Beginning this weekend, Roman Catholic cardinals from around the world will gather at the Vatican for events that could serve as a dress rehearsal for an eventual conclave to choose Pope Francis’ successor after he dies or resigns.
Francis will induct 20 prelates into the College of Cardinals on Saturday, an exclusive group whose members serve as the pope’s top advisors and administrators at the Vatican and around the world.
Sixteen of the newcomers are under the age of 80, making them eligible to enter a secret conclave to choose the next Pope from among themselves.
Saturday’s consistory marks the eighth time Francis has named new cardinals, stamping his mark on the Church’s future by selecting men who mostly agree with his vision of a more inclusive Church.
“The odds are now stacked in favor of having another pope who will carry on Francis’ policies, but you never know how cardinals will vote once they enter a conclave,” wrote Father Tom Reese, a Church historian and Religion News Service columnist.
One notable appointment in the wealthier countries is Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, California, who is regarded as progressive. Francis avoided conservative archbishops in San Francisco and Los Angeles by making San Diego the city’s first cardinal.
McElroy has been an outspoken supporter of Francis’ pastoral approach to social issues such as environmental protection and a more welcoming attitude toward gay Catholics.
McElroy has also spoken out against conservative clergy in the United States who want to bar Catholic politicians from receiving communion because they support abortion rights, including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Francis, who was elected Pope in 2013, has now selected 83 of the 132 cardinal electors, or roughly 63%. Church law allows for a maximum of 120 electors, but popes frequently disregard this limit, primarily because the number of electors decreases as other cardinals reach the age of 80 and lose their voting rights.
In an interview last month, the 85-year-old pontiff told Reuters that if he does resign in the future for health reasons – rather than dying in office – he has no plans to do so anytime soon. This means that he could name more cardinals as early as next year.
Perhaps more important than the consistory itself will be two days of cardinals meeting behind closed doors on Monday and Tuesday.
The meetings, which are officially to discuss the Vatican’s new constitution, will provide cardinals with a rare opportunity to assess each other in person without the pressure of electing a new pope.
“For the majority of the cardinals, it will be the first time they can get to know each other personally,” wrote Luis Badilla, the head of the Church-focused website Il Sismografo. He described them as a “rehearsal for a conclave.”
Since becoming the first Latin American Pope, Francis has mostly broken the mold set by his predecessors in terms of cardinal selection. He frequently preferred men from remote locations or smaller cities over men from the developed world’s major capitals, where having a cardinal was assumed.
Archbishop Leonardo Steiner of Manaus, Brazil, is appointed as the first cardinal from the Amazon region, highlighting Francis’ concern for indigenous peoples and the environment.
Archbishop Giorgio Marengo, the Catholic Church’s administrator in Mongolia, is another unexpected new cardinal elector. He is the youngest of the new cardinal electors, at 48 years old.
Mongolia has fewer than 1,500 Catholics but is strategically important due to its proximity to China, where the Vatican is working to improve the situation for Catholics.
With each consistory, Francis has continued what one diplomat has described as a “tilt towards Asia,” raising the possibility that the next pope will come from the region, which is a growing economic and political powerhouse.
Singapore, India, and East Timor also have new voters.