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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 22, 2022
Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, speaks during a news conference to present an update on the synod process at the Vatican Aug. 26, 2022. Also pictured are Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, relator general of the synod, left, and Bishop Luis Marín de San Martín, undersecretary of the synod. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Vatican’s synod office, says he sees “a different church” emerging from the worldwide synodal process. In the second part of this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell for the “Inside the Vatican” podcast, Cardinal Grech reveals in new depth the plans for the continental and Roman phases of the global synodal process.

He also comments on past synod proposals, including those to ordain mature married men (viri probati) to the priesthood and to promote wider ministries for women.

Phase two: Continental assemblies

In part one of this interview, Cardinal Grech explained that he expects a first synthesis document—which he prefers to call “a discernment”—to be completed by the end of October so that it can be studied before the “continental assemblies” meet between January and March 2023.

When asked, “What is going to happen at these continental assemblies? Who is going to attend them?”, the cardinal responded, “I cannot give you a concrete reply. Why? Because we [in the synod secretariat] are [simply] accompanying these continental assemblies, and it's up to them to decide who will participate.”

However, he revealed that his office in the Vatican “gave this indication that for the continental synodal assembly, there must be two moments. There must be the ecclesial assembly and a moment for the bishops.” At the ecclesial assembly, “people will be coming from each episcopal conference: laity, clergy, religious, consecrated persons. It’s what we mean when we say the people of God.”

“The bishops have to listen to [the people at the assembly], and then it's up to them to reach the conclusions,” in their “moment for the bishops,” the cardinal said. “But, obviously, they have to give a reason [for their decisions] to the assembly.”

At the ecclesial assembly, “people will be coming from each episcopal conference: laity, clergy, religious, consecrated persons. It’s what we mean when we say the people of God.”

Cardinal Grech emphasized that “we are not providing the same criteria for every continental assembly.” For example, the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM) is “going to have, I think, five regional assemblies and then a general assembly.” Africa, too, will have regional assemblies, the cardinal said. Although Europe is still planning, the European organizers have “already decided to hold the continental assembly in Prague, if I am not mistaken, in February 2023.”

He revealed that Canada and the United States will be “by themselves” for a North American assembly, while Mexico has chosen to join Latin America. “They have their plan, but it is not yet definite,” the cardinal said. Likewise, “Oceania—that is, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands—too has a plan, but it is not easy for them” to meet due to the long distances between countries. Asia will have its own assembly, and another is being considered for the Oriental churches, which can choose whether to join the assemblies on their continents or opt to meet with other Oriental churches.

“After that, obviously, they will present their conclusions and send those to our office,” Cardinal Grech said. “We will then draft another document which will integrate these submissions, and that will be the document for the bishops who will take part in the synod assembly of October 2023.”

A group of 35 people (including only two bishops) is currently in Frascati, Italy, working to draft a synthesis of phase one, the cardinal said. Asked if he will conduct a similar process with the feedback from the continental assemblies, he said, “Up to now, I cannot say, because it depends on the nature of the material that we will get.”

A synodal conversion

Pope Francis, in the programmatic document for his papacy, the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), emphasized the need for conversion at all levels in the church, starting with individuals and the local churches all the way up to the papacy. I asked the cardinal if he saw this conversion happening.

“Yes,” he said, “and that's why I say I'm gratefully following, noticing, that we are all—I underline the word ‘all’—involved in this conversion. The Holy Father in ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ speaks about pastoral conversion [and a] spiritual conversion, but now he adds a synodal conversion. And this is the aim, the focus of this synodal process.”

The cardinal emphasized that listening to “all” does not mean “that it’s a moment where everybody can say anything he or she wants to say” or for sharing one’s “sheer opinion.” Rather, “what the church needs is to listen to what the Holy Spirit is communicating to her” through the listening and discernment sessions in order “to become more synodal.”

“If I want to make my contribution as a baptized [person],” the cardinal said, “I have to be convinced in my conscience that what I am communicating is God's will. It's not a sheer opinion."

“If I want to make my contribution as a baptized [person],” the cardinal said, “I have to be convinced in my conscience that what I am communicating is God's will. It's not a sheer opinion. Likewise, as a church [we must] become more convinced that nothing can materialize unless we learn to do this ecclesial communal discernment in a spiritual conversation” which, he pointed out, is different from “individual discernment.”

The cardinal added that his hope for the synodal process is “to see all involved, that is, the people of God, get more convinced about the importance of ecclesial discernment,” which “makes all the difference.”

He pointed out that “praying is at the heart of this process,” which he has tried to support by creating a commission on spirituality to support the synod. One of his first acts as general secretary of the synod was also to send a letter to contemplative communities asking them to support the synod through prayer.

The cardinal cautioned, “If the Holy Spirit is absent, if we are not in a spiritual conversation, then the risk is that the synodal process will turn out to be a convention, or what the Holy Father calls a ‘parliament.’ And that's not good.”

‘Hijacked’ by the Holy Spirit

At a recent press conference, Cardinal Grech was asked if he worried that some groups might try to hijack the synod process to push for certain proposals. When I asked the cardinal to comment on this risk, he replied with a smile: “I'm not afraid of these pressure groups, no. What I would like and what I pray for is that the Holy Spirit will really hijack this process.”

Recalling that Pope Francis has made it clear that he doesn’t want pressure groups that try to drive through their own agendas at synods, I told the cardinal I understood that Pope Francis felt there was a risk of this at the Amazon synod. When he sensed that a number of participants were pushing to get approval for some proposals, like ordaining mature married men as priests, he didn't say ‘yes’, but made clear that he wasn't saying ‘no’ either; instead, he was waiting for the conversation on these topics to mature. I asked the cardinal if this was a correct interpretation of what happened.

“I'm not afraid of these pressure groups, no. What I would like and what I pray for is that the Holy Spirit will really hijack this process.”

“Absolutely,” he responded. “And if I can add something to prove how right you are, I remember that after the publication of ‘Querida Amazonia’, I was talking to him and the issue of viri probati [ordaining mature, married men] came forth, and he told me, ‘Do you know why I did not accept that proposition? Because I felt that during the synodal assembly there was not a discernment.’” Cardinal Grech remarked, “Believe me, there and then I thanked the Lord for the ministry of Peter.”

Asked to confirm whether the pope’s response to the question of ordaining married men “is not a rejection” but rather is “a question that hasn't matured yet,” Cardinal Grech said, “Yes. We need time!”

Having covered as a journalist all the Vatican’s synods since 1985, I told the cardinal that I have seen very significant changes in the synods, above all under Pope Francis, including greater participation of women in them. At the Amazon synod especially, there was a strong push for the recognition of more ministries for women, and not just those of lector and acolyte, which Pope Francis has opened to women last year. I asked the cardinal if he has seen this push for opening more ministries to women coming through in the reports from the different churches during this synod.

“I noticed that across the board, there is this [desire] to discern more in depth about the role of women in the church, to appreciate their specific contribution,” he responded. “And [with] the fact that various churches are taking this same issue seriously, I really hope and pray that in time we will manage to find what is the right vocation of women in the church.”

Engaging ‘digital missionaries’

Another major change in recent synods, and particularly in the current synod, is how the Vatican has used the internet to solicit feedback, as it did with an online survey circulated before the 2018 Synod on Young People. Speaking about the initiative to expand the synod’s listening efforts by having Catholic social media influencers hold listening sessions, Cardinal Grech said, “I think it was a breakthrough.”

The cardinal explained that this was an initiative undertaken by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication (which is separate from the synod secretariat) and was organized in particular by Monsignor Lucio Ruiz. “He managed to put together a group of influencers, which he even called ‘missionaries’, ‘digital missionaries.’ And after due preparation, he asked them to help the church to go out and make itself available to listen to those who practically do not come to church.”

Cardinal Grech said he found this project interesting because “it was not the bishop who went after the people, but the people who are interested in the church that came forth and connected with the influencers and contributed in this process.”

It was a new way, he said, of preaching the Gospel: “After all, the aim of this synodal process is to help Christ meet the human person today and to help the human person connect with Jesus.”

Looking ahead to phase three and beyond

The third phase of the synodal process will take place in the Vatican in October 2023. It will consist primarily of the assembly of bishops, although historically others have also been invited to attend. I asked the cardinal if the main text for that gathering would be the report his secretariat will send based on the feedback from the continental assemblies.

“That would be the basic text,” the cardinal said, but emphasized that it is “not only the document that comes from the continental assemblies; rather, it is the document that had its origin in the first phase, in the consultation and the discernment of the people of God.”

As we concluded the interview, I asked Cardinal Grech about his hopes for the next year of the synod, leading up to the 2023 assembly. He replied, “Even at this moment, I have various motives why I should be grateful to the Lord, because we can already see fruits of this synodal process. Normally we wait for the conclusion of the bishops’ assembly or for the exhortation published by the Holy Father” to gauge the outcome of the synod. “But believe me, even today, we can appreciate the fruits of this synodal process. And I really hope that the local churches will continue to foster this synodal experience that has been going on.”

Cardinal Grech: "We can already see fruits of this synodal process."

At a day of reflection organized by the synod secretariat in 2021, on the eve of the formal opening of the global synodal process, Pope Francis cited the Vatican II theologian Yves Congar, O.P.: “There is no need to create another church, but to create a different church.” I asked Cardinal Grech if he is seeing such a “different church” emerging from this synodal process.

Speaking quietly and putting his hand on his chest, the cardinal responded,

Hand on heart, I can say yes, in the affirmative. And what is this different church? There is not a substantial change, but a style about how we live our call in the church. In other words, I see emerging a listening church where all of us, all of us, are in a process of conversion. We are learning how advantageous it can be to listen, and to listen not only to the opinions [of others] but to listen to the Holy Spirit, because the protagonist of this process is not the individual, it is not the bishops, but the Holy Spirit. And if we want to capture what the Holy Spirit is communicating to his church, we need to lend a listening heart.

He concluded, “Yes, I see that different church emerging: a church that really gets to know herself, because the church is either synodal or it does not exist.”

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