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By the numbers: Pope Francis and the College of Cardinals

Pope Francis on Sunday capped off a busy Vatican news cycle by announcing a September 30th consistory which will add 21 men to the College of Cardinals, 18 of them under the 80-year-old cut off for voting in a papal conclave. 

Eighteen is the largest number of voting-age cardinals that Pope Francis has ever appointed at one time. With the pope approaching his 87th birthday this coming December, and having suffered some recent medical problems, many have speculated that this represents an attempt by Francis to cement his legacy.

But if this is a legacy consistory, what kind of legacy does it suggest? The Pillar looks at the numbers.


Out with a bang?

With 18 new cardinals of voting age, this year’s consistory is the largest yet for Pope Francis. But it’s hardly the largest in history. Indeed, this is only the 21st largest number of voting age cardinals added to the college at a time since Vatican I.

Papal legislation limiting voting in a conclave to cardinals under 80 was signed only in 1975 by Paul VI, so before that year, we considered all newly appointed cardinals to be voting age cardinals.

The largest single consistory was in 2001, when John Paul II added 40 voting age cardinals to the college. The second largest was in 1969, when Paul VI appointed 33. The third largest was in 1946 — in the first consistory in nine years, Pope Pius XII appointed 32 new cardinals at once.


The frequency of consistories has varied over time. In the years immediately following Vatican I, Pius IX held three during the year of 1877. And yet during those three consistories, the pope appointed only 16 new cardinals, three fewer than Francis just announced in a single batch.

During the 20th century, it became more common for popes to hold consistories only every few years.

If we look at the number of cardinals appointed per year, we find that Pope Francis has the highest rate of cardinal appointments since John XXIII, who appointed 52 cardinals, during a reign of just four-and-a-half years.


But of course, the number of cardinals appointed by a pope also depends on the composition of the College of Cardinals that he inherits. 

While John XXIII expanded the college from the 53 cardinal electors in the 1958 conclave which elected him pope to 82 cardinals by 1964, and Paul VI expanded the college to 111 voting age cardinals who were alive in 1978. The college has since remained close to the target size of 120 for which Paul VI legislated.

Francis’s current batch of appointments will bring the college up to 131 voting age cardinals at the end of this year (assuming no additional appointments or deaths between September 30 and the end of the year) but 12 of those cardinals will turn 80 during 2024, bringing the total back down to 119. 

That’s only two more than the 117 voting age cardinals who were eligible to participate in the 2013 conclave which elected Francis. (Two did not participate, making the actual conclave total 115.) So the reason for Francis’s large number of appointments per year is primarily that a lot of cardinals have reached the age of 80 in recent years, requiring Francis to appoint more cardinals to keep the college at its current size.

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A global Church

It has become almost a cliché to state that Francis’ vision of the Church is more global and more focused on the peripheries.

Compared to 2012, the year before Francis’s election, the college of Cardinals in September will be significantly less European and slightly less North American, while the representation of Asia and Africa has increased.


But the overall “Francis effect” is the cumulative effect of his nine consistories. The list of cardinals to be added this year is significantly more European than in recent years. Nine out of the 18 new cardinals were born in Europe.

Of the 95 voting age cardinals appointed by Francis in 2014 through 2022, 39 (41%) were from Europe.

Francis’s appointments have certainly been spread across more countries than prior popes. Including this newest batch, Pope Francis has appointed 113 cardinals who represent 64 different countries of birth.

Two cardinals in this consistory are from countries which have not had a cardinal before in modern history: Malaysia and South Sudan. (Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, South Sudan was born in the united country of Sudan. Neither Sudan, nor South Sudan has had a cardinal before.)


Francis is not unique by the number of countries covered by his appointments to the College of Cardinals. John Paul II appointed cardinals born in 64 different countries as well. However, John Paul II appointed almost twice as many total cardinals (211) as Francis has. 


Winners and losers

In a finite group like the College of Cardinals, for some to increase, others must decrease. As the college has become more global, countries which historically provided large numbers of cardinals have come to see less representation.

Historically, the largest loss of influence within the College of Cardinals has been Italy. 


Right after the Vatican I Council, Italians made up more than 70% of cardinals. Italian representation in the college has declined significantly since then. In fact, Italians have not made up a majority of the College of Cardinals since 1945. 

In 2013 the number of Italians had dropped to 24% of the total.

Francis has appointed more Italians to the College of Cardinals than any other nationality: 19 in total. 

However, that is still fewer Italians than any other modern pope. Italians have made up 17% of the total cardinals appointed by Francis and during his papacy they have fallen to only 12% of the total College of Cardinals.

Another country which historically had significant representation in the College of Cardinals is France. In 1900, when only 12 countries had any cardinals at all, France had eight cardinals. Second only to Italy and making up 13% of the total college.

In this latest consistory, Archbishop Christophe Pierre will become the first Frenchman to be made a cardinal by Pope Francis. This will bring French representation in the college up to 1.5%

After Italians, Spaniards are the nationality most frequently made cardinals during the Francis pontificate. Three Spanish churchmen will join the College of Cardinals this year, bringing their total number of cardinals up to 12. Francis has appointed 12 cardinals from Spain, though one of those is now over 80 and one Spaniard appointed by Benedict XVI (Archbishop Antonio Cardinal Llovera of Toledo) remains of voting age.

Brazil and the United States tie for third place, which each having seen five native sons made cardinals by Francis, including Archbishop Robert Prevost (the new head of the Dicastery for Bishops) who will receive the red hat in this consistory.

Despite the assertions, which you often hear from some quarters, that Francis has a preference for promoting old friends and associates, he is actually not the pope who has appointed the largest number of Argentine cardinals. 

Francis has made three Argentines cardinals, including two in this consistory: Archbishop Victor Fernández of the DDF and Archbishop Ángel Rossi, S.J. of Córdoba. However, this makes only three Argentines whom Francis has added to the College of Cardinals since becoming pope.

The pope who added the most Argentines to the college was Paul VI, who made six Argentine cardinals.

Certainly, there seems to be a preferred Francis type of cardinal, and one of these preferences is to name men chosen from widely scattered and often overlooked regions of the world. 

One of the inevitable consequences of this is a drop in Italian and European representation and influence. How this shift could affect a future conclave is hard to predict — Though some Catholics, maybe even Francis, might see this unpredictability as a space for the Holy Spirit to be heard.

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