In a few days Pope Francis will “create” a new group of cardinals. I’ve always been a little ambivalent about that word “create,” since it conjures up the story of creation from the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and Genesis asserts that God created them out of nothing. That’s a vivid image, meant to emphasize both the imagination and the power of God as Creator.
But when popes have “created ” cardinals they’ve usually had a little more to work with than God did. Flesh and blood humans have stood before the pope. With all their talents and faults they’ve stood there, and most popes haven’t been entirely clueless about what they were dealing with. Most have also had some vague idea about what they wanted to accomplish in appointing them. Still, the history of papal management of cardinals and the curia is a bit like the history of herding cats. Popes never knew exactly how these guys would turn out once they put on the red hat. Sometimes there have been pleasant surprises, and sometimes they’ve gotten exactly what they wanted. But not a few times in the history of this business there have been a some nasty surprises.
As readers of the New Testament are well aware, neither the Gospels nor the Epistles devote a single word to the concept of cardinals. What the Acts of the Apostles does reference is a Christian community that grew in size and complexity, and so arose the need to deal with an ever-expanding workload. The first instance of such improvisation was in the appointment of deacons. Jesus had scarcely ascended into the clouds when the apostles chose deacons to take on a lot of the administrative work. The job description included the care of widows and orphans, the collection of alms and the management of the financial resources of the Church, and such like. Quite naturally, and justifiably, the apostles decided that time needed to evangelize left them little time for those sorts of activities. Thus deacons became the inner ring of an ever-expanding network of ministry within the Church.
In time virtually every bishop had to have such an administrative corps to take care of an ever-growing diocese. Sometimes they borrowed from existing Roman practice, and the term “diocese” itself is lifted right out of the Roman administrative lexicon. “Curia” was another of those words. Every bishop had a curia, and every bishop of a diocese does so today. That often comes as a surprise to many people, who tend to think of The Curia at the Vatican as the only and one true curia. Not so. It never was unique; but because we assume that was the case, we give it a reverence all out of proportion to its real function.
Through the centuries the growth of papal government saw the department heads within the curia take on special responsibilities, and eventually the cardinals emerged as the stand-out figures in the curia. In the Middle Ages this same group assumed the additional responsibility of electing the pope, and ever since then the cardinals have retained the exclusive right to do so.
A lot of ink is being spilt these days in anticipation of the stamp Pope Francis intends to leave both on the curia and on the college of cardinals. Happily, some of the speculation is well-grounded. Sadly, some of it is ludicrously ill-informed, to be charitable about it. What is largely absent from the discussion is any sense of historical perspective. Whenever I hear commentators apply terms like “first-time ever” or “never before” to the Church, I immediatley think of rock music’s equivalent word — “forever” — as in “our love is forever.” That, of course, means that “our love will last at least a day or two,” which roughly corresponds to the historical memory of a great many commentators both within and outside of the Church.
This situation does not arise from a lack of worthwhile texts to read, because there’s plenty of good stuff out there. I was reminded of this recently when some good friends sent me for Christmas a book I had been coveting for weeks. John O’Malley’s recent tome entitled Trent: What Happened at the Council (Harvard University Press, 2013) touches on some of these very issues. While sections of the book might be a stretch for some readers, he pitches it deliberately for the non-historian who would like to learn more about a pivotal episode in the development of western Christianity. I recently finished it, and I recommend it to any who would seek a context to many of today’s issues in the Church.
In a later post I want to return to some of the issues that O’Malley raises, but for the moment I want to satisfy myself with his occasional references to the cardinals and the papal curia in the 16th century. Suffice it to say that if you think that Pope Francis is dealing with issues that are unique to our time and the worst in the history of the Church, it’s because you’ve been reading from the pages of the myopic writers. Throughout his text O’Malley cites great cardinals like Charles Borromeo and others who pushed along the reform of the Church. Thwarting them at every step of the way were other cardinals and curialists who held onto their influence or lifestyle or power at all costs. And we’re not even talking here about the naughty cardinals. Nor can we begin to guess what was going through the minds of the two teenagers on whom Pope Pius IV conferred the red hat. In an otherwise decent record as a reform-minded pope who helped complete the work of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius remains a bit of an enigma. Who knows what he thought these kids might bring to the table when it came to the future of the Church. But God works in mysterious ways.
Some have argued sagely that the very survival of the Church through such horrid times as the 15th and 16th centuries is proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. While O’Malley does not make that point explicitly, he does suggest that the reform and the vitality of the Church in the centuries after Trent was due in no small measure to individuals who went out on the proverbial limb and risked everything for the vision of a Church reformed.
What emerged from Trent, in addition to volumes of documents, was a simple yet straightforward expectation that I think runs through the mind of Pope Francis. On the eve of the Council of Trent not a few priests and prelates led less-than-stellar lives. For decades after Trent many had absolutely no desire to change anything. What the Council of Trent did produce, however, was a simple expectation that slowly took root. Nothing less than a devout personal life and attention to pastoral duties should be the expectation of each and every member of the clergy. That goes for deacons, priests, curial cardinals and even popes. It’s not about them or their personal glory, because it’s about the people they serve.
If you want to understand what Pope Francis hopes from those men who will stand before him in a few days, it may be as simple as that.
+On February 15th I witnessed the wedding vows of my nephew and his wife at Saint Mary’s Church in Tulsa, OK. It was a nice event, and I was a little awed that four priests and one deacon gathered around the altar. I was far from being the one who came the greatest distance, since the bride’s grandparents flew in from Milwaukee. But the prize for distance travelled went to the brother of the groom (also my nephew) who flew in with his wife and two-year-old son from Amman, Jordan.
+On February 13th Bishop Donald Kettler visited Saint John’s to lead a student discussion on The Catholic Church, Politics, and Social Justice. Since he came from Alaska to the Diocese of Saint Cloud last fall, Bishop Kettler has made four visits to Saint John’s, and as an alumnus of the University we are always delighted to welcome him. In the picture below Bishop Kettler stands with a former neighbor from Alaska, who is now a freshman at Saint John’s University.
+On February 15th Abbot John clothed Robert Kirkley as a claustral oblate in the Abbey. For ages we’ve had an oblate program for those wishing to associate themselves with the prayer life of the Abbey; but they live outside the Abbey. On rare occasions, however, we have welcomed someone to live as an oblate within the monastery. Before coming to Saint John’s Brother Bob lived in the Houston area and taught chemistry at San Jacinto College. Prior to his investiture he lived for a year with us as a candidate.
+We are on the verge of leaving behind the coldest days of winter, and we won’t miss them. But as an example of how previous generations of monks dealt with the cold, I have enclosed pictures of a ceramic stove, still housed at the Benedictine abbey of Reichenau in Germany. In addition to conducting heat, the lovely tiles portray various saints. I suspect they provided meditation for the monks as they huddled around the stove for warmth.