Last Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis named fourteen new cardinals. Several of those selected were from the “peripheries,” countries where Christians are a small and vulnerable minority, such as Japan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Madagascar. The other new cardinals were members of the Curia or heads of national bishops’ conferences. Three honorary members—too old to vote in a consistory—were also named: the Spanish Claretian spiritual writer Aquilino Bocos Merino; a retired bishop from Mexico, Sergio Obeso Rivera; and a retired Bolivian bishop few Catholics had heard of—Toribio Ticona Porco.
Ticona was bishop in the territorial prefecture of Corocoro, which is not even a real diocese. It includes a large mining district but no major population centers. In keeping with canon law, he offered his demission in 2012 when he turned seventy-five, and it was accepted. After his retirement, he dedicated himself to the foundation of a school for orphans. He is now suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
The only thing Ticona is really noted for is his love for the poor. In fact, his whole life has been marked by poverty. He is a Quechua-speaking Indian whose father died at a young age after working in the mines. In his youth, Ticona helped support his family by shining shoes and selling newspapers. He lied about his age so that he could join the military early and so become less of a burden for his mother. After military service, he worked in the mines and then at a brewery for about five years. Through a contact with Belgian missionaries, he first felt a vocation to the priesthood. He was sent to study at a seminary in Chile but that lasted only a few months; he had received a very sketchy formal education and was far behind his fellow seminarians. He was finally able to continue his studies back in Bolivia, where he had more support.
After ordination, Ticona was sent to a town in a mining district called Chacarilla. The town itself had a population of only twenty-three people, but the parish included the surrounding areas and the total number of parishioners was about two thousand. Given the circumstances, it was not all that surprising that the community of Chacarilla asked Ticona to serve as mayor, which he did for fourteen years. In 1986, Ticona was anointed auxiliary bishop of Potosí and also given responsibility for the Bolivian community in Buenos Aires, where he first met Jorge Bergoglio. In 1992 he was named bishop of Corocoro, where he served until his retirement.
Ticona is only the third Bolivian cardinal and his country’s first indigenous one. He is not in the traditional image of a “prince of the church,” an honor usually reserved for members of the nobility or leaders of important dioceses. But his selection is in line with Pope Francis’s desire for a church of and for the poor, and with his call for pastors who are not foremen or feudal lords but servants, poor and simple, close to the people. Pastors with “the smell of sheep.”
So far, so good. I thought Ticona’s appointment as a cardinal deserved more attention and decided to try to write something about it. To get more information I searched for Toribio Ticona—the first entry I ran across was “New Cardinal Denies Having Wife and Children.” Other entries echoed similar accusations. The principal source for all this information was a Spanish news agency, Adelante la Fe—one of the media outlets the former papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò used to publicize his letter asking Pope Francis to resign. According to Adelante la Fe, the pope was perfectly aware of Ticona’s situation, and the message the pope wanted to send was that celibacy is no longer important in the church. This was simply another step in a systematic dismantling of essential structures, the “great apostasy” supposedly announced at Fatima. As I dug further into this story, I discovered a whole little world of traditionalist groups that were eagerly promoting it. Some of them claim to remain in communion with Rome, while others have entered into open schism.