In a book recently published, which, like a number of earlier publications, takes the form of a conversation with a (not necessarily) religious philosopher, Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard comments on his thoughts at never being made a cardinal. In the past he has stated that it was no concern to him, not least as Pope Francis preferred to create cardinals from the peripheries of world and Church. Now that he has made Archbishop’s Léonard’s successor, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, a cardinal, the comments can be seen in a new light.
Titled Un évêque dans le siècle, the new book is a conversation with liberal philosopher Drieu Godefridi, and was written before the news that Archbishop De Kesel would be made a cardinal. On Mr. Godefridi’s question if not being made a cardinal ever hurt for Msgr. Léonard, the latter responds:
“Hurt is too big a word. But it did surprise me since it is a tradition of two centuries. In the past there have been many archbishops of Mechelen who were never cardinals, but since two centuries it has become a sort of tradition. Should that remain so? When I thought about it, I told myself it didn’t. It is clear that the current Pope wants to appoint cardinals from countries which never had cardinals, to underline their importance, to not have a College of Cardinals which is too Euro- or Americanocentric. I think that is a good thing.”
Later in the conversation, he speaks some more about his personal feelings.
“It was clear, to return to my case, and despite everything a little surprising. It is a delicate thing to say about myself, but many have said so in my place: pastorally, intellectually, I have done work which few archbishops have managed. In the intellectual field that was Dechamps in Mechelen, who was a very good philosopher, an apologist too. As far as I am concerned, I have completed my task in a rather original way. One of my auxiliary bishops, by the way, has dared to write that I was the first archbishop of Mechelen to visit the entire archdiocese. He also lauds my work in the intellectual field. In short, [not receiving a cardinals’ hat] surprised me, disappointed me a little, but I got over it easily.”
Following the appointment of future Cardinal De Kesel, it is clear that Archbishop Léonard’s assumption that Pope Francis does not want to create cardinals simply because it goes with the see they’re in is not correct. That said, it is equally clear that Pope Francis chooses cardinals who fit a certain pastoral mold, and if these happen to be in traditionally cardinalatial sees, so be it. De Kesel in Mechelen-Brussels is one example, Osoro Sierra in Madrid and Cupich in Chicago are others.
While Archbishop Léonard would never express any doubts or questions he may have at the choice of Archbishop De Kesel for the red hat, others have. In more than a few places, it has been seen as a slighting of Archbishop Léonard, who is now the first archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels since 1832 to not be made a cardinal. While a cardinal’s hat should not be seen as a reward (except in those cases where it given to a retired priest or bishop well in his 80s or 90s), the question remains why Archbishop Léonard never received one. It is not because Mechelen-Brussels no longer has the status in the Church it has (although that status has obviously changed as the heartland of the Church shifts way from Europe). It is also not because, as some have said, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop Léonard’s predecessor, had not yet reached the age of 80. Danneels turned 80 in 2013, more than two years before the retirement of Archbishop Léonard.
Is it then because Archbishop Léonard did not meet the criteria of Pope Francis for the red hat? In a recent piece on Cardinal-designate John Ribat of Port Moresby, John Allen Jr. outlines the three criteria that the Pope seems to follow for making cardinals: being from the periphery, supporting a cause near to the Pope’s heart, and being his kind of guy. Archbishop Léonard does not tick the first box, but then again, neither does Archbishop De Kesel. If a cause can be attributed to Archbishop Léonard, it is evangelisation. Hard to go wrong there, although the ways of achieving it are varied, and Archbishop Léonard’s way of evangelisation through catechesis may not be that of Pope Francis, who has a more hands-on approach. And as for being the Pope’s kind of guy, that is hard to estimate. Archbishop Léonard was certainly not afraid to be among the people. From the very start of his time in Brussels, he went out to visit the deaneries of his archdioceses in cycles that he would simply repeat once completed. The smell of the sheep was not alien to him.
Still, discussing why one man is made a cardinal and the other is not is, to a large extent, a guessing game, and there will probably always be more suitable men than there are red hats to give out. That said, it is my opinion that Archbishop Léonard would have been a fine choice for cardinal. Whether Archbishop De Kesel will be, that remains to be seen. In his short time in Brussels he has said and done both positive and negative things (his defense of a hospital’s freedom to deny euthanasia comes to mind, but so does his strange decision to disband the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles).