A Consistory, but not (yet) a Conclave

The College of Cardinals will convene in Rome at the end of this week for a series of events which will undoubtedly be watched with more than the usual level of interest. Pope Francis has called an ordinary consistory for August 27th at which he will create 20 new members of the college, including one American, Bishop Robert McElroy. Following the installation of the new cardinals, the whole college will meet briefly to discuss several upcoming canonizations.

The creation of new cardinals always brings to mind the question of “the next conclave” because it is the cardinals who elect the bishop of Rome and because it is invariably, though not of necessity, a member of the college who is elected.

For those interested in keeping track, the number of Cardinals following Saturday’s consistory will be 226, of whom 132 will be under the age of 80 and thus eligible to vote in a conclave. Of these cardinal electors, 83 will have been named by Pope Francis.

If the creation of new Cardinals is an important, if regular, event in Rome, the circumstances of this year’s consistory are anything but ordinary.

First, there is the timing. Rome more or less shuts down during the heat of August, which means the Vatican more or less shuts down during August. An August consistory would be a mere curiosity if it weren’t for the fact that Pope Francis not only chose August, but chose a weekend in which he was planning to leave the city.

Following the ordinary consistory of August 27, Pope Francis will travel to L’Aquila, in the mountains east of Rome, to visit the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V and the celebration of the “Celestine Forgiveness”—a sort of mini-jubilee held every year since the late 1200s which promises a plenary indulgence. On August 28th, Pope Francis will say Mass there and ceremonially open the Holy Door of the basilica before returning to Rome that same afternoon.

The visit to L’Aquila, which was announced less than a week after the announcement of the consistory, immediately fed rumors that Pope Francis was planning to follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI and resign. (Pope Celestine V was the last pope elected outside a conclave and, famously, formally confirmed the conditions for a pope resigning his office, which he then did. Pope Benedict XVI, who of course also resigned, visited Celestine’s tomb in 2009.) Unsurprisingly, in the months since the trip was announced, Pope Francis has been answering more questions than usual about whether he intends to resign. He has thus far insisted he has any definite plans to do so.

The Holy Father is not in great health, even for a man entering his late 80s. His chronic knee problems have obviously impaired his mobility and forced him to cut back on his workload, especially his travel. He has been hounded by persistent rumors that he is suffering from cancer—which he has dismissed as “court rumors”—ever since he had bowel surgery last summer. Whatever the case, since February of this year, Pope Francis has taken it upon himself to use his weekly general audience remarks to conduct a “catechesis on old age.”

All of this forms a backdrop for what promises to be the most significant event of the upcoming week: the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals which will take place after Pope Francis returns from L’Aquila. While ordinary consistories, like the one on August 27, take place almost yearly and are largely ceremonial affairs, the extraordinary consistory of August 29-30 will be the first chance for the entire College of Cardinals to meet for an extended conversation and discussion since early 2015.

To say that a lot has happened in the Church since early 2015 would be a gross understatement: From the controversies surrounding Amoris Laetitia, to the Synod on Amazonia; from the ongoing fallout from clerical sexual abuse and its mishandling to the opening of the Synod on Synodality and everything in between; the seven years since the last extraordinary synod have been anything but serene. And in all that time, the College of Cardinals—the body of men whose primary task is to counsel and advise the pope and choose his successor—has not met in an extraordinary consistory. Only 20 of the current cardinal electors have ever been part of an extraordinary consistory.

The subject of this extraordinary consistory is significant, too.
Praedicate Evangelium is Pope Francis’ apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia. While the new constitution was published early this year, and has been in force since June, it is a major change to the structure and operation of the Roman Curia. And while most Cardinals aren’t in full time Curial positions, all of them—at least the younger ones—have appointments to and memberships in the various dicasteries and institutes which make up the Roman Curia. It makes perfect sense that the pope would want to gather the cardinals to make sure everyone is on the same page.

But it is also that case that, insofar as there was a clear mandate from the electors of the Conclave of 2013, it was this: reform the Roman Curia! Jorge Mario Bergoglio was brought to Rome from a far continent in the hopes that he would accomplish the sort of reforms that his predecessors had failed or neglected to do. Praedicate Evangelium represents the fruit of nearly a decade’s work toward fulfilling that mandate. Whether that reform succeeds in the long-term is something only time will tell.

This weekend may come and go with no major surprises or announcements from Rome. But it’s certain that as the Cardinals meet this weekend—many for the very first time—they will have in mind not only the work and legacy of their brother Francis, but thoughts of what—and who—might come next.