San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy speaks on the importance of individual cultures in various communities in the county.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy will be able to enter a conclave to elect the next pope after Francis dies or retires. Photo by Chris Stone

Bishop Robert McElroy of the San Diego Roman Catholic Diocese was elevated to cardinal Sunday — thus becoming eligible to be elected pope someday.

Pope Francis, 85, named McElroy — the only American — and 20 others at the end of his weekly prayer from a window in the Apostolic Palace overlooking the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square.

McElroy, 68, will stay in San Diego — as its first cardinal.

In a statement, McElroy said he was “stunned and deeply surprised by the news” — which the diocese said came via a phone call at 3 a.m. San Diego time.

“My prayer is that in this ministry I might be of additional service to the God who has graced me on so many levels in my life,” he said. “And I pray also that I can assist the Holy Father in his pastoral renewal of the Church.”

McElroy thanked his family, the priests and women religious “who helped to form me,” and the “Catholic community of San Diego and Imperial Counties, whom it is my privilege to lead.”

McElroy “has been among the most vocal champions of Pope Francis’ pastoral agenda among the U.S. hierarchy, frequently echoing the pope’s prioritization of environmental concerns, migration and a more welcoming approach to LGBTQ persons,” said the National Catholic Register.

San Francisco-born Robert Walter McElroy will formally receive his red hat Aug. 27 at a ceremony known as a consistory.

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago told the National Catholic Register he was “both happy and yet not really surprised” about McElroy.

“He is one of the most gifted bishops in the United States, and I think that his nomination today is a sign of the esteem that he has in the life of the church, which is held by the Holy Father,” Cupich said.

In making McElroy a cardinal, Francis passed over the conservative archbishops of San Francisco and Los Angeles, two large cities that traditionally had cardinals in the past. Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Besides Cupich and McElroy, U.S. cardinals now number seven, including Daniel Nicholas DiNardo (Galveston–Houston), Timothy Michael Dolan (New York), Wilton Daniel Gregory (Washington), Seán Patrick O’Malley (Boston) and Joseph William Tobin (Newark).

Six Americans are retired cardinals, including Roger Michael Mahony of Los Angeles.

Once again, Francis passed over archbishops of major cities that traditionally had cardinals before his election in 2013, preferring to appoint men in far-flung places where the church is small or growing and more vibrant than in Europe.

After the Aug. 27 ceremony , Francis will have appointed about 83 of the some 133 cardinal electors, increasing the possibility his successor will be a man reflecting his position on key issues.

By then Francis will have appointed about 63% of cardinal electors, further boosted their presence in the developing world, and again loosened the grip of Europe on the College of Cardinals.

According to one site, the Latin and Eastern churches of the Catholic Church boast some 5,600 living bishops.

In 2019, Francis named McElroy one of two Americans to attend the Vatican’s Synod on the Amazon region, “which opened up discussions on celibacy requirements for the priesthood and the possibility of restoring the ministry of women to the diaconate,” the Register noted.

“I’m in favor of it,” McElroy told NCR at the time on the question of female deacons. “My view on it is [that] women should be invited into every ministry or activity we have that’s not doctrinally precluded.”

Crux, a Catholic news outlet once part of The Boston Globe, said cardinals also serve as key papal advisers, with their selection signaling the path a pontiff wants the church to take.

Last November, McElroy had coronary bypass surgery. He recovered and made his first public appearance in mid-January at the 10th annual March for Life, an anti-abortion event.

Weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated president in 2017, McElroy gave “one of the most powerful speeches I’ve ever heard to a group of grassroots organizers and religious activists,” said John Gehring in Commonweal magazine.

He spoke at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, and Gehring wrote: “McElroy has quickly emerged as one of the most respected intellectual leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States with his incisive essays and speeches on immigration, inequality, the threat of white nationalism and the church’s obligation to confront Islamophobia.”

Besides McElroy, these Cardinal Electors under 80 will be able to enter a conclave to elect the next pope after Francis dies or retires.

  • Archbishop Arthur Roche (British) — Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Archbishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik (South Korean) — Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy
  • Archbishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga (Spanish) — President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State and President of the Governorate for Vatican City State
  • Archbishop Jean-Marc Aveline — Metropolitan Archbishop of Marseille, France
  • Bishop Peter Okpaleke — Bishop of Ekwulobia, Nigeria
  • Archbishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner — Metropolitan Archbishop of Manaus, Brazil
  • Archbishop Filipe Neri António Sebastião di Rosário Ferrão — Archbishop of Goa and Damão, India
  • Archbishop Virgilio Do Carmo Da Silva — Archbishop of Dili, East Timor
  • Bishop Oscar Cantoni — Bishop of Como, Italy
  • Archbishop Anthony Poola — Archbishop of Hyderabad, India
  • Archbishop Paulo Cezar Costa — Metropolitan Archbishop of Brasília, Brazil
  • Bishop Richard Kuuia Baawobr — Bishop of Wa, Ghana
  • Archbishop William Goh Seng Chye — Archbishop of Singapore
  • Archbishop Adalberto Martínez Flores — Metropolitan Archbishop of Asunción, Paraguay
  • Archbishop Giorgio Marengo (Italian) — Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

New cardinals over 80:

  • Archbishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez Carvajal— Archbishop Emeritus of Cartagena, Colombia
  • Archbishop Lucas Van Looy — Archbishop Emeritus of Gent, Belgium
  • Archbishop Arrigo Miglio — Archbishop Emeritus of Cagliari, Italy
  • Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J. — Professor of Theology
  • Msgr. Fortunato Frezza — Canon of Saint Peter’s Basilica

Reuters contributed to this report.