Pope appoints ‘reluctant’ Maltese cardinal today
Hours away from becoming the second Maltese cardinal in history, Archbishop Prospero Grech could be forgiven for feeling the odd fluttering in his stomach.
Born and bred in Vittoriosa, the Augustinian scholar and hermeneutics professor will join 21 other men to become a cardinal this morning during a ceremony within St Peter’s Basilica presided over by Pope Benedict XVI.
This morning’s ceremony represents the culmination of what have been a rollercoaster few weeks for the 86-year-old self-described “reluctant” cardinal.
Relatively unknown among his compatriots, Archbishop Grech is a much respected theologian within Vatican circles and a key figure in the founding of the Augustinian Institute in Rome.
He was ordained Archbishop last week at St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta by Archbishop Paul Cremona. Church procedures traditionally require cardinal nominees to be ordained as bishops before they assume their place among the College of Cardinals.
He and his fellow cardinal-elects spent most of yesterday with the Pope within the Vatican’s walls, reflecting and praying ahead of what is likely to be one of the most important days of their lives.
In St Peter’s Square, it was business as usual. Tourists milled around, snapping photos and haggling with street hawkers selling papal souvenirs and curios. The incessant drone of ongoing restoration works on the Vatican’s Tuscan colonnades did little to dent people’s spirits.
The snow that blighted much of Rome just last week was gone, save for the odd mound of packed ice heaped into shadowy corners. In its place, blue skies pocketed with wispy grey clouds occasionally threatened rain before melting away.
A number of Maltese well-wishers have made the trip to Rome and will be seated within the basilica this morning. They will be joined by President George Abela, Archbishop Paul Cremona, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech and Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg.
This morning’s consistory – a gathering of the College of Cardinals and the Pope – will vary somewhat from the traditional cardinal-appointing ceremony. For the first time, a second ceremony, usually held in private and during which the Pope confers the new cardinals with their respective rings, will be incorporated into the morning ceremony.
One of the cardinal-elects, likely to be American Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, will also address the College of Cardinals.
Aside from its honorific importance, today’s ceremony will also have a considerable impact upon Vatican politics. Eighteen of the 22 cardinals nominated by the Pope are under the age of 80, meaning they will be eligible to vote in an eventual conclave to elect a new Pope. Archbishop Grech is not among these.
The addition of these new cardinals means that more than half the College of Cardinals will have been nominated by the existing Pope.
Many of the nominees are European, with several Italians among the 22. With the inclusion of two Americans, the US will be the second-most represented nation within the college, second only to Italy.
None of the new cardinals come from Africa, the world’s fastest-growing Catholic region. The Italo-centric nature of this latest batch of cardinals has prompted Vatican observers to hypothesise that the 85-year-old Pope is preparing for the papacy to return to an Italian – a centuries-long tradition that was broken by this Pope, a German, and his predecessor, the Polish Blessed John Paul II.
Today’s ceremony has threatened to be overshadowed by a growing scandal concerning leaked Vatican documents. The “Vatileaks”, as they have been dubbed, reveal political in-fighting and the terse relations between the Vatican’s scandal-hit financial institutions and Italian prosecutors.
But political intrigue will take a backseat within St Peter’s Basilica this morning as Archbishop Grech will genuflect before the Pope, offer him his profession of faith and receive his richly deserved reward for an academic life, quietly lived.