The three red birettas that are to be conferred to US bishops at the 19 November Consistory announced by Francis at Sunday’s Angelus (9 October), are a sign.
The Pope is showing that he does not want to
penalise the big and powerful American Church but at the same time his
choice of cardinals points toward a specific path.
The very path he had
pointed out in his speech to US bishops in September 2015, on the first
day of his visit to Washington. It is worth looking back at what he
said in that speech in order to understand his decision to add three new
cardinals once considered to be centre-leaning, to the College of
Kevin Joseph Farrell’s nomination was the most predictable and
expected of all three. Farrell was born in Ireland but has served as
bishop in the US for decades and was recently appointed Prefect of the
new dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, created as a part of
the process of Curia reform. In his case, what was significant was the
fact that he was summoned from the US to lead the new dicastery.
Cupich, who has been serving in Chicago for two years, was Francis’
first nomination in a major US diocese. Cupich had never previously been
a candidate and the Pope chose him with a view to start changing the
American “cultural warrior” bishop model. Finally, the most surprising
cardinal nomination was Joseph William Tobin, Archbishop of
Indianapolis, who was removed from the Roman Curia after just two years
as Secretary of the Congregation for Religious because his stance on
America’s progressive nuns was considered too “soft”.
The North American episcopate has seemed to be one of the episcopates
that has had trouble getting in tune with Francis’ approach. In recent
decades the new bishops selected to head the US’s most important
dioceses, were prelates who were hugely active in public pro-life
campaigns and less active when it came to raising their voice about
social justice issues.
In the speech he addressed to the American Church
at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the Pope called on clergy to start a new
chapter and alter their outlook.
The Pope invited bishops not to use
“divisive language” or limit themselves to “preaching”.
instead win over space in people’s hearts without “mak[ing] of the cross
a banner of worldly struggles”.
Francis underlined that it is certainly useful for a bishop “to have
the farsightedness of a leader and the shrewdness of an administrator”
“but we fall into hopeless decline whenever we confuse the power of
strength with the strength of that powerlessness with which God has
Shepherds must not therefore turn into managers and look
at the Church with the criteria of business-like efficiency. They must
not, in other words, think that evangelisation is all about the use of
financial resources, management instruments or the power of means of
As far as their attitude towards society, Francis said: “Woe to us,
however, if we make of the cross a banner of worldly struggles and fail
to realize that the price of lasting victory is allowing ourselves to be
wounded and consumed”. Bishops, therefore, cannot allow themselves to
be “paralysed by fear”, “think[ing] back on bygone times and to devise
harsh responses to fierce opposition”.
“Harsh and divisive language”
does not in fact “has no place in the heart” of a pastor “although it
may momentarily seem to win the day”. Division and fragmentation are
everywhere but the Church “cannot allow herself to be rent, broken or
fought over”. An appeal for communion and unity, addressed to a highly
polarised Church – as is American society – split between conservatives
The path the Pope suggests for overcoming this polarisation, in that
of meekness and humble dialogue with everyone. “Otherwise, we fail to
understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the
brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the
closeness of love counts more than their positions, distant as they may
be from what we hold as true and certain”.
Francis went on to list the
issues on which the Church must speak out: “The innocent victim of
abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who
drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who
are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and
drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory
relationship with nature.”
So it is not just about the pro-life campaign or the opposition to
“Preach[ing] and proclaim[ing] to those without” is
not enough, it is not enough in other words to make accusations which
are then published in newspapers. Bishops need to “find room in people’s
hearts and in the conscience of society,” Francis said. Evangelisation
is not achieved through fighting. “Be pastors close to people, pastors
who are neighbours and servants,” the Pope finally urged. Now, Francis’
decision to create three US cardinals, sets in stone what he said in
Washington a year ago.