Even if every new intake to the Pope’s “Senate” is significant, some Consistories nonetheless have more meaning than others – and as Francis’ fifth class of new cardinals, 14 in all, receive the red hat Thursday afternoon, the group represents a critical tipping-point.

Once the designates take their gilded red silk seats among their elders in the College, for the first time, Papa Bergoglio’s appointees will hold a solid plurality of the electors in a hypothetical Conclave, his 59 creations younger than 80 comprising just shy of half the now-traditional maximum electorate of 120. members. Francis’ shattering of norms in the identikit of his picks makes his contributions to the scarlet ranks all the more impactful, above all as it’s one of the few aspects of ecclesial life and the charting of the church’s future course that no successor can alter… at least, not overnight.

Of course, one facet of the shift has been completing the project undertaken by Paul VI and duly burnished by John Paul – the broad-scale internationalization of the College, with a dozen countries long on the Catholic “peripheries” either receiving their first-ever cardinal or the first in quite some time under Francis; among other examples, in the case of Scandinavia, a situation unknown since before the Reformation.

But given the reality that the cardinals don’t merely elect the next Pope – one of them will be the next Pope – what’s arguably the bigger element of the change is the lone quality that links this pontificate’s kaleidoscope of choices across the board: their collective embodiment (at least, in Francis’ judgment) of the “pastoral conversion” he sees as the sine qua non of ministry in the modern church.

What that entails for the future will only fully reveal itself with time. For now, though, the degree to which it’s already prepared a “reset button” extending beyond Bergoglio’s reign – in some cases, one that’ll stretch for decades – is a remarkable feat all its own.

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By centuries-old tradition, the Popes have considered the cardinals “Pars corporis nostri” – “Part of our body” – the concept fleshed out both in the ancient role of the College’s members as legates to places the pontiffs couldn’t personally go, and the “body” from which a new Bishop of Rome is generated. Yet just as creating new cardinals “expands the body” as well as reshaping it, together with tomorrow’s new class, Francis has taken a deeper added step at forming the College in his own image and likeness with an enduring effect.

In a formal rescript issued yesterday, the Pope made the biggest change to the structure of his “Senate” since the post-Conciliar reforms of Paul VI, adding the Curia’s top four current cardinals to the Order of Bishops.

Historically the heads of the six suffragan dioceses of Rome, until the 1960s the cardinal-bishops – led by the College’s dean – didn’t merely hold the titles to the posts but were literally expected to oversee their respective outlying churches; in the decades since, full-time bishops have been named to do the work. At that same time, Eastern patriarchs given the red hat were added to the rank.

By adding four more Latin cardinals to the College’s front row – the Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and the prefects of the Eastern Churches (Leonardo Sandri), Bishops (Marc Ouellet) and Propaganda Fide (Fernando Filoni) – the move’s real significance again lies beyond this pontificate. Had a Conclave convened without the additions, as all the current cardinal-bishops are aged out of the election, the senior voter presiding over a papal election would’ve been the Maronite Patriarch, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Raï, now 78. With the change, Parolin, 63 – a figure who’s increasingly consolidated his clout as Francis’ indispensable, near-omnipresent top deputy – now takes precedence and will oversee the voting process.

What’s more, however, the change paves the way to another key aspect of succession-planning. As the cardinal-dean regardless of his electoral status leads the general congregations preceding a Conclave and, all told, effectively serves as the “administrator” of the Roman church during a papal vacancy, the new cardinal-bishops join the pool which’ll elect a new dean and from which he will be chosen once the office falls vacant.

Full story at Whispers in the Loggia.