SAN DIEGO — A cardinal has never served as bishop of San Diego.
But on Aug. 27 in an assembly at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy will join 19 other men from 17 countries and five continents to become a member of the College of Cardinals. Bishop McElroy was the only American named by Pope Francis. He will also serve as a cardinal-elector and be eligible to vote for the next pontiff in the event of Pope Francis’ death or resignation.
With Bishop McElroy’s elevation, there will be 10 American cardinals eligible to vote in the next conclave.
The pope’s announcement on May 29 that he would elevate Bishop McElroy to a cardinal took most people by surprise. At a news conference with reporters two days later, the bishop himself said he was “stunned and shocked” by the pope’s announcement.
“There was no notice whatsoever,” he said. “It was announced in Rome, and (I had) not a clue that this was being contemplated or even possible.”
Why did the pope decide to make San Diego’s bishop a cardinal? What did he see in Cardinal-designate McElroy, specifically, that inspired him to take this historic step? What does it all mean for the Diocese of San Diego?
Cardinal-designate McElroy has his own take on these questions.
At the diocese’s fifth annual Pentecost Mass for All Peoples on June 4, he jokingly credited his selection to the fact that San Diego is the U.S. city “closest to having the climate of heaven.”
However, four days earlier, during a press conference at the diocesan Pastoral Center, he offered a more substantive reflection on the pope’s possible rationale.
He said he believes that the Holy Father wanted there to be a cardinal on the West Coast of the United States. He noted that there are currently no cardinals west of Houston.
Another reason, he suggested, is that San Diego is a border diocese with a large immigrant population — something that Pope Francis, given his well-known focus on the plight of immigrants and refugees, would find significant.
As a final explanation for the appointment, Cardinal-designate McElroy acknowledged that the pope also might view him as an ally on various issues.
“I do think it says that Pope Francis has a series of initiatives that he’s trying to bring to the life of the Church and that I have tried to take those initiatives and plant them here in the Diocese of San Diego,” he said. “So, I think it’s a positive statement that he wants to nurture those.”
These initiatives include the promotion of environmental stewardship, as well as “a more pastoral orientation rather than a strict doctrinal orientation within the life of the Church as a whole,” the cardinal-designate explained.
Under his leadership, the diocese has answered Pope Francis’ call in “Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home),” his environmental-themed encyclical published in June of 2015. Parishes and schools throughout the diocese were strongly encouraged to install solar power systems on their campuses to reduce greenhouse emissions like carbon dioxide.
He called for the establishment of a Creation Care Ministry to raise awareness of climate change, coordinating with a network of parish-based ministries to promote sustainability.
In late 2021, around the same time the Vatican unveiled a worldwide, seven-year Laudato Si Action Platform designed to provide a roadmap to protecting the environment, the San Diego Diocese released its own 55-page action plan with concrete steps that local families, parishes, schools and other organizations could take to better care for creation.
Cardinal-designate McElroy has supported Pope Francis’ worldwide synods, or consultative gatherings of bishops, by holding diocesan synods. At these, local Catholics, including young adults, reflected on the challenges in question and recommend ways to address them.
Cardinal-designate McElroy said his service as a cardinal may require him to travel more frequently to the Vatican but that he’s happy to be able to continue to serve in San Diego.
Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement about the appointment.
“By naming Bishop Robert McElroy as a cardinal, Pope Francis has shown his pastoral care for the Church in the United States,” he said. “His strong faith and the pastoral concern for the faithful he has shown in his diocese will serve the global Church well.”
Cardinal Blasé Cupich of Chicago told the National Catholic Reporter that Cardinal-designate McElroy is “one of the most gifted bishops in the United States.”
“I think that his nomination today is a sign of the esteem that he has in the life of the Church, which is held by the Holy Father,” Cardinal Cupich said.
Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who serves as editor of the Rome-based La Civiltà Cattolica and is considered to be a close advisor to Pope Francis, said the pope’s decision to elevate Bishop McElroy to cardinal sends “a strong and clear message for the Church in the United States.”
Dr. Victor Carmona, assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, was sleeping on May 29 when a fellow theologian on the East Coast called with the news that Bishop McElroy was a cardinal-designate.
“I didn’t stop smiling for hours,” said Carmona, a consultant of the commissions guiding a synod currently under way in the diocese.
“His appointment confirms the need for us all to be attentive to the borders of our world and the margins of our societies because they keep us grounded in our service to the Good News of God’s compassionate love,” he said. “Bishop McElroy’s episcopal ministry in San Diego has demonstrated a commitment to nurturing that challenging practice here.”
That ministry “has demonstrated a commitment to nurturing a Church that is grounded and focused on healing (our communities’) wounds,” said Carmona. “May his appointment help us come nearer to being a Church that breaks free from the politics of polarization.”