For a 77-year-old with orthopedic shoes, Pope Francis is quite nimble on his pontifical feet, keeping both friend and foe off balance. It’s all in the timing.
Jan. 12 is a grim date in Haiti. On that day four years ago, a massive earthquake struck the country, killing more than 150,000 people. Yet Francis gave Haitians a reason to rejoice by choosing that anniversary to announce the first batch of Cardinals of his papacy. Chibly Langlois, the Archbishop of the port city of Les Cayes, about 120 miles (193 km) west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, was astonished to hear that Francis had made him the first Cardinal in the history of the impoverished Caribbean nation. A dumbstruck Langlois, 55, could say only that it was a “blessing for the country.”
But the implications are churchwide, and thus global. The rollout of new Cardinals–its tone and the way it was executed–is an example of the way Francis does business. In past pontificates, the Vatican would have quietly informed the chosen that they had been awarded the prestigious scarlet birettas designating them members of the body that elects Popes. This time most of them, according to Vatican watcher Andrea Tornielli, learned of their promotions from TV.
The bulk of the new Cardinals are from what is now the center of gravity for the Catholic world: Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Only one is from North America–Canada, not the U.S. The Italians, the biggest bloc in the 120-member College of Cardinals, got only four nods, three in the Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy (Secretary of State, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and secretary general of the Synod of Bishops). The fourth was Cardinal-designate Gualtiero Bassetti from Perugia, which, unlike Milan or Venice, has not automatically merited a biretta. Now it seems you don’t have to be in charge of a major see to become a Cardinal. The appointee from the Philippines comes not from a big city like Manila or Cebu but from the strife-ridden island of Mindanao. Almost all the appointees are, like Francis, pastors more than hierarchs or power brokers.
The new Cardinals are a useful diversion from Francis’ juggling of stickier problems. In early January, the potentially explosive question of extraditing a Polish-born church diplomat accused of pedophilia in the Dominican Republic was defused when the Pope’s spokesman said the accused prelate–a citizen of the Vatican–was being investigated by the city-state’s criminal court, not just by its theologians. Francis also softened his first pronouncement on abortion (“horrific”) by including it among a litany of crimes against children–from child soldiers to victims of human trafficking. The burble of multiple talking points muted the complaints of single-issue critics. It helped that the same news cycle yielded photo ops–see above–that make you go “awww.”
In his youth in Argentina, Francis liked to dance the milonga and the tango. The first requires a sense of pace, the second the almost contrapuntal ability to seduce one’s dance partner. Francis has brought those skills to the Vatican. He’s got the timing down–for now.
This appears in the January 27, 2014 issue of TIME.