The cardinals must get to know each other, because each time Francis resigns or dies, they will have to choose his successor from their ranks. Given the rarity of such gatherings, this is one of their best chances to regroup, gauge each other, and form opinions about the future direction of the Catholic Church.
“It’s not a casting [call], but we need this moment,” said Cardinal Cristóbal López Romero, Spanish-born Archbishop of Rabat, Morocco. “Sooner or later we will have to choose the next pope. We therefore need to hear each other, to know each other.
The Vatican says 197 of the world’s 226 cardinals arrived in Rome this week – a remarkable percentage, given the advanced age of the group’s members. (Only cardinals under the age of 80 — at the moment, 132 people — are eligible to participate in a conclave that selects the pope.)
Although cardinals usually gather in significant numbers at the Vatican whenever Francis creates new members – which he did eight times during his pontificate – there was no consistory, as is known, in 2021. And the 2020 one had limited attendance due to the pandemic. As a result, this is the first major gathering of cardinals since 2019, a time when the end point of Francis’ pontificate seemed a far more distant notion. Some church watchers say you have to go back even further – to 2015 – to find a time when cardinals showed up at the Vatican in similar numbers.
In four months, Francis will be 86, an age reached by only one other sitting pope since the 1800s: Leo XIII, still seated at 93 in 1903. Although his health was stable for much of his papacy, last year he underwent colon surgery. and says he still has residual “traces” from the general anesthesia. And lately he’s been mostly in a wheelchair because of knee pain. Although neither issue prohibited his governance of the church, the events recalled the frailty of old age and intensified questions about his longevity.
Francis said last month that the “door is open” to retirement in case his health prevents him from leading the church. But he said he hadn’t reached that point yet.
“That doesn’t mean the day after tomorrow I won’t start thinking [about it]right?” said Francois. “But at the moment, honestly, I don’t.”
In earlier times of the church, Francis might have been expected to continue serving until his death. But the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013 created an alternative for modern popes.
Pope Benedict XVI, in retirement isolation, looms in opposition to Pope Francis
Each time Francis leaves office, several crucial questions are posed to the cardinals who will choose his replacement. The first is whether they will seek a successor who shares Francis’ vision of a more inclusive church. Francis, more than nine years into his pontificate, has helped increase the odds of such a scenario, as his nominations now represent 63 percent of voting-age cardinals, according to Vatican statistics. Still, Conclaves are notoriously unpredictable. Not all cardinals selected by Francis share his vision of the world. And the support of cardinals selected by the more conservative predecessors Benedict and John Paul II would still be needed for any future pope to reach the two-thirds threshold.
Another question concerns geography: will the next pope be non-European? Prior to Francis, who is Argentine, the Church had selected European pontiffs for more than 1,000 consecutive years. But as the church withers in Europe, its geographic heart has shifted to places like Latin America and Africa. Francis, with the cardinals he has selected over the years, has made the body of potential voters less European. Francis’ latest group of cardinals represent places such as East Timor, Colombia and Nigeria.
On Monday, the cardinals will hold two days of talks on the Vatican’s new constitution, which was released in March and amounted to a reorganization of the Church’s bureaucracy. But there is also plenty of time to socialize. Their stay in Rome coincides with the closure of the city in August, the Romans having decamped from the city to the mountains and the beaches, and many cafes and restaurants are closed. The streets around the Vatican are filled with a mix of tour groups and high-ranking prelates.
López Romero, in an interview, said that he had already had time to dine and pray with a cardinal from Guinea, Robert Sarah. The youngest cardinal, Giorgio Marengo, 48, an Italian who served in Mongolia for many years, said his hopes for the days ahead were “very basic” – getting to know the other cardinals better.
“You have people who come from persecuted churches. Theologians,” Marengo said. “I hope these days will help me learn [from them].”