By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Pope Francis has just made it easier, possibly even likely, that his successor will be an American. I am being a mite outrageous, but stranger things have happened. Mere whimsy and speculation on my part.
Last Sunday, he announced the creation of sixteen new cardinal electors (those under the age of eighty) and five over the age of eighty. As is now customary with Francis, there is broad global representation, the Old World is not favoured, traditionally Catholic turf not prioritized, and there are surprises aplenty.
Cardinals from Mongolia and East Timor now mingle with cardinals from Brazil and France and several Vatican heavyweights like the English Prefect for the body that deals with liturgy or worship, Arthur Roche, gets the red hat along with the South Korean Prefect for Clergy, Lazarus You Heung-si.
But the big, indeed arresting, surprise is the elevation of the Bishop of San Diego, California, Robert McElroy. He is a standout in a largely conservative national hierarchy, a genuine intellectual with degrees in history and political science from Harvard and Stanford respectively. Not your usual ecclesiastical career route. The majority of his episcopal companions have Roman degrees or their ecclesiastical American equivalent, although McElroy also boasts a doctorate from the Jesuit Gregorian University, the premier pontifical university on the Tiber. He is eminently well-credentialed, knows the Jesuits, the pope’s own order, intimately, and is comfortable in the combative, skeptical and rigorous world of secular academics. He can hold his own in their society. He is a rarity among American bishops.
He is also a Francis-friendly ecclesiastic and avowedly so. He shares the pope’s concern for migrants, socio-economic equity, and the environment, and his ministerial approach mirrors the pope’s—non-judgemental, person-focussed rather than legalistic, attentive in dialogue to what others are saying.
Making McElroy a cardinal is a bold move on Francis’s part. Once again he bypasses the traditional cardinalatial sees or archdioceses, places like Los Angeles and Baltimore that have had cardinals for decades if not longer, and opted for more peripheral places like Newark and now San Diego. The conservative archbishops of Baltimore and Los Angeles, William Lori and José Gomez, must be disappointed. After all, Francis is saying something by way of their exclusion from the top club of the Roman hierarchy.
With Luis Tagle of the Philippines and Michael Czerny of Canada Francis is building up the College of Cardinals with men who share his understanding of the church: a messy field hospital at the heart of human life.
I have heard McElroy both preach and lecture and I have seen him in action with lay people: he values their gifts, listens to their opinions, and respects them as coequals. And very importantly, he can teach the pope in this regard should he be summoned to the Vatican for a senior position.
While he thinks about his vision of a reformed church and how the momentum for reform can be maintained should he die, Francis is consolidating a College of Cardinals with men eager to ensure that that can take place.