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January 26, 2015

Most of the news coverage of the new appointments to the College of Cardinals has focused on the geographic shift that can be seen in the appointments. This is fair enough as the appointment of cardinals from such Catholic hinterlands as Thailand, Myanmar and Tonga is striking. Just as striking is the fact that the archbishops of traditional centres of Catholicism, such as Turin and Venice, have been overlooked.

If Pope Francis aims to have the College of Cardinals better represent the relative Catholic populations of the different regions of the globe, that will be a good thing. To this point, however, the shift in "representation" from Europe and North America to the so-called peripheries has been minimal.

For many, it is a mantra to say that the Church is not a democracy. It isn't a democracy, but nevertheless it is not consistent with the Gospel to have the Church's most high profile body over-represented in the wealthy West and under-represented in the poor South.

Overlooked in most news coverage, however, is the nature of the men whom the pope is elevating to the college. These men are pastors more than princes, yes, but they are also courageous pastors, several of whom risk their lives to proclaim a Gospel of justice and peace. Cardinal red is a symbol of the martyrdom which the Church's leaders risk. For Pope Francis, the symbol has become reality.

The new cardinal from Spain spent 15 years leading a diocese in the embattled Basque region where he strongly denounced the terrorism, extortion and murders of the ETA separatists. He also pushed for reconciliation between terrorists and the families of victims.

The new Uruguayan cardinal learned of his appointment while serving in a working class barrio. His top priority, he says, is to preach the Gospel to the poor. In 1975, before he was a priest, he and several others were kidnapped by the military government and only released after a Vatican intervention sparked by Father Jorge Bergoglio, now the pope.

The new cardinal from Ethiopia was imprisoned for seven months by a communist government. He has written U.S. President Barack Obama, urging him to take a strong stand against climate change. He has also said the Church needs to help end the poverty and injustice which drives educated young people out of Ethiopia.

The new cardinal from Mexico, the most under-represented nation in the College of Cardinals, leads a diocese afflicted by drug wars among organized crime. Eight priests in his state have been murdered in the last two years.

The cardinal in Myanmar has criticized the rise of Buddhist nationalism and spoken in defence of Muslim minorities in his country which is no longer officially a military dictatorship, but where the military still pulls the strings.

The list of such witnesses among the new cardinals goes on and on.

Pope Francis appears to be intent on utterly changing the College of Cardinals. The new college will be as much a body of distinguished men as it ever has been. But it will be a body of men who are distinguished because they know in their own lives the heavy cost of discipleship. And, it will be out of this body that future pontiffs will be chosen.