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The next crop of cardinals will reveal much about Pope Francis

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BUENOS AIRES — Nothing like back-to-back visits to Pope Francis‘ former home church, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, to focus the mind on the very important decisions about to be handed down by Time’s Man of the Year.

Francis will soon name new cardinals who will enter the College of Cardinals at a formal “consistory” to be held on Feb. 22 of the new year.

The men he elevates to the body will elect his successor some time in the future, and collectively will be the embodiment of his philosophy of church reform articulated at length in his November “Apostolic Exhortation,” titled “Evangelii Gaudium.”

The mainstream media will subject his list of appointees to the closet and often absurdly dualistic — is Francis “breaking” with Benedict or not? — analysis, but that is inevitable. Whether the new pope significantly tilts the leadership of the church he leads from the north to the south is a different, very legitimate question of genuine interest.

Francis is expected to name at least 14 cardinals, though John Paul blew through the “statutory” limit of 120 cardinals of the voting age in papal conclaves (80 or younger), at one point conferring enough red hats to swell the College to 135. There is also a “rule” that no new cardinal should come from a diocese in which another cardinal is still eligible to vote in a conclave, though that rule has been waived in the past, and reformers in the American church, especially those eager to put a period on the child abuse scandals, hope the new cardinals include early elevation for Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, both dioceses with sordid pasts and whose new leaders are hard nosed reformers of the first order.

Chaput, a Native American, and Gomez, born in Mexico, would also bring much needed diverse faces and backgrounds to the increasingly diverse American church. Both are from the influential group of bishops deeply respected by conservatives but both are also consistent, aggressive proponents of immigration reform. If the pope wants to help the American church help the American government advance immigration reform, he will send that message by early elevation of Chaput and Gomez.

All that is of great interest to American Catholics but Francis’ world-wide following will want to see how expansive his vision is, and the hands into which he is entrusting the future of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest on the planet.

In the former Cardinal Bergoglio’s old cathedral, two things stand out. The first is that soldiers are there around he clock, guarding the tomb of the liberator of Argentina, General Jose de San Martin, and the remains of Argentina’s unknown soldier. The state is not physically separate from the church at all.

The second is that the Cathedral features a prominent Holocaust memorial within one of its naves, a silent reminder of the evil men (and women) can do when backed by government power. The soldiers and the tomb remind every visitor that government is always eager to invade and co-opt the church.

Then-Cardinal Bergoglio must have walked past both the soldiers and the memorial many times a week and must have often reflected in the church’s need for leaders who will prudently both support and oppose government in key issues affecting the poor, the stranger and the religiously oppressed. The cardinals of Feb. 22 will tell us much and more about the pope’s deepest views on those subjects.


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