VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis named 17 new cardinals Sunday, adding like-minded prelates from dioceses big and small to the club who will elect the next pope. Three were Americans in a clear signal to the conservative U.S. church hierarchy that Francis wants moderate pastors at the helm of the U.S. church.
The U.S. appointments also sent a more subtle political message, weeks before the U.S. election, with the surprise pick of Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin.
Tobin has openly opposed efforts by Indiana Gov. Michael Pence, now Donald Trump's running mate, to bar Syrian refugees from being resettled in the state. A U.S. federal appeals court recently used stinging language in a ruling that will prevent the Republican vice-presidential candidate from barring refugee resettlement in Indiana for now.
Francis has made the plight of refugees one of the hallmarks of his papacy, even bringing a dozen Syrian refugees home with him from Lesbos, Greece. He has asserted that anyone who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as Trump has proposed — is "not Christian."
"You can find a political message" in the Tobin appointment, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University expert on the Vatican.
The other new U.S. "princes" of the church include the leading U.S. moderate, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, and outgoing Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell, whom Francis tapped in August to head the Vatican's new family and laity office.
"Wow. I guess we are back!" marveled U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Hackett, a reference to the dearth of U.S. cardinal appointees in recent years.
Thirteen of the new cardinals, including all the Americans, are under age 80 and thus eligible to vote in a future conclave to elect Francis' successor, the key job of a cardinal. Francis will elevate all 17 at a ceremony Nov. 19, on the eve of the closure of his Holy Year of Mercy.
As is Francis' tradition, the new cardinals hail from some of the most far-flung and peripheral corners of the globe: Bangui, Central African Republic; Port Louis, Mauritius and Tlalnepantla, Mexico.
Significantly, only one Italian elector was named: Francis' ambassador to "the beloved and martyred Syria," Cardinal-elect Mario Zenari.
And one of the over-80 cardinals is a clear sentimental favourite: the Rev. Ernest Troshani Simoni of Albania.
Simoni, who turns 88 later this month, brought Francis to tears when he recounted his life story to the pope during Francis' 2014 visit to Tirana: the two decades he spent imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to forced labour for refusing to speak out against the Catholic Church during Albania's brutal communist rule.
After embracing Simoni that day, Francis said: "Today I touched martyrs."
In all, seven countries that have never had a cardinal are getting one in this, the third batch of red-hatted churchmen named by Latin America's first-ever pope. Despite the new nominations, though, Europe still has the most voting-age cardinals with 54.
"The geographical diversity is in keeping with the trajectory of recent popes to expand the global representation in the College of Cardinals to reflect the fact that the Church is universal, not simply European," said Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, the leading English-language publisher of both Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and Francis.
Speaking Sunday at the end of a special Mass on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica, Francis said the 11 nations represented in the mix "announces and is witness to the good news of the mercy of God in every corner of the world."
The new cardinals will bring the number of voting-age prelates to 120 by the end of November, the maximum allowed under current rules. Francis has appointed 44 of them, or just over a third.
Of the new cardinals, Cupich is very much a pastor in Francis' likeness, emphasizing the merciful and welcoming side of the church — to the dismay of U.S. conservative Catholics. His nomination as Chicago archbishop was Francis' first major U.S. appointment and he was a Francis appointee at the pope's big family synod last year.
In a statement, Cupich said his appointment was "humbling and encouraging" and said he hoped that despite the new responsibilities, he and his flock would "continue the task we have begun of renewing the church in the archdiocese and preparing it to thrive in the decades ahead."
Tobin's nomination could also indicate Francis' appreciation of his support for American nuns. Tobin had been the No. 2 in the Vatican office for religious orders for only two years when in 2012, then-Pope Benedict XVI sent him back to the U.S. to head the Indianapolis archdiocese, which has fewer than 230,000 parishioners.
The transfer was seen in some Vatican circles as being tied to Tobin's efforts to promote dialogue and resolve tensions between the Vatican and U.S. nuns who were subject of two separate Holy See investigations at the time.
After Francis was elected, both investigations were concluded with Vatican praise for the work of the sisters.
"I am shocked beyond words by the decision of the Holy Father," Tobin tweeted. "Please pray for me."
Brumley, the papal publisher, said of the Americans, Tobin's nomination was the clear "outside the box" surprise given Indianapolis hasn't been a traditional archdiocese that takes a cardinal.
"But he is a great bishop who combines a commitment to Catholic teaching with pastoral passion," Brumley said.
Francis has made it a point to no longer automatically name cardinals from big dioceses as had been the practice for centuries. The Italian cities of Venice and Turin, for example, have been without cardinals for several years.
The same goes for the U.S., where such staunchly Catholic archdioceses as Philadelphia, which hosted Francis last year at the Catholic Church's big family rally, was passed over again. Philadelphia is headed by the conservative Archbishop Charles Chaput, who has insisted on traditional church doctrine on issues such as whether civilly remarried couples can receive Communion — areas where Francis has sought greater flexibility.
"It's a clear message to the United States Catholic bishops about the kind of church Francis has in mind," Faggioli said.
Francis did make an exception to his own rule Sunday by returning a red hat to Brussels after it went without a cardinal during the tenure of Archbishop Andre Joseph Leonard, a staunch traditionalist. Francis accepted Leonard's retirement in 2015 and appointed a more progressive replacement in Archbishop Jozef De Kesel, who on Sunday was named a cardinal — one of only five Europeans named.
The geographic distribution of electors still heavily favours Europe, with 54 voting-age cardinals. The Americas come next with 34 cardinals in North, South, Central America and the Caribbean. Africa has 15, Asia 14 and Oceania four. On Nov. 28, Cardinal Theodore-Adrien Sarr of Senegal will turn 80, bringing the voting number down to 120.
AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to change Kevin Farrell's title to Bishop instead of Archbishop. A previous version of this story corrected the spelling of Blase Cupich, not Blaise.