Thoughts on the Pope’s letter to the new cardinals

Pope Francis is pictured next to Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin

Pope Francis is pictured next to Cardinal-designate Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, during an exchange of greetings with ambassadors to the Holy See at the Vatican Jan. 13. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)On the morning of Sunday, January 12th, the day the list of new cardinals was officially announced, someone called to me across the refectory: “Well, Schall, I see you didn’t make it again.” Since this is not the first thing Schall has missed, it took me a few moments to realize that the cardinalate was the point of reference. Fortunately, the list of those who never became cardinals is quite lengthy. We cannot go through life “missing” the things we were never cut out for in the first place. St. Ignatius, I believe, has a phrase that advises us to “agree quod agis—do what you are doing.” It has the implication that we are to try to do it well, even if we are not cardinals.

The Holy Father sent a brief letter to the newly announced men chosen from the four corners of the earth to be cardinals in February. He thought it well to give them a few words of advice and encouragement. Francis typically, as we know him now, “sends cordial greetings, together with the assurance of his nearness and his prayers.” He desires that they associate themselves with the Church of Rome for which they have put on the garments of “virtue and the sentiments of the Lord Jesus.” This latter hope has its origin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:14). With these words, Francis continues, “you will be able to help me with fraternal efficaciousness in my service to the universal Church.” These words indicate how Pope Francis thinks of the duties of cardinals and, perhaps, his own.

“The Cardinalate does not signify a profession, or an honor, or a decoration. It is simply a service that demands the full and complete attention of one’s hearts.” Yet, it seems only fair to say, from the outside, that to be selected to be a cardinal in the Church of Rome is an honor. It arises from the perception of a man’s excellence and place. No pope wants to select someone unworthy, incompetent, or with no insight into divine or human things.

It seems “paradoxical,” the Pope says, that “to see the long-view and to love more universally with greater intensity” can be found in only one way. That way is by “following the same path of the Lord.” This is the way of decreasing oneself, of humility. It takes the form of a “servant”—again a reference to Paul (Philippians 2:5-7).

The Pope then asks one favor of these men. They are to receive this designation “with a heart that is simple and humble.” And though “you ought to receive it with joy and delight, do so with a feeling that these sentiments are far from any sort of expression of worldliness.” Reject a kind of celebration that is foreign to the spirit of the Gospel with its emphasis on “austerity, sobriety, and poverty.” I presume this does not mean that the new cardinals cannot have a good Italian pasta and a glass of vino.

Thus, since the Pope has just written a long disquisition on precisely “the joy of the Gospel,” we have to notice that he used the word “paradoxical.” What is paradoxical? What is he getting at? If someone told us to be “austere, sober, and poor,” we would think it a little odd if he thought that he was telling us to have a good time.

And yet, Christianity does not think that those who are sober, moderate, and poor cannot be happy or even enjoy life. Indeed, it tells them that, for many, this is the best way to sort things out. The way of riches, power, and fame won’t deliver to us much but care and disappointment, especially if we be popes or newly elevated cardinals.

So the Pope ends his brief letter by saying “arriverderci—good bye” until they re-gather on February 20. At that time, the Pope writes, “we will begin two days of reflection on the family.” Finally, “I remain at your disposition; and, please, I ask you to pray for me and to ask others to pray for me. May Christ bless you, and the Holy Virgin protect you.”

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).