Vatican City (AFP) – Pope Francis will create his first batch of cardinals on Saturday, with nine of the 19 coming from South America, Africa and Asia.
The new “princes of the Church” will be presented with scarlet-red birettas and gold rings at a grandiose ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica that Vatican observers say should help correct a perceived bias towards European cardinals.
Sixteen of the 19 cardinals are under the age of 80 and can therefore take part in the secretive conclave that elects new popes from among their ranks.
In an indication of the importance of the developing world for the Argentine pope — a fierce critic of economic inequality — half are non-Europeans, including five cardinals from South America, two Africans and two Asians.
“Becoming a cardinal is not a promotion, nor an honour or a decoration; it is simply a service which requires a broadening of the gaze and a widening of the heart,” Francis said in a letter to each new cardinal-to-be, according to La Stampa daily.
Francis is keen to nourish faith in developing countries, to combat the decline of practicing believers in Europe, the Church’s traditional power base.
The first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years will bestow the honour of the red cap on the archbishops of Buenos Aires in Argentina, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Santiago in Chile, Managua in Nicaragua and Les Cayes in Haiti.
Aurelio Poli, 66, took over the post of Buenos Aires archbishop from Francis, who was a regular visitor to the city’s slums before he became pope almost a year ago.
Chibly Langlois, 55, will be the Church’s first cardinal from Haiti, one of the poorest countries of the world.
According to Vatican watcher John Allen, Francis is taking the idea of privileging the periphery even further, by choosing Haiti over the region’s three Catholic powerhouses — Cuba, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.
For Africa, the new electors will be the archbishops of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and Abidjan in Ivory Coast, while Asia will be represented by the archbishops of Cotabato in the Philippines and Seoul in South Korea.
The pope’s choices echo his desire to emphasis the pastoral side of the Church — choosing for the most part leaders engaged with the problems affecting their local communities rather than favouring administrative heads.
Only four are members of the Curia — the Vatican’s government — including Italian Pietro Parolin, 58, the new secretary of state, as well as German Gerhard Mueller, 66, who heads the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation.
Among the most prominent in the group is Britain’s Vincent Nichols, the 68-year-old Archbishop of Westminster, who has been likened to Francis for his determination to speak out for the marginalised.
Just a week before the Vatican ceremony, he waded into British politics to condemn welfare cuts and is best known for winding up the Church’s conservative arm in 2010 by defending London masses for gay and transgender Catholics.
Nichols will be joined by Gerald Lacroix, the lord archbishop of Quebec in Canada and one of the youngest electors to be chosen at the age of 56.
The oldest “new prince” will be Loris Francesco Capovilla, the 98-year-old former secretary to pope John XXIII, who will not be attending because of his reduced mobility but is likely to receive his red cap at home.