VATICAN CITY (AP) — With a solemn ceremony to create new cardinals, Pope Francis was poised Saturday to formally expand the ranks of churchgoers who can now vote for his successor should he die or resign — the final step which he said he would consider if the need arose.
Of the 20 ecclesiastics rising to the rank of cardinal at St. Peter’s Basilica, 16 are under the age of 80 and can therefore participate in a conclave — the ceremonial, shrouded, locked-door assembly of cardinals who cast paper ballots to elect a new pope.
So far, Francis, 85, has appointed more than half of the electorate’s cardinals. This raises the prospect that whoever becomes the next pontiff will share his vision for the future of the church.
In choosing San Diego Bishop Robert Walter McElroy, Francis bypassed US churchmen who traditionally lead more prestigious dioceses, including San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone.
McElroy was among the few US bishops to question why the US bishops’ conference insists on identifying abortion as its “top” priority. Echoing the Pope’s concerns, he has questioned why poverty, migration and climate change are not given more attention.
He is also among a minority of US bishops opposing a campaign to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Cordileone said he would not long allow US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to receive an Abortion Rights Fellowship.
While he is adamantly against abortion as a grave sin, Francis has also decried what he calls a weapon of Society.
McElroy last year was among a small group of US bishops who signed a statement expressing support for LGBTQ youth and denouncing the bullying they often face.
Francis has sought to make gay Catholics feel welcome in the church, whose teaching holds that same-sex contact is a sin.
Among those selected to be among the newest cardinals is Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr of Wa, Ghana. He has spoken out against LGBTQ rights.
Asked by the Associated Press about such conflicting views, McElroy replied that “there are always cultural differences within the life of the church as within the human family. And different cultures approach these questions in different ways.”
McElroy added: “My view is that we have an obligation in the church to make LGBT people feel as welcome in the life of the church as everyone else. And that’s the mandate that we have, so we have to find a way to do that .”
Archbishop Ulrich Steiner of Manaus, Brazil, has been chosen as the first cardinal from the Amazon, the vast environmentally vulnerable region of South America on the continent of the Argentine-born pontiff’s homeland. Speaking to the AP, Steiner expressed concern about the increase in violence in the Amazon — “not just from an environmental standpoint, but also because of drugs.”
“But this violence was not born there, it came from outside,” Steiner said. “It’s always money-related violence. Concessions, deforestation, both with mining and fishing.”
Increasingly, more of the cardinals come from Asia and Africa, while fewer come from Europe, where the number of Catholic priests has declined in recent years. After the treaty, those from Europe will represent 42% of the College of Cardinals, compared with 52% in 2013, when Francis’ pontificate began.
At 48, the youngest member among the ranks of cardinals is an Italian missionary in Mongolia. Archbishop Giorgio Marengo, as apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, ventured that the tiny size of his flock there — Catholics in that Asian country number about 1,300 — contributed to the pope’s selection. Francis “knows how important it is to support these small communities.”
Sabrina Sergi and Fanuel Morelli contributed to this report.