In a surprise announcement on Sunday, Pope Francis named 17 new cardinals – 13 of which are eligible to succeed him as pope one day.
The newly appointed cardinals, announced during the pontiff's regular Sunday morning address in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square, hail from a diverse range of countries, including Italy, the Central African Republic, Spain, Brazil, Bangladesh, Venezuela, Belgium, Mauritius, Mexico and Papua New Guinea. They also include three Americans: Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, Ind., and former Dallas bishop Kevin Farrell.
Cardinals, otherwise known as "princes of the Church," are second in command under the pope in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and serve as his principal advisors around the world. Those under the age of 80 – who account for 13 of the 17 newest appointees – are also eligible to either choose, or become, the next pope, making the appointment of cardinals a highly strategic process that can shape the future of the church.
This newest batch of cardinals, Francis's third since his election in 2013, reflects the pontiff's emphasis on making the church a more global institution. Eleven of the new cardinals come from places that have never had a cardinal, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
"While historically cardinals have come from certain larger cities known for their Catholic populations or global importance, Francis has sought to diversify representation in the group – choosing men from places long underrepresented or even not represented in the College of Cardinals," writes Joshua J. McElwee for the National Catholic Reporter.
Speaking on Sunday, Francis said that the group "expresses the universality of the church, which proclaims and witnesses to the Gospel of the Good News of the Mercy of God in every corner of the earth."
The selection may also suggest a shift toward more progressive stances for the American Catholic Church, experts say, as Archbishop Cupich, Archbishop Tobin, and former Bishop Farrell have all been known for their moderate stances. Cupich has expressed a desire to make the church more welcoming to disaffected Catholics, and an openness to finding new pastoral approaches to LGBT Catholics. And Archbishop Tobin of Indianapolis, who has advocated for more roles for women within the church, made headlines last year for rejecting Indiana Gov. Mike Pence's request that the church stop settling Syrian refugees in the state.
"The impact on how the church operates in the United States could be immense," writes Michael O'Laughlin, author of “The Tweetable Pope: A Spiritual Revolution in 140 Characters," for America Magazine. "...Their words and agendas will carry significantly more weight with their brother bishops and perhaps even with everyday Catholics. When a cardinal speaks, certain Catholics listen. But how they exert that influence will be key to the amount of impact they can have on the church here."
The selection could affect the church's stance on several controversial political issues, says Vatican expert John L. Allen.
"In one fell swoop ... Francis has reshaped the character of the most senior level of the American hierarchy, steering it away from what some see as the partisan stance of the last two decades and back towards what might be described as the 'consistent ethic of life' ethos," Mr. Allen writes for the Catholic publication Crux. "The outlook, while certainly defending Church teaching on matters such as abortion and euthanasia, is more inclined to see them as part of a spectrum that also includes immigration, the death penalty, the environment, concern for the poor, and so on."
While the move likely won't have "any immediate impact" on the church's approach to the upcoming 2016 US presidential election, he adds, "it likely will reshape how the Church engages the aftermath – both in terms of the kinds of issues it prioritizes, and whom the Catholic leadership of the country is able to talk to about them."