Next Pope likely to be elderly after Benedict move
The most significant aspect of today's consistory at which Pope Benedict creates 24 new cardinals who qualify to vote for the next Pope is their extraordinarily high average age. Eleven are over 70 (six over 75) and only one is under 60.
This means that, at 72, the average age of the total of 121 cardinals who now form the electoral college is the highest since 1970 when Pope Paul VI disqualified 80-year-olds from a papal election.
The importance of this is that evidence from papal elections of the past century suggests that as a general rule the older the average age of the cardinals in conclave, the older will be the Pope they tend to elect. Pope Benedict is now in his 84th year and this consistory could well be his last.
While he did inherit an ageing electorate from his predecessor, John Paul II, this is his third consistory, so he has had ample opportunity to spread his choices more evenly across the age bands. Instead, he has done the opposite.
What is intriguing is that there is no such imbalance in other important appointments Pope Benedict has made. For example, the 39 archbishops he has nominated to major dioceses across the world in the past two years had an average age of 58.4. When it comes to cardinals, however, he seems to have a distinct preference for appointing elderly prelates.
Ironically, it will be 40 years ago tomorrow since Pope Paul VI issued an executive order excluding from the conclave cardinals who had reached their 80th birthday.
The reason was that since 1966 diocesan bishops and parish priests had been requested to submit their resignations on reaching 75.
There was also another consideration, which was the arrival of the media age in the middle of the last century.
Prime-time news clips of too many ancient cardinals shuffling along the corridors of the Vatican to elect the leader of the world's Catholics struck many as quite bizarre.
I have analysed the data relating to cardinals' ages from the beginning of the 20th Century.
It shows clearly that the College of Cardinals did not always have an elderly character. At the time of the first conclave of the last century, in 1903, most of the 64 cardinals were relatively young.
One in five was under 60 and two were in their 40s. Of the current cardinal-electors more than two-thirds are in their seventies and 40pc are over 75. Only two are in their 50s, compared with 22 out of 111 in 1978 when the 58-year-old Cardinal Woytyla became Pope. At this juncture, therefore, the odds would seem to favour a candidate of venerable age emerging when the cardinals meet to elect the next Pope.
John XXIV? Benedict XVII?
Jim Cantwell is a former press secretary of the Irish Bishops' Conference. He is author of 'The Election of the Pope'.