Pope Francis
Pope Francis. Reuters

Next month Pope Francis will install the first new cardinals of his papacy. Cardinals are the highest-ranking clergy in the Church and the College of Cardinals will be responsible for selecting his eventual successor. While no names have been announced, there’s already much speculation as to what considerations Pope Francis might weigh in naming his appointees.

Ideally, the Cardinals should reflect the composition of the Church worldwide, hence geography is always a critical factor. Historically, there has always been a large contingent of European cardinals—specifically, Italian—with the global south being underrepresented. Given Francis’s South American heritage, he might look to balance out the electorate by naming more Cardinals from South America, Africa, or Asia.

There’s also the question of doctrinal priorities. We might gain some insights into the type of future Church that Francis is hoping to shape by looking at the type of men whom he’ll appoint. Will they be “social justice” bishops or might they be more concerned with cultural matters such as abortion, marriage, and religious liberty?

Yet, these types of questions often focus on potential divides within the Church. What we’ve seen thus far in Pope Francis’s leadership style is that he’s far more interested in its unity. At the same time, Francis is not shying away from the fact that the role of the Church is to religiously inform a public philosophy on how to best create a society that establishes the best conditions for liberty, human happiness and prosperity.

As he reminded the faithful in his recent Apostolic Exhortation, the Church must always reject the trappings of a “throw-away culture”—whether that be in matters of economic policy or life issues.

In my recently released book, ‘Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church,’ co-author Anne Hendershott and I examine the surprising increase of new priests to the Catholic priesthood over the past ten years. What’s perhaps most revealing in our findings is that this growth has come at a time of unprecedented attacks on Church leaders and its teachings.

Following the sexual abuse crisis, most commentators were quick to predict the end of the Catholic priesthood as we knew it. Instead, it’s become more attractive. Examining the culture of the dioceses in the United States where Church leaders are successfully recruiting new priests might provide some helpful insights into Pope Francis as he looks to appoint the Church’s future leaders.

In 1973, J.V. Downton published the initial work on transformational leadership theory, ‘Rebel Leadership: Commitment and Charisma in the Revolutionary Process.’ Peter Northouse, who would later write one of the classic textbooks on business leadership, summarized Downton's theory by observing that “transformational leadership is concerned with emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long term goals.”

In surveying the leadership of the dioceses that are producing the greatest number of new ordinations to the priesthood, we have found that when a bishop engages with his priests and those working in his diocese to create a connection that raises the level of motivation and morality, priests and laity alike will follow. Rather than shying away from Church teaching on faith and morals, transformational leaders offer a bold, outspoken defense of Church teaching on all issues, irrespective of popular opinion. Instead of being caught up in dissent and confusion, potential priests desire clarity and uniformity in knowing what the Church teaches and why. When their leaders offer a vigorous response to these teachings, constituents will listen and follow.

The past decade has given rise to a new generation of transformational Catholic leaders that are proving just that. For example, San Francisco’s newly appointed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone who led the campaign against same-sex marriage in California, Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori who while bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut successfully fought back against an attempted legislative take-over of the governance of the Church by Democratic lawmakers working with dissident Catholics and has been the nation’s fiercest defender of religious freedom.

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput has advocated martyrdom over compliance with the Health and Human Services mandate requiring Catholic institutions to violate their religious freedom by paying for insurance coverage of contraception and abortifacients. Then there is New York City’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan who is unafraid to use the mainstream media to promulgate Church teaching, offer a new model for Catholic engagement with the modern world. These bishops, however, do not represent a minority within the current leadership in the Church, but rather a new standard of unity within the hierarchy.

In a 2013 book, ‘Same Call, Different Men,’ researchers from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University acknowledged “the greater orthodoxy among priests of the millennial ordination cohort.” This orthodoxy corresponds with support from their bishops, with 79 percent of priests under the age of forty expressing support from their bishops, compared to 52 percent of those under forty in 1993.

Likewise, a large-scale psychological study of priests published in 2011 by Father Thomas Rossetti found that there is great joy among priests—much more so than almost any other vocation or field of work in the United States. Out of the respondents in the survey, 90 percent agreed with the statement “Overall, I am happy to be a priest” and 80 percent said that if given the opportunity, they would follow their call to the priesthood all over again.

While such responses might seem to contradict cultural norms, the takeaway that Church leaders should heed—be it at the level of Cardinal or local level pastoral assignments—is that the Church is at its best when it’s clear about its teaching and uncompromising in those commitments. Downton believed that rebel leadership focused on the charismatic ability of leaders to transform the self-concept of each follower by linking the identity of followers into the collective identity of the organization. Like the Cardinals and Bishops appointed to the Church in recent years, we can expect Francis to continue this trend by selecting a new generation of cardinals that resemble his own charisma and style, while being anchored in the timeless truths and teachings of the Church. Such a model is one that seems to be working well not only for Pope Francis, but for the Catholic Church and the world alike.

Christopher White is co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Faithful Priests and Bishops is Revitalizing the Catholic Church (available from Encounter Books).