in a conclave but was elevated as a sign of gratitude for his service to the church.
The 59-year-old archbishop of Juba, Cardinal Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla, is one of the younger ones and recently hosted Francis during his February visit to South Sudan. He said the region’s conflict was a constant concern for the church.
“This country has been divided by war and ongoing war since 50 years ago,” he said. “Now we are trying our best to bring people together.”
Associated Press journalist Paolo Santalucia contributed to this report.