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Who’s next? The other cardinals Francis will soon have to replace

Pope Francis on Saturday named a new prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, replacing Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer with the Argentine theologian Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández.

While the pope’s decision to name Archbishop Fernández took many by surprise, the appointment itself was long overdue. Cardinal Ladaria turned 79 in April, and was closer to the mandatory age of exclusion for cardinals from a conclave (80) than to the nominal episcopal retirement age of 75.

The preference to leave serving cardinals and archbishops in key posts for years past the age at which they are expected to formally offer their resignations has become something of a new normal under Pope Francis. 

But even the most dedicated bishops can’t remain in office forever, and age is beginning to catch up with many in senior positions. So, after Ladaria’s departure, which major positions is Francis likely to have to fill in the next year?

Cardinals concelebrate a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Nov. 2018. Credit: Shutterstock

Ever since Francis promulgated his 2018 motu proprio on episcopal retirement, Imparare a congedarsi, or “Learning to take your leave,” many Vatican watchers have noted the gap between theory and practice in Francis’ approach to superannuated senior churchmen.

Ladaria’s replacement followed the pope’s lone anticipated appointment of a new prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops earlier this year, with Archbishop Robert Prevost taking over from Cardinal Marc Ouellet just a few weeks before the cardinal also turned 79. Before those appointments, Francis had previously allowed Cardinal Beniamino Stella to remain head of the Dicastery for Clergy until he, too, turned 79 in 2021.

But if 79 is the new 75 in the Vatican, there are still some top jobs Pope Francis will need to fill in the next 12 months, as their incumbents approach 80.


Archbishop of Boston

The most senior Church post likely on the pope’s desk right now is probably one of the most historically prominent sees in North America.

Cardinal Seán O’Malley turned 79 last week and, according to those close to the Dicastery for Bishops, there has been heavy lobbying by several senior American cardinals over his replacement. 

Whoever the successor is, the choice will likely determine if Boston remains a de facto cardinalatial archdiocese, or if it goes the way of Baltimore and Philadelphia, becoming a more second-rank appointment in Rome’s eyes.

President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

In addition to his archdiocese and his founder-member status of the pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, Cardinal O’Malley also serves as president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (PCPM), a key Vatican body (created by Pope Francis) in the ongoing process of reform after the abuse and episcopal negligence scandals of recent decades. 

As O’Malley is the founding leader of that body, which has recently had to weather the very public resignation of one of its most senior members, replacing the cardinal will not be an easy task for Francis. 

The role would ideally require someone with international prominence and credibility on abuse reform, as well as the necessary sincerity and personability needed to work with survivors and advocates. 

It may actually prove harder for Francis to find a new president for the PCPM than a new Archbishop of Boston.

Major Penitentiary of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary 

The Apostolic Penitentiary is the Church’s supreme forum for dealing with cases that involve sins (as distinct from canonical crimes) reserved to the Holy See, or which concern the sacramental seal. It is also responsible for dealing with indulgences. 

The current major penitentiary, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, turns 79 in September, having been moved out of the Dicastery for Clergy by Francis at the relatively young age of 69. 

While it may not be a headline-making appointment, it is a role that has to be filled. And Francis may choose to use the vacancy as an excuse to move a cardinal out of another role he sees as needing new blood, with the current Cardinal vicar general of the pope for the Diocese of Rome, Angelo De Donatis (69) often mentioned as a possibility.

Archbishop of Bombay

The Archdiocese of Bombay (Mumbai, India) is home to more than half a million Catholics and is older, by several centuries, than any American diocese. Its current leader, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, turns 79 in December.

In addition to being the most prominent Catholic bishop in India, Gracias’ replacement will also have to manage a difficult cultural and political situation in the country, with the rise of Hindu nationalism as a primary political force, and increased cases of legal action being brought against Catholic charities and dioceses under the aegis of so-called “anti-conversion laws.”

Gracias is also a founding member of the pope’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, and whoever replaces him in Bombay would likely also be in line to inherit a seat in Francis’ global “kitchen cabinet.”

Archbishop of Vienna

Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., turns 79 in February next year. A long-time theological heavyweight during the time of popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he served as editorial secretary for the production of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

After emerging as a vocal supporter of Pope Francis’ 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the cardinal has seemed to fade out of the Vatican limelight and had a quieter few years closer to his archdiocese. Nevertheless, Vienna remains a prominent European see and most would expect Schönborn’s eventual successor to become a cardinal — though Francis has confounded these presumptions before with archdioceses like Paris.

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Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

The current Major Archbishop, Cardinal George Alencherry, has been the leader of the Syro-Malabar Church — the second-largest of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — since 2011. But he turns 79 in April next year.

In addition to the cardinal personally being beset by legal problems related to a controversial land deal, the Syro-Malabar Church is in the midst of a protracted and extremely volatile liturgical civil war, with the Church’s synod and the Vatican repeatedly appealing to clergy and Catholics to adopt a new liturgical style intended to be more faithful to its traditional roots.

That process has not gone well, and despite a recent Vatican summit to address the issue, there are no signs of tempers in the Church cooling.

Whoever replaces Alencherry will be handed one of the most pastorally sensitive, perhaps impossible, missions in the Church today.

Cardinal Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta

This might strike many as a strange appointment to be looking forward to, seeing as Cardinal Gianfranco Ghirlanda was only named to the office a few weeks ago. But the reality is that Pope Francis is going to have to name a new cardinal patron for the knights sooner, rather than later.

Ghirlanda was only made a cardinal last year, and received the red hat past the age of 80, meaning that he would be ineligible to vote in any future conclave. Such appointments are unusual but not unknown, and are used as a kind of honorary appointment by popes to signal their gratitude for some personal or special service.

In Ghirlanda’s case, the veteran canonist provided much of the legal philosophy, and did much of the mental legwork, for the major legal reforming projects of Francis’ first decade in office, including the landmark curial constitution Praedicate Evangelium.

But Ghirlanda was also the main drafter of the new constitution for the Knights of Malta, and his very unusual appointment as cardinal patron at the age of 80 was one way Francis looked to bed in the knights’ new legal structure and leadership. 

But 80 is 80, and Ghirlanda can’t be expected to last long in the job, meaning Francis will have to look for another cardinal to either reward at the end of a long career, or move sideways out of a job he’d like to fill with someone else.

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