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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 02, 2022
New U.S. Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego is pictured at the Vatican press hall prior to a consistory for the creation of 20 new cardinals by Pope Francis at the Vatican Aug. 27, 2022. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

In the second part of his interview with America’s Vatican correspondent, Cardinal Robert McElroy shared his reflections on two additional topics that the cardinals discussed in small language groups and in the plenary sessions of the pope’s meeting with the world’s cardinals in the Vatican this week. In addition to the question of a synodal versus hierarchical church and the separation of governance from holy orders, which Cardinal McElroy described in the first part of this interview, the cardinals also discussed Vatican finances and the financial reforms introduced by Pope Francis, along with the reforms introduced to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from sexual abuse and harassment in the church. Cardinal McElroy also mentioned the discussion on the plans for Holy Year 2025, the pope’s role in the meeting with cardinals and the question of his resignation.

I understand that another topic discussed at the meeting was the question of Vatican finances and that on Monday evening participants were given a paper that outlined all the steps that have been taken in this process of reform since Francis became pope. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said he emphasized the reforms in the Vatican’s economic and financial field “in which great steps forward had been taken.” What would you say was the general take at the meeting on that question?

I would say there is concern that this has been a continuing problem within the central administration of the church regarding finances, and the lack of transparency in certain ways, and that steps were taken for the investments of funds which were not only not wise but were determined in part by people’s relationships and where they came from. So there was a strong feeling that this has been a problem that needs to be addressed. There was general support for the steps being taken under Pope Francis.

I’d say for many of us, however, it’s not clear enough how these steps play out. But they certainly seem to be steps in the right direction. I’d say that was the feeling among most of the cardinals. And I think there was a lot of support expressed for the decision to remove funds from the Secretariat of State, and to have everything being in one place [the Institute for the Works of Religion, also known as the Vatican Bank] and observable.

"For many of us, however, it’s not clear enough how these [financial reform] steps play out. But they certainly seem to be steps in the right direction. I’d say that was the feeling among most of the cardinals."

So the cardinals want transparency and centralization of the finances?

Yes, and also checks and balances, and having oversight committees and so on.

Did people feel that Francis has gone far enough on this?

Yes, but again, it is important to see what happens. The difficulty is that it is a challenge to a whole way of doing things, to an earlier culture of doing things. So these principles seem very good. They will achieve a great deal of improvement, I think. As to whether they’re sufficient, time will tell.

I understand that Cardinal Sean O’Malley spoke in a plenary session about the progress that has been made under Pope Francis in addressing the question of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people by clergy, and ensuring their protection throughout the church. Was there much discussion in the small groups about the question of abuse?

It surfaced in many of the groups, primarily when we were talking about the different local situations and the situation of the church at this moment in our history. The main way that it surfaced was as an understanding that the credibility of the church, the image of the church, public attitudes towards the church, have been enormously crippled by the past handling of sexual abuse cases and that there is a need for continuous vigilance to remedy that and to erect and sustain a culture where sexual harassment and abuse of minors or adults does not occur and is dealt with. This came out in the plenary, but mostly in the reports from the small groups to the plenary.

Did any other topics surface besides the four questions relating to the separation of governance from orders, synodal and hierarchical church, finances, and abuse?

Well, there was a discussion on the jubilee year 2025. That was a more spiritual, theologically reflective discussion. But I’d say those were the main questions that surfaced.

Pope Francis spoke at the beginning of the meeting and he said “speak freely.” He also intervened at various moments during the plenary sessions. How would you summarize his role?

Yes, he said “speak freely.” But the basic status of the pope was one of listening. What struck me was not what the pope said, but what he didn’t say, the types of interventions he didn’t make. He was attentive, but he was listening more than talking.

But on one topic, he said, “This document has been promulgated”; in other words, we’re not reopening the document, which is, of course, different from the question of how we are going to implement it. Other than that, it struck me that consistently he was listening to the different viewpoints, understanding that almost all of them express some valid kernel of wisdom.

"It struck me that consistently [Pope Francis] was listening to the different viewpoints, understanding that almost all of them express some valid kernel of wisdom."

When he spoke, it was not to provide correction, or even to declare a definitive conclusion on the comments that were being made. That was not the role he took. And somewhat surprisingly at the end of the discussion on some of these issues like synodality, the question of governance and orders, he did not say “Here’s why this was done, and here’s what we’re doing.” His words were more of thanksgiving for the different points that were raised. Virtually all of them were points of real reflection; for example, how do you have synodality which reflects the hierarchical nature of the church? And how do you deal with this question of the specification of what dicastries will have bishops, and which ones will not? So I would say his role was more one of encouraging the dialogue that had been occurring rather than a judgmental one, or a defining one.

A cardinal told me, “Francis said the process has started, now it must continue.” How do you read that?

I think he was making clear that the document “Predicate Evangelium” stands. That has been promulgated. A lot of work, seven years’ worth of work, went into drafting it. There was immense consultation that led to this document and not just consultation with the Roman Curia, but with bishops’ conferences and others too, and this was appreciated around the world. So, at this meeting, it was not as if we were throwing open the whole document again. I feel that what emerged in the small group sessions was this notion of the implementation of this document, that there are still some questions to be answered as to how this will be done. And those are not unimportant questions.

I’ve heard that several cardinals in their interventions praised the pope for what he’s done.

Absolutely. This came out in many statements. It sure did, also in the small groups. And then at the end, when we got to a point of summarizing where we had been, there was a tremendous feeling of progress.

One of the key things that kept coming up, both in the small groups and in the plenary sessions, was the changed experiences bishops had [when they came to Rome for] their “ad limina” visits with the [Vatican] dicasteries. That was mentioned over and over and over again, as we’ve all now been through an “ad limina” in recent years.

"It was said time and again how very supportive and warm and welcoming and affirming these ["ad limina"] visits were with the discasteries, and with Pope Francis."

Cardinals used very, very strong language to talk about a different attitude [from the dicasteries] that really goes to that question of the relation of the dioceses to the Roman Curia. It was said time and again how very supportive and warm and welcoming and affirming these visits were with the discasteries, and with Pope Francis.

The focus at this meeting was on the reform of the Roman Curia as outlined in the constitution “Predicate Evangelium,” but this reform has important consequences also for bishops, for dioceses, for episcopal conferences around the world. How do you read its impact in these different instances?

Well, there was a great deal of discussion in the small groups, particularly about the implications for dioceses. There was specific reflection on, “How do we take these same principles in our diocesan curia and the relationship of the diocese with the parishes and other institutions within the diocese? How do we bring these same principles and set of orientations into that set of relationships?” So, there was a significantly widespread perspective that this creates a new, ongoing challenge for us, as does synodality. People were saying, “O.K., this is in the context of synodality, so what does synodality mean about how we function as a diocesan curia and as bishops? How is this going to have to change how we do things and the culture that we create for both decision-making and for leadership and service in the life of the diocese?”

Do you see “Predicate Evangelium” as a significant challenge for the church in the United States?

I see it as an inspiration. This document is a call to conversion on the part of the Roman Curia. The underlying principles of this document are a call to conversion, and also to synodality, a call to all the bishops of the world and to the local churches and to the parishes. It’s important to understand that the primary building of a culture of synodality that’s going to work has to be done in the parishes, in those communities of faith. How do we change how things happen so that people feel more participative and collaborative, so that people listen to one another?

When I was a pastor, and I feel guilty about this, not just I, but so many members of the parish council, would come to meetings concentrating on what we wanted to say, rather than listening to what others had to say. That needs to change; it’s not the way it should be. And the whole point, of course, is listening to God, attending to each of the major moments we have in the life of the parish, in the diocese, in the universal church. So I think it’s a call to conversion for all of us and, frankly, for every institution of the church at every level.

Pope Francis has problems with mobility, and before the consistory some commentators were predicting that he might announce his resignation in these days. You’ve seen him close up over three days. What is your read of the situation? Did he give any indication that he is contemplating resignation?

There was absolutely no indication of resignation! I’d say he was more energetic than I was. It struck me that he’s getting used to this mobility question and how to use a wheelchair effectively. He made comments to us all as we were coming in and going out. He greeted everybody at some stage during the meeting, and he’d have a word of specific comment to each of us. So, he’s on top of things. He was in a jovial mood; I felt he was very upbeat. So it did not seem to me to be someone who was anywhere close to contemplating resignation.

How would you describe the climate at the meeting?

There was unity. At the same time, there was really a sense of people trying to feel out what is this format best to do, because it’s not an ongoing event.

I saw this one interesting thing: In one small group which had a lot of disagreement, one of the long-term cardinals said to them all, “Well, this is what synodality [is], sharing our disagreements, and doing so in a way that leads to constructive outcomes.” So I feel there was certainly a synodal culture and feeling among the cardinals, so that while there are disagreements, they’re able to come together in unity and really have a sense that God is helping us with this effort and is present in the midst of the effort, and that the pope is vigorously present with us.

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