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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 01, 2022
Pope Francis talks with U.S. Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego after presenting the red biretta to him during a consistory for the creation of 20 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Aug. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, 68, received the red hat from Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica on Aug. 27 and participated in the two-day meeting of 197 cardinals, patriarchs and senior officials of the Secretariat of State from Aug. 29 to 30.

The cardinal, who was appointed auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, the city where he was born, by Pope Benedict XVI in July 2010 and bishop of San Diego by Pope Francis in March 2015, gave this exclusive interview to America’s Vatican correspondent in Rome on Aug. 31, the 10th anniversary of the death of the Italian cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J.

In the interview, the cardinal, whom many see as the American analog of Cardinal Martini, shared brief reflections on being made a cardinal and then spoke at length about the two-day meeting of cardinals that Pope Francis had tasked with discussing “Predicate Evangelium,” the constitution for the reform of the Roman Curia that he promulgated on March 19 and that came into force on June 5.

The cardinal whom many see as the American analog of Cardinal Martini spoke at length about the meeting of cardinals that Pope Francis had tasked with discussing “Predicate Evangelium.”

He shared his reflections and insights on the discussion that took place behind closed doors in plenary sessions and in 12 language groups. Each group appointed a moderator and rapporteur who reported to the plenary sessions.

Cardinal McElroy said the cardinals focused mostly on four main themes in their discussion of the new constitution, which has evangelization as its top priority: the separation of the power of governance from that of holy orders (and so lay people being given senior positions in the Roman Curia); the question of synodal and hierarchical church; the issue of Vatican finances and the reforms in this field; the need to build a culture that ensures the protection of minors and adults from sexual abuse and harassment in the church. He said they also discussed the Holy Year 2025 in the meeting’s final session.

The interview is presented in two parts. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Part I

You’ve been created a cardinal. What is the deepest memory that you take away from this important moment of your life and from the consistory?

I’d say two things. One is that I was graced to have many people from my life present for the consistory: my family, people I went to school with, people in the parishes that I had worked with who’ve become great friends over the years, priests and coworkers from the Diocese of San Diego. And so it was, in a sense, a recapitulation of my life and all of the moments in my life coming together at that moment as I was made a cardinal.

Pope Francis had a different, specific message to give to us; it was of encouragement and challenge for the future.

The second memory I’d say that was really emblazoned on me at that moment was how Pope Francis gave to each of the candidates a very personal word of encouragement and thanksgiving and exhortation, as we knelt before him to receive the ring and the red hat and the title of the church. He had a different, specific message to give to us; it was of encouragement and challenge for the future.

Could you summarize what that personal message was for you?

He asked me to continue to give witness in the life of the church in the United States on important issues that are there and that will be coming. That was at the core of it. Although what happened was that after I started to stand up, he said to me, “How is your heart?” because I had heart surgery in November, and he knew that and had prayed for me. I was kind of surprised at that. So I stumbled a little bit, and I said, “My heart is perfect, but my knees aren’t so good.” And he said, “Neither are mine!”

How do you see your role as cardinal, apart from having to vote in a conclave?

I see two additional elements that are key. One is to provide a supportive, collaborative assistance to the Holy Father in his work in the church and in addressing the issues that the church faces in every country of the world, particularly that of forging unity.

And secondly, this comes to me particularly as a cardinal in the United States. I am very American in habits, tastes and attitudes, and I know how many of us in the United States tend to look on reality through an American lens. So I think one of the roles of the cardinals is to try to orient the thinking of people at all levels of the church in the United States toward the reality that we are part of a global community of faith and of a global society.

I started to stand up, and the pope said to me, “How is your heart?” because I had heart surgery in November, and he knew that and had prayed for me.

You attended the two-day meeting of cardinals, at which the pope was present, that involved plenary sessions and discussion in the small language groups. What is your main takeaway from that gathering?

The first thing for me was the small groups’ sharing—this was incredibly important, partly because we were in groups of about 15. So you get to know the other cardinals in a different way in those sorts of conversations. Second, many of our conversations focused on the different situations that the local churches are in across the world, and how they face these questions of reform and synodality in the situations which they confront, which vary quite a bit.

What about the plenary sessions?

As for the plenary sessions, there was tremendous openness, and that was because the pope had exhorted all the participants to say what was on their mind, and they did so on various issues during the two days of meetings. And that was an important thing, partly because this sort of meeting hadn’t occurred for many years, and so all the participants were trying to figure out what role this sort of meeting should play in the life of the church and in helping the Holy Father, and in helping the church particularly in the integration of “Predicate Evangelium” in the life of the church, not only here in Rome but within the larger church around the world.

I think there should be more of these sorts of meetings. It was a helpful, productive coming together, not only to learn more about one another but also to reflect upon important issues globally and what challenges the local churches are facing.

I understand that the small groups reported to the plenary sessions. Could people also make interventions in the plenary sessions and raise questions?

Yes. And they did.

What particularly struck you about the questions?

Well, there were a couple of themes. One is that some raised the issue about the proclamation of “Predicate Evangelium” that lay people could be heads of dicasteries; there were some who challenged that.

I think what happened both in our small group and in the larger plenary session was that most people came out and said “Predicate Evangelium” is a document that lays out the vision and the framework for the reform of the Curia. They saw that the integration of that document into the life of the local church is going to take place over time, and the specification of some elements of it is going to take place over time.

There was a general feeling that certain dicasteries should consistently have bishops at their head—for example, the Dicastery for Bishops—but there were many others that need not.

I think there was a general feeling that certain dicasteries should consistently have bishops at their head—for example, the Dicastery for Bishops, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Dicastery for Clergy—but there were many others that need not. And so the thinking was that hopefully the pope is going to specify that as the document unfolds and is implemented.

Could one say that this meeting of cardinals will result in a "tweaking" of the constitution?

I wouldn’t even say that. No, it is not a tweaking of what it is but rather of the implementation of the constitution. It would be helpful to know as the implementation is occurring how this differentiation is being made: of some offices where it makes sense to have lay people and of some offices where it makes more sense to always have a bishop at its head. What are those offices?

I think the really important way of looking at the question is this: The document has been promulgated. It’s there. It’s a good document, and I think it operates in two ways. One is as an orientation of the Roman Curia as to what its mission is and how it should carry out that mission. And that mission is meant to be one of service, not merely to the pope but to the local churches also.

The notion of beginning with the hierarchical nature of the church to me risks a retreat to the vision of the church that sees it first of all as a perfect society rather than the pilgrim people of God.

Secondly, there’s a dynamism to the mission of the Curia as it’s envisioned in this document: The notion of missionary discipleship is very much present in the discussion of the role of the Curia. It is not meant to be maintenance or stasis. It is meant to be the involvement of the Curia and of the whole church, of course, in the expansion of the work of preaching the Gospel of Christ and the kerygma and bringing people closer to the Lord and to the church. So I think that’s the foundational set of principles. That’s the most important contribution of this document. It’s a reorientation of the Roman Curia—not that there weren’t elements of these things there and always have been—but to emphasize that.

There was very significant support for the prioritization of [the Dicastery of] evangelization, even over the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith. Some objected to it, but the overwhelming majority of those present were in favor of it. And there was a lot of support for the placement of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity right near the top, too. I would say that this was particularly true among the African, Asian and Latin American bishops; they saw the importance of charity as a pathway for evangelization for the church.

I understand from my conversations with other cardinals that some participants were either uneasy or disagreed with the emphasis on the synodal church and appeared to be more attached to the concept of hierarchical church. Did this surface in the discussions?

Yes, it came out in the small group discussions, but it did not seem to me that that sentiment was predominant in any one of the small groups. It was noted in the reports from the groups, but it was not noted as the dominant feeling.

No one, or at least no one that I heard speaking, is opposed to an affirmation, a vigorous affirmation of the hierarchical nature of the church.

There were a number of interventions on this question in the plenary session, and I was puzzled in part by this. I was not puzzled by the question of the hierarchical nature of the church and the desire to see that affirmed. That makes sense to me. But I was partly puzzled because of the theology of synodality as it has been consistently proposed by Pope Francis in his statements, by all of the documents that have come from the synodal office in preparation for the synod and by the international theological commission: In every one of those there is a very significant affirmation of the hierarchical nature of the church. So the theology of synodality affirms the hierarchical nature of the church. It doesn’t begin with that concept; it begins with the concept of synodality. But it is certainly present there; it is embedded there and certainly affirmed explicitly.

I have to say the notion of beginning with the hierarchical nature of the church, rather than with a synodal concept or something close to synodality, to me risks a retreat to the vision of the church that sees it first of all as a perfect society rather than the pilgrim people of God. I think that’s the problem with the critique of synodality as it’s been presented.

So you see this critique as a departure from the Second Vatican Council?

Yes! And again no one, or at least no one that I heard speaking, is opposed to an affirmation, a vigorous affirmation of the hierarchical nature of the church. The theology of synodality is doing that, but it doesn’t begin with that; that’s not the starting point but the reflection of synodal theology.

In your view, therefore, there was widespread support at the meeting for the synodal approach?

Absolutely!

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