If your key task as pope is to change the way authority is understood and used in the Catholic Church, you could do a lot worse than invite the cardinals to Rome and then leave them there to visit a town famous for its tomb of a pope who resigned. And once there, while wearing a hard hat in a wheelchair, to praise Celestine V’s example while pondering Jesus’ words that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14:11).
Pope Francis’s visit to L’Aquila on August 28 was sandwiched between two gatherings of the nearly two-hundred-strong college of cardinals, the first time they had been summoned en bloc since 2015. The previous day, at the eighth consistory of his pontificate, Francis created twenty new members of the college, bestowing red hats and rings on metropolitan archbishops and Roman curial heads but many more on pastors from peripheral places like Manaus, Ekwulobia, Ulaanbaatar, Hyderabad, Wa, and Dili. In the case of Ulaanbaatar, the new cardinal is Giorgio Marengo, a forty-eighty-year-old apostolic prefect shepherding just 1,500 Catholics—in numerical terms, a small parish—while Anthony Poola of Hyderabad is the Church’s first Dalit (as the caste-less, former “untouchables” are known) cardinal.
These appointments are teaching moments. God’s style, Francis told the cardinals at the consistory in St. Peter’s, is to be equally at home on a grand, universal level, while at the same time caring for the little things and little ones, who are great in God’s sight. He gave them the example of Cardinal Casaroli, St. John XXIII’s famous secretary of state, who combined global diplomacy with weekly pastoral visits to Rome’s youth prison. The same approach—unafraid of the center but attentive to the margins—was behind the pope’s red-hat selections.
In talking of God’s style of mercy and tenderness, Francis had a deeper point to make. You always know when Jesus is present, he said, because of “the mild kind of fire” he brings; that’s how the disciples knew him even when they couldn’t see who it was. “There exists no other way to accomplish God’s will than to take on the strength of the humble” he said in L’Aquila the next morning. Humility, he explained, means recognizing the true divine source of power and our own poverty in response, rather than basing our worth on the position we hold. So Dante in the Divine Comedy was wrong to describe Celestine V as “the one who made a great refusal” by resigning in 1294 after only five months as pope to return to his life as a hermit. In fact, Francis said, “Celestine V was not a man who said ‘no,’ but a man who said ‘yes’”—yes to authority as humble service. And thus he was truly free, for “there was no logic or power that was able to imprison or control him.”
The following two days in Rome were dedicated to that proposition of authority as humble service. Some 197 cardinals—132 of them young enough to vote at a papal conclave—assembled in the synod hall to consider Francis’s new constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate evangelium (“Preach the Gospel”), which was promulgated in June after long years of drafting, consultation, and implementation. Some of the cardinals had grumbled about this: why gather us to discuss a fait accompli? But the purpose was not to ask the cardinals to approve Praedicate (which they overwhelmingly did) but instead to reflect on its implications—not only for the Curia, but also for the wider Church. The pope had called them to Rome in the dog days of August to understand that this was not just about the what, but the how.
I have no idea if Francis had in mind Yves Congar’s pungent little book Power and Poverty in the Church, first published in English in 1964, but this was a good text to look at during the meeting of cardinals. For in it Congar shows Jesus teaching his disciples that their ministry has nothing to do with any merit on their part, but is the power of God flowing from him out through them. Hence Francis’s message to the cardinals as he opened the meeting: to be a cardinal was not a privilege but a responsibility, one that called for a “style that witnesses to the Gospel.” The power handed to the Church—as Jesus showed by ultimate example—is given not to dominate, nor to exact service, but to serve the needs of others, to seek their salvation.