It should come as little surprise to Catholics that Archbishop Christophe Pierre was named by Pope Francis on Sunday among 21 new members of the College of Cardinals.
The archbishop, who has served as apostolic nuncio to the United States since 2016, has been for decades tasked with important assignments in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps — and has been a champion for the ecclesial agenda of Pope Francis.
But while Pierre’s red hat is not a surprise, the timing is earlier than might have been expected — and the archbishop’s new status could well have an impact on his work for the Church in the United States.
Pierre’s immediate predecessor, Archbishop Carlo Vigano is not a cardinal — for obvious reasons, given the former nuncio’s trajectory in recent years.
Vigano’s predecessor, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, died in 2011 at 73, while he was the sitting apostolic nuncio to the United States.
Sambi’s predecessor, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, died of lung cancer just eight months after he retired, and was already quite ill when cardinals were made in March 2006, shortly before he died.
But Montalvo’s predecessor, Agostino Cacciavillan, was made a cardinal a few years after he retired in 1998 as apostolic pro-nuncio to the United States. His predecessor, Pio Laghi, became a cardinal soon after his term in the U.S. ended in 1990. And eight of the nine men who served as papal delegates to the U.S. before Laghi were all made cardinals, most of them soon after their terms in Washington expired.
The odds of becoming a cardinal after serving a spell at the nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue are quite high — nearly 75% of the men who preceded Pierre in the role were elevated once their work in D.C. was finished.
Indeed, as soon he was appointed to DC in 2016, Pierre had a pretty good chance of eventually becoming a cardinal.
But for the French archbishop, the appointment did come a bit early — it is very rare for an apostolic nuncio to be appointed a cardinal while he serves as a papal diplomat.
And that early nod could be taken as gesture of thanks from the pope to his man in Washington.
Pierre has represented the pope during a difficult time for the Church in the U.S. — he saw the bishops clash with the Vatican over how to respond to the McCarrick scandal, he saw the U.S. Church suffer closures and collapsing trust during the Covid pandemic, and he has tried to defuse tension among U.S. Catholics, including the bishops themselves, about “Eucharistic coherence,” Traditionis custodes, the synod on synodality, and the Eucharistic revival.
Pierre’s task in the U.S. has not been easy.
His messaging to the bishops has tried to recognize ingenuity and apostolic dynamism in aspects of the U.S. Church, while also exhorting the bishops to more often reflect the priorities of Pope Francis. At times, he has seemed vexed, as he’s had the role of smoothing over both theological and administrative disagreement between Rome and the USCCB, seemingly trying to convince the U.S. bishops that Pope Francis supports them, even when many remain skeptical.
Pierre is a Churchman, and in the manner of a diplomat, he has a strong preference for institutional self-preservation — a man who seems to aim to quell tempers and tempests, to sow harmony, and to plead for it when he must.
Bishops, and many lay Catholics, praise the nuncio for showing up — noting that Pierre is present at youth gatherings, far-flung installations and funerals, and at the gatherings of ecclesial movements or apostolic initiatives.
And while a few bishops tell The Pillar they suspect that Pierre is dispositionally more conservative than the pontiff, few bishops fault him for doing the work of a diplomat — trying to find common ground, and to advance the idea that the pope’s priorities and those of the U.S. bishops are harmonious, even when that premise has been strained.
Of course, Pierre has faced criticism for his leadership on some issues, especially pertaining to episcopal misconduct or administrative negligence.
Helping to implement Vos estis lux mundi on perhaps its biggest stage, the nuncio has likely set the tone for how the post-McCarrick reforms are actually implemented across much of the global Church.
In that context, Pierre has been allergic to any engagement with the press, with his office refusing even to acknowledge the existence of Vos estis lux mundi investigations, at times suggesting that public accountability on those fronts would be inappropriate.
Bishops say the nuncio has lamented the coverage given to Vos estis investigations by the U.S. press, complaining that such coverage weakens both the public perception of the Church, and the Vatican’s freedom to undertake investigations.
And when 11 priests wrote directly to Pierre in September 2021 asking him to assist them with the leadership of the now-resigned Bishop Rick Stika, the nuncio did not at any time write back to them, even after Stika resigned last month, citing “health reasons.”
For some Catholics in the U.S., that will be Pierre’s legacy, or at least a large part of it.
But it is unlikely that those complaints have factored heavily into Pierre’s reputation in Rome, where the archbishop has seemed to elicit both respect and sympathy for the task of representing the pope to a divided American episcopate.
That respect may have accelerated his appointment to the College of Cardinals. There also might have been a sense of haste from the pope himself, who has made a flurry of significant appointments and gestures in recent weeks, seeming eager to cement both his legacy and the place of his collaborators.
Of course, Pierre, who is 77, is two years past the customary retirement age for bishops, and may not serve as apostolic nuncio in the U.S. for much longer. While some sources say that Pierre will serve until after a July 2024 Eucharistic Congress, it is not clear whether that will be the case.
But in Rome, some Vatican officials suspect Pierre has been given the red hat early — during his tenure as nuncio — precisely because he’s been asked to stick around as nuncio for so long.
If Pierre serves another year, he’ll be nearly 79 when he’s finished. If he wasn’t a cardinal until then, it would give him a very small window in which he might serve as a papal elector at a conclave. Further, if the pope expects a conclave sooner than next summer, as some have suggested, he might have decided that he wants his man in Washington to be in the room when it happens.
Whatever the case, with each month that Pierre serves, a growing number of American bishops reach retirement age, and a number of metropolitan archbishops will reach 75 in the next year.
In principle, the nuncio plays a role in seeing bishops selected for vacancies in the country where he serves. But Pierre’s role in recent years has been dwarfed in that process by the presence of the outsize American personalities who serve on the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops — Cardinals Blase Cupich, Joseph Tobin, and — more recently — Robert Prevost, the new prefect of the dicastery, who was named a cardinal on Saturday.
Sources in Rome say that Pierre has had less influence than usual in deliberations about the selection of American metropolitan archbishops, because of the prominence of Cupich and Tobin, both of whom have enjoyed the pope’s ear directly.
But with Pierre’s appointment as a cardinal, the nuncio may well have more muscle to flex in Rome, and easier standing in deliberations with Cupich and Tobin. That could shift the balance on episcopal appointments at a crucial time for the U.S. — with Pierre seemingly more likely than Cupich to avoid incendiary appointments, in favor of institutional “safe picks.”
That shift would likely favor bishops regarded as competent administrators and present pastors, over bishops too heavily involved in the Church’s own culture wars.
Of course, it remains to be seen if Pierre's red hat will yield that effect. But for however long he remains U.S. nuncio, the archbishop’s newfound eminence may well mean a new chapter in Pierre’s approach to his duties on Massachusetts Avenue.