By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
What is it about cardinals and me? So many interactions and yet I don’t move in, or indeed gravitate toward, their orbit of activity, their sphere of influence, their arena of ecclesial oversight. And yet, our paths cross.
When I was named in the mid-1980s, along with Douglas R. Letson, an official co-biographer for Gerald Emmett Carter, Cardinal Archbishop of Toronto, exposure to the men in vermillion became a frequent occurrence. Joseph Ratzinger (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), Franz Koenig (Vienna), Joseph Bernardin (Chicago), Sebastiano Baggio (Vatican Chamberlain), Edouard Gagnon (Pontifical Council for the Family) made themselves available for onsite interviews and, depending on the prelate, shared confidences, provided background, in some cases engaged in a warm badinage and in other instances a cautious scrutiny mediated cordially.
While working on various documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation I spent time with the saintly Paul-Emile Léger and the scholarly George Flahiff, cardinals emeriti of Montreal and Winnipeg respectively, and when President of St. Thomas University in New Brunswick, hosted the papabile, Marc Ouellet (Congregation of Bishops).
None of the above—well, with the possible exception of one—are as fiction, conspiracy, or ideology would have them. Not much in the nature of a Richelieu or one of the dramatis personae that surface in the novels of Dan Brown. Still, exposés of cardinalatial misrule, venality, and priapic indulgence are not the exclusive preserve of the Borgias or Medicis for sure, as various articles and books remind us. The odour of the sex scandals associated with the disgraced, the Ted McCarrick case the most dramatic among them, has yet to fully dissipate.
They are a body to reckon with, this college of cardinals, and as we have seen throughout the eight years of the Bergoglio papacy, their shape is shifting, in numbers, demography, theological orientation, and pastoral disposition. They are a body-in-motion.
Whenever he calls a consistory to “create” his new cardinals, Francis uses the opportunity to underscore the genuine universality of the college—efforts that began with Paul VI and continued with each of his successors—and in doing so Francis makes a special point of including the “peripheries,” those drawn from the liminal regions, the outposts, the new boundaries, those who represent different constituencies that don’t enjoy the historical precedence of the primatial, metropolitan and residential sees.
And so we get cardinals from countries not hitherto recognized like St. Lucia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Myanmar, Laos, Mali, Morocco, none of them regions with a traditional Catholic hegemony or provenance. But if he has a fondness for the outliers, those on the margins of the Catholic world, he also has a taste for creating cardinals from outside the traditional hierarchical route.
This isn’t surprising given that John Paul II and Benedict XVI also use their consistories to honour distinguished theologians and thinkers—Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Avery Dulles for instance—but they were venerable periti, pioneers of new thinking or organic conservatives who merited the magisterium’s’ approval—but Michael Czerny?
Rattling through the infosphere at the time Francis announced his new cohort of cardinals was the buzz around this Canadian Jesuit who was making impressive inroads into the Vatican machinery and whose star was on the ascendant.
Part Two of this three-part series will be released on Friday, September 24, 2021.