Pope Benedict XVI has increased the likelihood that his successor will come from Europe and that he will be an Italian after he named a relatively large number of European prelates as cardinals last week.
The Pope announced Friday he was naming 22 new cardinals to join him as his closest advisers and to be electors of popes. He will formally elevate them to the Sacred College of Cardinals — essentially a papal senate — at a Vatican consistory on February 18.
Sixteen of the 22 are European and seven are Italian. Apart from one new cardinal from Brazil, none was chosen from the Southern hemisphere, despite the faith growing at its fastest pace in Africa, and Latin America being home to half of the world's Catholics.
Europeans will now number over half of all cardinal-electors (67 out of 125), and nearly a quarter of all voters in a conclave will be Italian. This is leading to speculation that the papacy could return to the Italians — a tradition that went unbroken from 1522 until the election of Polish Pope John Paul II in 1978.
Pope Benedict's fourth consistory will, in any case, mark a significant milestone: For the first time, the number of “Princes of the Church” he has appointed who remain under 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave will exceed the number of those appointed by Blessed Pope John Paul II (63 versus 62).
Benedict XVI has therefore now put his own definitive stamp on the future governance of the Church and, in particular, made a significant step toward lining up his successor.
One notable development is the re-Italianization of the Curia. All but one of the new Italian cardinals appointed Friday were heads of Vatican departments, leading some Vatican observers to express surprise that a German Pontiff would tap so many Italians to have leading positions in the Curia. His predecessor, John Paul II, made concerted efforts to internationalize the Vatican, albeit with a distinctly Polish emphasis.
But when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict served nearly 25 years in the Curia and so he knows and feels comfortable with its predominantly Italian culture.
In addition, it remains an unwritten rule that heads of Vatican departments are usually made cardinal at the earliest opportunity. As Benedict XVI had already chosen mostly Italians for these posts, they naturally were in line for a “red hat.”
Many Vatican commentators also put the large number of Italian appointments down to the influence of the Pope's deputy, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose hand in these nominations, they say, is clearly visible.
But this is likely to be a passing phase now that nearly all the senior Curia positions are filled and the heads of these Vatican departments have red hats.
Two more important Curial appointments — to the Vatican's doctrinal office and to the Secretary of State (Bertone's office) — are the only major Curial appointments remaining over the next year or so, meaning that any future consistory of new cardinals will doubtless revert to prominent diocesan bishops from Latin America, Asia, Africa or the Middle East.
Still, this hasn't prevented some from criticising the Pope for making the latest batch of new cardinals too eurocentric. “We now have a Church which has a growing number of young people and Africans, but guided by a group of old European cardinals,” said one Church source.
The Pope's supporters, however, say his emphasis on Europe is unsurprising as it is consistent with his overall vision: one which sees restoration of the faith to the old continent as vital to the spread of the faith worldwide. From the outset of his pontificate, Benedict XVI pledged to dedicate himself to that end, and took the name of Benedict in part to honor St. Benedict of Nursia, the patron of Europe.
Furthermore, the Church cannot be compared with how other international institutions function such as the United Nations.
“The red hat is not distributed according to geopolitical or regional reasons,” explained veteran Italian Vatican watcher Andrea Tornielli, “and the massive presence of Catholics in a country or continent does not of course entitle it to red hats, and even less, seats in a conclave.”
It's too early to say whether any of the new intake are papabile — leading contenders to be Pope. But among them are two respected American Church leaders who could one day be considered for the See of Peter: Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Edwin O'Brien who currently heads a Vatican Order dating back to the Crusades that offers assistance to the Church in the Holy Land.
They bring the total number of cardinals from the United States eligible to vote in a conclave to 12, or nearly 10 percent of the total number of cardinal-electors.
Canada also had a new cardinal named on Friday: Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto, bringing Canada's total to three. His colleague, Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Quebec, remains one of the leading contenders to succeed Benedict XVI.
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