VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis continues to make surprise additions to the College of Cardinals with plenty of “firsts,” and perhaps the most surprising of those “firsts” this time is just how many cardinal electors there will be.
The pope announced in early July that he would create 21 new cardinals Sept. 30; 18 of them are under the age of 80 and would be eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.
The newly red-hatted prelates will bring to 137 the number of cardinals eligible to enter the Sistine Chapel and cast ballots for Pope Francis’ successor. The highest number of under-80 cardinals previously was 135, which happened twice after consistories presided over by St. John Paul II in 2001 and 2003.
St. Paul VI set a limit of 120 cardinal electors. St. John Paul regularly exceeded that number but always specified that he was doing so temporarily and not changing the limit. Pope Benedict XVI stuck closer to the 120 limit — only going as high as 125 once, in 2012.
One could imagine a smaller group of cardinals would mean they would know each other better, and a conclave possibly would move more quickly toward the election of a new pontiff.
But having fewer cardinals also means they each would have a comfy room in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican rooming house where Pope Francis currently lives, and which St. John Paul had built in 1996 specifically to house cardinals sealed off from the rest of the world while they carried out their sacred task of voting.
Previously, the cardinals slept in makeshift cells — with an iron bed, sometimes referred to as a “cot,” and a wash basin — in rooms adjoining the Sistine Chapel. The comfort level varied greatly, the bathrooms were shared, and the cardinals drew lots for their space.
Even though the Domus Sanctae Marthae has 131 rooms, the cardinals still drew lots during the conclaves that elected Pope Benedict in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013. The building has 105 suites comprising a sitting room and bedroom and 26 one-room accommodations.
But it is likely the next conclave will have only 130 rooms at its disposal.
In the event of a papal death or resignation, Vatican rules require the “camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church,” a top-ranking cardinal — currently U.S. Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell — to seal the pope’s study and bedroom, and since Pope Francis lives in the Sanctae Marthae, that’s one less suite available.
Retired Cardinal Patrick Cardinal D’Rozario of Dhaka, Bangladesh, will turn 80 Oct. 1, the day after the consistory. And four other cardinals will celebrate their 80th birthdays before the end of the year, bringing the total number of electors down to 132. And 13 cardinals will turn 80 in 2024, bringing the total back under the limit of 120 by Christmas 2024 if the pope does not name more cardinals and if none of those under 80 dies before then.
While his predecessors expanded the College of Cardinals to reflect the universality of the Catholic Church, what they did pales in comparison to the “firsts” found on Pope Francis’ list of new cardinals over the past decade.
Those firsts include the first cardinals from many nations, but also the first cardinals from many dioceses and archdioceses while bypassing archdioceses that were considered “cardinal’s sees.”
In the group that will become cardinals in late September, Cardinal-designate Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba will become the first cardinal from South Sudan, and Cardinal-designate Pierbattista Pizzaballa will be the first Latin patriarch of Jerusalem to receive the red hat since the patriarchate was re-established in 1847.
Cardinal-designate Sebastian Francis, 71, of Penang, Malaysia, will be the second Malaysian cardinal, but the first named when he was under 80 and eligible to enter a conclave.
After the September consistory, 67 nations will be represented among the cardinal electors — and it’s 68 if one counts under Syria the Italian-born Cardinal Mario Zenari, nuncio to the Middle East nation. The Vatican press office’s statistics already include Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as an Asian elector.
In 2005, 115 cardinal electors who entered the conclave after St. John Paul died came from 53 countries.
By the count of Vatican News, at the end of September Europe will have 53 electors, including 15 Italians — still more than any other nation. The United States will have 11, and Canada will have four. Latin America will have 24 electors. Africa will have 19. Asia will have 23. And New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Tonga will each have one.