Pope Francis will not have left the See of Madrid without a cardinal for long. Archbishop José Cobo Cano, appointed on June 12, 2023, took possession of his office as archbishop of the Spanish capital on July 8. He learned of his cardinalate less than 24 hours later. He found out when his name appeared on the list of new cardinals presented by Pope Francis at the Angelus on July 9. This young archbishop with a “Bergoglian” profile embodies the transformation of the Church in Spain, bearing witness to the presence of God in a secularized society.
Background and priestly ministry
Born on September 20, 1965, in a village in Andalusia, José Cobo Cano studied civil law in Madrid. He then entered the seminary in the Spanish capital and specialized in moral and social sciences. He went on to teach in this field at the Center for Social Studies of the diocesan Caritas of Madrid.
Ordained a priest on April 23, 1994, for the Diocese of Madrid, his first assignment was to the Hermandades del Trabajo — the “Fraternities of Labor,” a workers’ support organization. He became a parochial vicar in 1995, then parish priest in 2000. Finally, he was named episcopal vicar for the northeastern zone in 2015.
Pope Francis appointed him auxiliary bishop of Madrid on December 19, 2017, and he was consecrated bishop on February 17, 2018. Within the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, he was a member of the Episcopal Commission for Social Pastoral Care and Human Promotion. In that capacity, he was especially involved in pastoral care dedicated to migrants, a theme close to his heart. He has also been involved in the fight against abuse and the accompaniment of victims.
After working alongside Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra for five years, Bishop Cobo Cano has been called upon to succeed him. In this, Pope Francis has once again demonstrated his desire to see the emergence of a new generation of men in their 50s with long-term appointments at the head of major dioceses, such as Malines-Brussels and Buenos Aires.
Cano’s appointment drew some criticism in Spain, with some priests taking issue with his lack of experience. His predecessors had all had governing experience in other large dioceses before their appointment to Madrid.
His rapid creation as a cardinal also comes as a surprise. Indeed, his predecessor, Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra, will remain cardinal elector until May 16, 2025. Madrid will therefore have two cardinal electors, the current archbishop and the cardinal emeritus. This is a rare occurrence in the history of the College of Cardinals, as it is customary in dioceses to wait until the 80th birthday of the previous incumbent before elevating his successor to the cardinal’s purple.
The emergence of a new face for the Church in Spain
At just 58 years of age, Bishop Cobo Cono embodies a new generation of bishops, detached from the painful history of the Church after Spain’s civil war. “I think the Pope wanted to bring a new generation to the fore, with a pastoral profile and parish experience. That’s also what I’m going to bring to the College of Cardinals,” he tells I.Media.
He acknowledges that Spain is going through “a complicated period politically” and is facing many changes: “migration, terrible inequalities, the changing role of women, both in the Church and in society.” But he explains that “the Church must learn to listen to these signs of the times” and that the synodal assembly, of which he will be one of the participants, must “help to give answers starting from the Gospel.”
He acknowledges that “the Church is losing influence on a sociological level.” However, he invites us to see this historic moment as an “opportunity,” reminding us that “the Church can be a minority” while remaining “significant for the people.”
“I’ve visited villages where there were only four people in the parish, but the church remained open and available to people who wanted to come and talk about their problems,” says Bishop Cobo Cano, who himself comes from a rural background. “If someone feels good in a church, in a community, it’s worthwhile, even if there aren’t many Christians,” he insists.
The arrival of migrants, an opportunity to “rejuvenate” parishes
Just as in the United States, where old Catholic strongholds are going through a period of decline while Latin American immigration is revitalizing some parishes, the Spanish capital’s face is changing with the arrival of many migrants, many of them Catholics.
“When I visit Madrid’s parishes, I see Peruvian, Colombian, Venezuelan, and even Chinese faces… This is helping parishes to rejuvenate and enrich themselves, and to live out another way of being Church,” he stresses. At the same time, he acknowledges that some Spaniards initially experienced the arrival of migrants from Latin America as an “invasion.” “Thanks to the Church and the integration it promotes, things have changed,” he says.
For him, the Catholic Church should no longer be seen as “provider of services,” especially when it comes to celebrating the sacraments, but first and foremost as a “provider of meaning.”
“We need to explain that man does not make himself, but that he comes from God… We need to explain to the poor, to migrants, to families, that life is worth living. We need to talk about God not as an idea, but as a concrete experience,” he insists.
He also explains that Madrid is still marked by its hosting of World Youth Day in 2011. “Young people also need spirituality, to find the presence of God. We need to connect their own ‘thirst’ with our experience of God,” says the young cardinal.