Archbishop Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon of Hanoi, Vietnam, waves in front of St. Joseph Cathedral after Pentecost Mass in this May 23, 2010, file photo. Archbishop Van Nhon, 76, was among the 20 new cardinals named by Pope Francis Jan. 4. CNS photo/Kham, Reuters

A worldly Church

  • January 8, 2015

Tonga, Myanmar, Cape Verde — the countries read like answers from a geography quiz. They may not be the easiest places to find on a map, but these small nations will soon be represented in Rome when Pope Francis welcomes 15 new voting-eligible cardinals into the Church.

In keeping with his now famous declaration that the Church should be poor and for the poor, the Pope reached farther afield than any of his predecessors on Jan. 4 when he named 20 new cardinals, including five elevated from the ranks of retired bishops. He took them from 18 different countries and for the most part he spurned Catholic enclaves in Europe and North America that have traditionally received the red hats. Instead, Francis went to places that had never produced a cardinal, nations like Panama in Central America, Myanmar in Southeast Asia, and the island nations of Tongo in the Pacific and Cape Verde in the Atlantic.

The Pope’s criteria was “universality,” said a Vatican spokesman. Indeed, Francis gave his globe a good spin and found cardinals throughout the emerging world. Vietnam, Ethiopia and Thailand also made the cut. A year ago, nine of 19 cardinals named by Francis came from Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean, including the first ever cardinal from Haiti.

Francis was even refreshingly non-traditional when picking cardinals from familiar sources. From Mexico, he elevated an archbishop from a nondescript diocese plagued by poverty and drug violence. From Italy, he bypassed Turin and Venice and found a Sicilian bishop who has made his small diocese a welcoming place for the boatloads of refugees who have landed there from Africa.

Francis’ fondness for pastors is clear — and welcomed. He obviously prefers his inner circles to include men who, like him, know first hand the joys and despairs the Church encounters in less glamourous parts of the world. His cardinal selections show an uplifting preference for men who might energize the Vatican with the perspective of those who have toiled in the more obscure trenches of Catholicism. If he is at all concerned that his picks might offend the established Catholic nations of Europe and North America, it doesn’t show. And that’s a good thing.

Before Francis, large dioceses such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Madrid and Turin were awarded a cardinal almost by default. No longer. Similarly, Francis is challenging the historic inclination to reward Vatican-based bishops who work in the Curia. There seems no automatic red hat under this Pope.

To be a truly universal Church means embracing in a meaningful way local churches from all corners of the globe. The Pope from Argentina is making that happen. For that, he deserves a tip of the hat, red or otherwise.

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Why would a Catholic be offended by the choice of any Bishop from any country, so long as that Bishop is properly catechized, strong in his faith, and a strong defender of that faith?

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