The Pope has announced that the first consistory of his reign will take place on the feast of the Chair of Peter, February 22 2014. This is some way away, and to make the announcement so much in advance is unprecedented, but it makes practical sense, as Rocco Palmo points out.
It gives those hoping for a red hat almost four months to clear their diaries, and to make plans for a trip to Rome. (It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that many non-European cardinals not resident in Rome ever got to vote in a Conclave, as they never were able to get there in time). However, it also means we will have weeks and weeks of speculation over who is going to be elevated, and that may well become tedious.
At present there is no voting cardinal from the British Isles, apart from Cardinal Keith O’Brien, of course, and Cardinal Brady of Armagh. One would think, then, that the appointment of an English or Scottish cardinal, or both, might well be on the cards. It is, however, only right to be cautious: there are plenty of European cardinals as it is, and other parts of the world are strongly under-represented; so it is by no means certain that an Englishman or a Scot will be made cardinal. Moreover, though to us who live on this island, it may seem like the centre of the world, to people living in Rome, the United Kingdom may seem like a distant and foggy outpost of little importance.
It may be worth pointing out, though, that there have always been English cardinals, even in dark penal days, so it would be sad to see this tradition fall into desuetude. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that the Pope will continue the trend established by his recent predecessors, and try to internationalise the Sacred College the more. The Sacred College was once an almost exclusively Italian body: those days are long past, but are mourned by some. The decline in the number of Italians means less likelihood of an Italian Pope, but is this really a problem nowadays? Not outside Italy, one suspects. Likewise, if no Englishman or Scotsman gets the red hat, I doubt this will cause ripples anywhere but here.
What I really hope for is that the Pope will appoint men of calibre to the scarlet. Take the appointment of, for example, Prosper Grech, the only Maltese cardinal. He was made a cardinal when he was past eighty, so he has never been able to vote, but he has made a huge contribution to the Church in this role. He was the one who preached the sermon before the conclave that elected Pope Francis began. We could do with a few more like him. And if there are a few more like Father Prospero around – for many years he taught hermeneutics in Rome, where he enjoyed the reputation among cognoscenti of being one of the cleverest men in the Catholic world – let’s hope that they are elevated long before their eightieth birthdays. Every new cardinal should be a possible future Pope, a man with leadership potential. Let us hope and pray that the next consistory, which will see at least fourteen new cardinals emerge, may be a hopeful experience for us all.