A Shift in Priorities?

IN MINDANAO, Philippines, a cheer went up: Mayron tayong cardinal! (“We have a cardinal!”) In January, Orlando B. Quevedo, archbishop of Cotabato, was one of 19 new cardinals named by Pope Francis.

Cardinal Quevedo rose from newsboy to archbishop. He’s renowned for his interreligious work and cofounding a Catholic-Muslim peace community in the southern Philippines where there is violent ethnic conflict. Quevedo is a leader in the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, a body representing more than 100 million Catholics that has courageously pushed forward the values of Vatican II amid traditionalist backlash.

During a papal conclave, when a new pope is chosen, much of the world, Catholic and otherwise, pays close attention to the news ticker from the Vatican. For the selection of new cardinals, not so much. But with Francis, everything bears watching.

Historically, cardinals were called “the princes of the church” because of the power they wielded. Functionally, they serve in the College of Cardinals, which meets with the pope to deal with questions of major importance and elects new popes. Sadly, scoring a red hat has been for some the acme of clerical ambition. The season of cardinal picking can devolve into extravagant indulgence.

But, there’s a new sheriff in town: Pope Francis wants deputies, not darlings.

“The cardinalship does not imply promotion,” the pope wrote in a personal letter to his fresh picks; “it is neither an honor nor a decoration; it is simply a service that requires you to broaden your gaze and open your hearts.”

Until now, the influential college was dominated by the Northern minority, from Europe and North America; only about 25 percent were from the global South. This made sense in 1910, when France and Italy had the highest population of Catholics. Now, Brazil and Mexico top the list—and Catholicism’s growing center is in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. If not for the church’s historical connection to Rome, the Vatican might relocate to Rio de Janeiro or Lagos!

Ten of the 19 cardinals Francis chose are from the majority world—including three from the poorest countries: Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Haiti. Like Quevedo, they are pastors rather than administrators, “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.” Francis is putting the poorest at the center, steering the way toward a Southern majority.

IN FEBRUARY the cardinals will meet for the first time. With a perspective shaped by Southern contours, will there be a priority shift?

For the last 35 years, under traditionalist, Euro-centered papacies, abortion and birth control topped the list of church concerns. Pope Benedict’s 2012 Christmas sermon to the Roman Curia focused on threats posed to the family by feminism and same-sex marriage.

In the majority world, the family remains the vibrant center of life. The key to Catholicism’s growth has been “inculturation.” In these countries the “culture of life,” as Catholic theology puts it, is threatened by HIV/AIDS—to which male and female condoms are one effective response. It’s threatened by inadequate healthcare for women; family disintegration from forced economic migration; resource extraction with its twin, military expansion from the U.S., China, and India; and virulent religious sectarianism.

And there’s one threat that tops the list in all these countries: climate change.

When I read Archbishop Quevedo’s name on the cardinals list, I contacted Karl Gaspar, a Redemptorist brother who has served in Mindanao for more than 40 years. What did he think of Quevedo?

“[He] was made cardinal to honor the churchpeople in the Philippines who have promoted interfaith dialogue and been champions for human dignity,” Gaspar said. “This is all I can write for now. I am a bit busy these days doing disaster work on behalf of the victims of the super-typhoon Haiyan,” which displaced 3.9 million people and killed more than 6,000.

Will the new “princes” shift their priorities and get busy in the work against scourges like this? Pay attention to the news ticker. 

Rose Marie Berger, a Sojourners senior associate editor, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

Image: Cardinals take their seats for a Consistory ceremony,  giulio napolitano / Shutterstock.com

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