The cardinals must get to know each other, because if Francis resigns or dies, they must choose his successor from their ranks. Given the rarity of such gatherings, this is one of their best opportunities to huddle together, engage in conversation, 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 choose the next pope. So we need to hear each other, get to know each other.”
The Vatican says 197 of the world’s 226 cardinals have reached Rome this week – a remarkable percentage, given the advanced age of the group members. (Only cardinals under the age of 80 — currently 132 people — are eligible to participate in a conclave that the Pope elects.)
While cardinals generally gather in significant numbers at the Vatican when 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 the pandemic. As a result, this is the first major gathering of cardinals since 2019, a time when the terminus of Francis’ pontificate seemed much further away. Some church watchers say you have to go back even further — to 2015 — to find a time when cardinals appeared in the Vatican in comparable numbers.
In four months, Francis will turn 86, an age reached by only one other sitting pope since the 1800s: Leo XIII, who in 1903 was still sitting at age 93. While his health was stable for much of his papacy, he underwent colon surgery last year and says he still experiences “traces” from the general anesthesia. And lately he’s mostly been in a wheelchair because of knee pain. While neither issue has banned his governance of the church, the events have stood as a reminder of the fragility of old age and raised questions about his longevity.
Francis said last month the “door is open” to retirement in the event that his health makes it impossible for him to run the church. But he said he hadn’t reached that point yet.
“That doesn’t mean I won’t start thinking the day after tomorrow [about it]”Turn right?” Francis said. “But right now I’m honestly not doing that.”
In earlier eras of the Church, one would expect Francis to continue to serve until his death. But the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 has created an alternative for modern popes.
Pope Benedict, in retired seclusion, looms in opposition to Pope Francis
Whenever Francis leaves the job, there are several crucial questions for Cardinals who will choose his replacement. One is whether they will seek a successor who shares Francis’ vision of a more inclusive church. Francis, who has spent more than nine years on his pontificate, has helped increase the likelihood of such a scenario, as his nominations now account for 63 percent of eligible cardinals to vote, according to Vatican statistics. Yet conclaves are notoriously unpredictable. Not all cardinals selected by Francis share his worldview. And the support of cardinals selected by more conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II would still be needed for a future pope to reach the two-thirds threshold.
Another question is about geography: whether the next pope will be non-European. Before Francis, who is Argentine, the Church had elected European popes for over 1000 years in a row. 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 elected over the years, has made the body of potential voters less European. Francis’ latest batch of cardinals represent places such as East Timor, Colombia and Nigeria.
On Monday, the cardinals will spend two days discussing the Vatican’s new constitution, which was published in March and amounted to a reorganization of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy. But there is also plenty of time for fraternization. Their time in Rome coincides with the city’s closure in August, with the Romans moving out of the city for the mountains and beaches, and many cafes and restaurants closed. The streets around the Vatican are filled with a mix of tour groups and high-ranking prelates.
López Romero said in an interview that he had already had time to dine 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 simple” – to get to know the other cardinals better.
“You have people from persecuted churches. theologians,” said Marengo. “I hope these days will help me learn [from them].”