Pope Francis made his international advisory panel on church governance a permanent council of cardinals, thereby emphasizing the importance and open-endedness of its work among his pontificate's various efforts at reform.
The Vatican made the announcement on Sept. 30, a day before Pope Francis was scheduled to meet for the first time with the panel, which has been informally dubbed the "Group of Eight" or "G-8." The new Council of Cardinals will have the "task of assisting me in the governance of the universal church and drawing up a project for the revision of the apostolic constitution 'Pastor Bonus' on the Roman Curia," Pope Francis wrote in his decree, dated Sept. 28.
"Pastor Bonus," published in 1988, was the last major set of changes in the Roman Curia, the church's central administration at the Vatican. Corruption and mismanagement in the Vatican bureaucracy, sensationally documented in the 2012 "VatiLeaks" of confidential correspondence, were a major topic of discussion among members of the College of Cardinals during meetings prior to the papal election in March.
As he has said several times since the advisory panel was announced last April, Pope Francis noted in his decree that the council was a response to suggestions by his fellow cardinals at the pre-conclave meetings. The council's field of potential concern extends far beyond Vatican reform, and Pope Francis has said that its deliberations will include the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
The eight council members, who include Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley and Sydney Cardinal George Pell, represent six continents, with the largest number—three members—coming from the Americas.
In his decree, Pope Francis left open the possibility that he would change the size of the council. He suggested last summer that he plans to add at least one representative of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Though the pope's first meeting with the entire council was scheduled for Oct. 1-3, he has spoken separately with its members on numerous occasions since last April, said the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, at a briefing for reporters on Sept. 30. Several members had already been meeting in Rome in the run-up to their sessions with the pope, the spokesman said. Father Lombardi said that the Vatican had received approximately 80 documents containing proposals for the council's consideration, apart from whatever the members themselves would bring to the table. Given the volume of material, the spokesman said, it would be unrealistic to expect the three days of discussions to produce any public announcements other than the dates of the council's next meeting.
The eight cardinals were to stay at the Vatican guesthouse where Pope Francis lives, but the group was scheduled to meet in a private library in the Apostolic Palace. Sessions were scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. each day except Oct. 2, when the pope was to spend the morning at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square.
Except for the council's secretary, Italian Bishop Marcello Semeraro of Albano, the pope and the eight cardinals would be the only people in the room during the discussions, Father Lombardi said. The spokesman said that Pope Francis planned to deliver some brief introductory remarks to the council but otherwise spend the sessions listening to his advisers.
Both Pope Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II also named international panels of cardinals to advise them on curial reform, but in neither case did they grant the body the permanent status of a council. Father Lombardi said the pope's decree did not mean that the council of cardinals would survive the current pontificate, but he allowed that the body could eventually become a permanent organ of the Curia.
The council is only the most prominent of Pope Francis' reform initiatives. He has established a panel to review the activities and mission of the Vatican bank, and another to investigate accounting in Vatican offices and devise new strategies for greater fiscal responsibility and transparency. The pope has also signaled a major reform of the Synod of Bishops to make it a permanent advisory body, and on Sept. 21 he replaced the synod's secretary general.
All the pontiff's men (pictured above)
The Group of eight are from top, left to right: Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, Chilean Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz Ossa, Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, U.S. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, Australian Cardin al George Pell and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga.