On Sunday morning, Oct. 9, Pope Francis announced the appointment of 17 new cardinals. Once again his choices represent his dual concern for a deeply Christ-centered pastoral leadership and choices that spotlight the neediest and forgotten. Among his choices: Italian Archbishop Mario Zenari serves as papal envoy to Syria; Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga, C.S.Sp., has been calling his people in the Central African Republic to peace in the midst of decades of Muslim vs. Christian violence; Archbishop John Ribat, M.S.C., in Papua New Guinea has likewise been a voice crying out to world leaders to remember the people of Oceania and elsewhere whose lives are already endangered by climate change.
But as exciting and inspiring as those choices are for those of us who live in the Western United States, it was disappointing and somewhat shocking to find that this year’s list did not include someone from out here. Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, for instance, is the leader of the largest see in the United States—indeed, it has 1.6 million Catholics more than the next largest U.S. diocese. A Mexican immigrant himself, he is a passionate and articulate advocate on immigration issues and the force behind the archdiocese’s moves to the forefront of digital evangelization in the international church.
It is also puzzling that at a time when the greatest growth in the U.S. church is in the southwestern United States and among Latinos—who represent over 34 percent of the U.S. church’s population—the United States does not have a single cardinal running a diocese in almost the entire western half of the United States nor one who is Latino, despite our country having a number of excellent candidates. The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is the farthest seat west where you’ll find a cardinal, Daniel DiNardo.
Some posit that Archbishop Gomez’s ecclesiology might run too traditional for Pope Francis, but that seems both inaccurate and a misreading of the pope’s selection process. His administration of the archdiocese has not been marked by ideology. And Francis, for his part, seems less interested in one’s leanings than one’s work. Are you first and foremost an image of Christ’s mercy, particularly to the lowest and the least? That’s what’s important.
What seems most likely is that the pope this year saw more immediate priorities. With Archbishop Blase Cupich in Chicago and Archbishop Kevin Farrell, formerly of Dallas, both moving into higher leadership elsewhere in the church, there was not going to be room for more than possibly one other American. Francis chose Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, an appointment that signals once again his commitment to development in the U.S. church. It is an exciting choice that will generate a lot of hope and possibility.
I’m all for that and for the insights Cardinal-elect Tobin will bring. I also applaud the pope for not choosing cardinals in terms of quotas or “this is how we’ve always done it.” In just a few years he has radically changed not only the makeup but the way we think about the College of Cardinals. Over the next generation the church will be transformed in ways we can’t even begin to predict by these choices.
But I’ve also listened to Western U.S. bishops (McGrath, Barnes, Tyson, Kicanas and Blaire) express concern, sometimes frustration, that while being the U.S. church’s greatest source of growth, youth and innovation, the experiences and insights of the church in this region, because they’re so different and so far-flung from the older church in the Northeast, are often overlooked. It is a reality most of them seem to have made their peace with, but on a macro scale it is a problem.
And while quotas are rightly anathema, given the centrality of the Latino community not only to the future, but to the present–day vitality of the U.S. church, at some point soon it is important for their talents and insights to be tapped for leadership at the highest levels as well.