When Pope Francis places a red biretta on the head of Cardinal-designate Gregorio Rosa Chavez this Wednesday he will be rehabilitating yet another Catholic personality that was once shunned by the Vatican.
The seventy-four-year-old Salvadoran is one of five men Francis will make papal electors when he formally adds them to the elite College of Cardinals at the June 28 consistory in St Peter’s Basilica.
Rosa Chavez has been auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of San Salvador since 1982 when he was only thirty-nine years old. Today he serves as pastor of a one of the city’s largest parishes.
Known for his tireless efforts to promote the prophetic message of the now Blessed Oscar Romero, the bishop was for years treated with suspicion by conservative forces in Rome—just like the martyred Romero.
Both men were given the cold shoulder by John Paul II’s inner circle, which routinely blocked their requests for a private meeting with the Polish pope when they visited the Eternal City. Rosa Chavez, like Romero, was considered too close to the Marxists and other leftists in their small, war-torn Central American country.
Thus he was not chosen to succeed Romero as head of the Church of San Salvador, where the previous five years he had been seminary rector. Instead, three years after the archbishop’s 1980 assassination the Vatican filled Romero’s vacant post with Bishop Arturo Rivera Damas SDB.
Rosa Chavez, on the other hand, was never made head of a diocese. He remained San Salvador’s auxiliary and currently serves under Romero’s third consecutive successor.
In Church politics, that speaks volumes. It means the decision-makers in Rome have no confidence in a man’s leadership skills, his loyalty to the Vatican or his orthodoxy.
That was certainly the case during the seemingly never-ending reign of John Paul II (1978-2005), as well as in the relatively short period that Benedict XVI was on the Chair of Peter (2005-2013). Rosa Chavez was only sixty-two when Benedict was elected and, although the German pope replaced the heads of five of El Salvador’s nine dioceses (twice in one case) during his pontificate, he never promoted the long-time auxiliary to be an ordinary.
Now Pope Francis is making him a cardinal. This is not only a move to recognize Rosa Chavez’s prophetic witness, but also another step towards the full rehabilitation of the man the bishop has held up as his model and guide—the almost sure-to-be-sainted Oscar Romero.
This is not the first time the Argentine pope has restored the honor and dignity of a once-shunned church leader. Far from it.
Just four days after his election Francis stunned many admirers and aides of his retired predecessor (the theologian-pope) when, during his very first Sunday Angelus address, he touted the works of another German theologian: Cardinal Walter Kasper.
“In the past few days I have been reading a book by a cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a clever theologian, a good theologian—on mercy,” the new pope said.
“And that book did me a lot of good… Cardinal Kasper said that feeling mercy, that this word changes everything… A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient...” Francis said.
Kasper, who served as president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity from 2001-2010, was seen as Josef Ratzinger’s most formidable Rome-based theological sparring partner. They disagreed over the years on several issues.
And Francis not only praised Kasper as a “good theologian,” but he also asked him to do the theological groundwork for the two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family.
Then two months into his pontificate the Jesuit pope named as bishop one of his most trusted theologians from his Latin American homeland, a man whom Vatican officials tried to block from becoming rector of the Catholic University of Argentina.
Back in 2009, when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ appointed Fr. Victor Manual Fernandez as the pontifical university’s rector. But for over a year and a half the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome refused to give its necessary approval.
It was later reported that Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugués OP, the congregation’s No. 2 official and a theologian in vogue in the Ratzinger pontificate, was the one who questioned the soundness of Fernandez’s theology.
Bergoglio protested and eventually the rector was confirmed in May 2011. One year later Benedict XVI appointed Brugués head of the Vatican Library, putting him in line for a red hat. But unfortunately for the Dominican, Benedict resigned and Francis decided that the Librarian of the Holy Roman Church—at least this one and at this time—need not be a cardinal.
Victor Manual Fernandez, however, was ordained titular bishop and given the title “archbishop.” He is today one of the principal theologians and ghostwriters of Francis’s pontificate.
The Argentine pope’s work of rehabilitating men once on the outs with authorities in Rome did not stop there. In fact, the list is long.