Exclusive interview: Cardinal Hollerich on how synodality has developed—and how involved Pope Francis has been
In this exclusive interview, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich speaks about the synod of bishops on synodality that will open in the Vatican on Oct. 4, at which for the first time women will participate as full members with the right to vote.
On July 8, 2021, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Hollerich to the key role of relator general for the synod. This means he will be one of the most influential figures at the synod. As relator general, he will deliver the keynote address to the plenary assembly on Oct. 5 and will also give a keynote talk at the opening of the discussion on each of the five “segments” of the Working Document (a synodal church, communion, mission, participation and a conclusion). He will also preside over the drafting of the text that will bring together the fruits of the October 2023 synod and launch the work for the second session, which will open in October 2024.
Born in southwestern Luxembourg in 1958, the polyglot Cardinal Hollerich, 64, is a member of the Japanese province of the Jesuits and lived in Japan from 1985-89 and again from 1994-2011 when he held teaching and other positions at the Jesuit-run Sophia University in Tokyo. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him as archbishop of Luxembourg in 2011, and Pope Francis made him a cardinal in 2019, naming him relator general for the synod two years later. In 2023, the pope appointed him to his council of nine cardinal advisors.
I sat down with the cardinal at the Jesuit Curia in Rome on the afternoon of June 30. Earlier that day, he and Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the synod, had met with Pope Francis and received from him the list of names of some 400 participants that the pope had approved for the synod. We spoke together in English for more than an hour. The following article, published in two parts, is based on that conversation.
As we began our conversation, Cardinal Hollerich revealed that Francis is closely following the whole synodal process. “It’s a pleasure to see how interested he is and how much he follows it. He has read everything. He is very much involved, and he knows about all the details,” the cardinal said.
The cardinal admitted that “sometimes” he himself had been concerned that the synodal process might not come together, “but then I see how the Holy Spirit has guided us” during the first two phases of the synod process—the listening phase at the diocesan and national levels (2021-22), and the continental phase (2023). “It’s really amazing what has been done in such a short time, and how all the people who participated in this feel part of it and are a little bit happier as Catholics, as Christians, and feel more in communion not only with one another but also with God our Father. That is, for me, a real sign. And that is stronger than the worries I had at the beginning,” he said.
Cardinal Hollerich: "All the people who participated in [the synod] feel part of it and are a little bit happier as Catholics, as Christians, and feel more in communion not only with one another but also with God."
As relator general, Cardinal Hollerich attended the continental assemblies for Europe in Prague, for Asia in Bangkok, for Africa in Addis Ababa, and for Latin America in Bogotá. He could not attend the Oceania assembly in Suva, Fiji, because it coincided with the European one. Nevertheless, synod undersecretary Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J., was present there, as was the Australian bishop, the Most Rev. Timothy Costelloe, whom Cardinal Hollerich called “one of our close collaborators,” and they briefed him on what happened.
“I felt I had to be present at the continental synods and listen to the people of God,” Cardinal Hollerich said. “It was important to hear the different voices, to give justice to people; otherwise there’s the danger that you have your own concept and you try to push that through. So as relator, you have to listen to people, to the people of God and the different continents.”
Reflecting on these assemblies, he said: “I saw so many people all over the world coming together, praying and coming out with the same feeling. For me that is amazing. I—we—could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, the guidance of God. So, I am confident that God will continue to inspire us on this synodal journey.”
He reported back to Pope Francis, and from his conversations with the pope he concluded: “I think Pope Francis is very confident…. But he’s not overconfident in the sense that he also sees the difficulties…. It has stirred things up.”
New developments in Catholic synodality
Cardinal Hollerich agrees that the Synod on Synodality is very different from any other synod that has taken place since Paul VI first established the institution on Sept. 15, 1965, at the request of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). “It is a development,” he remarked. “Paul VI already indicated that there could be further development in synodality.”
Since Francis became pope, he said, “you see a development in all the synods” in terms of consultations before the synod meeting. At the Synod on the Family (2014-15), “there were some questions which are still very complicated for people even to understand.” For the world Synod on Youth (2018), “There was a pre-synod of the young people, and a lot of what these young people said entered the working document of that synod.” Then, for the Synod on the Amazon (2019), “you had REPAM [the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network] and a whole preparation network.” And now for this synod, Cardinal Hollerich said, “one more step has been taken; there has been a whole process that is part of the synod, and the synod of bishops that will be held in October 2023 and October 2024 is just the completion of that whole process.”
Even though lay women and men, clergy, and men and women religious—in other words, “non-bishops”—will participate as synod “members” with the right to vote alongside the bishops, Cardinal Hollerich said it will still be called a “Synod of Bishops.” He explained that the laity, clergy and religious from the different countries and continents present “have a special function: They are the testimonies to the [synodal] process” that has already taken place. “The bishops, for their part, have the full pastoral task of final discernment, but they cannot just discern about anything. There is a method for discernment, and there is first a listening experience before discernment. And so these testimonies in fact guarantee that the synod of bishops is a process [in continuity] with what has happened before.”
“I do not know if voting will be so important, at least in this October’s synod."
Pope Francis decreed that the lay people, religious and clergy who participate as members in the synod can vote for the first time. Cardinal Hollerich, however, suggested that voting may not be a major factor in the 2023 meeting of the synod. “I do not know if voting will be so important, at least in this October’s synod. We will have round tables [of small language groups]. There will be a lot of sharing, discernment in the Spirit. We should never forget that it’s a synod in two sessions. So perhaps there is no need to vote on anything during this first session. But we shall see, because we are open to all eventualities.”
He explained that the synod is “a spiritual event” that starts with prayer. There will be an ecumenical prayer service in St. Peter’s Square on Sept. 30, and a three-day retreat Oct. 1-3. During the general assembly Oct. 4-29, there will be some plenary sessions and many small group sessions, and each session will start with prayer. “The spiritual process has to be done, because otherwise, we are very close to what is called a parliament,” the cardinal said.
I think that we have to find, by experience also, a typical Catholic synodality which will be different from the Orthodox and the Protestant synodality, which does not mean that we want to degrade what they are doing. It will have to include the collegiality of bishops; it will have to also include the Primacy of Peter in the Catholic conventionality. And it is based on a process of discernment. So it’s [going to be] very different, let’s say, from the German Lutheran Church, where some people even call their synod a “church parliament.” And that’s what it’s not.
He underlined that “there are processes [to be followed]. Each small group, each round table, will have a facilitator to help the group. But I cannot predetermine how each group will react because the participants are free. So it’s not that we have designed a [specific] way according to which participants have to behave such that certain conclusions must be taken. No! It is really an open process under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and that’s what it should be.”
I recalled that there had been extensive consultation before the synod for the Amazon, but in the end, Pope Francis felt that there was not sufficient discernment on some questions in the synod itself. Cardinal Hollerich, who participated in that synod, recalled that there was a question that “just got the two-thirds majority vote” and “the pope didn’t look so happy.” Although the cardinal did not mention which “question” this was, the synod’s proposal to ordain mature, married men in the Amazon region had a vote of 128 to 41. While it received a two-thirds majority, it also had the largest number of “no” votes of any proposal at that synod. The cardinal explained that synodality is not a matter of “a majority vote” or “unanimity”; rather, Pope Francis wants the assembly “to get convinced by something.”
"Not all the bishops who are delegates have been participating very actively in the synod. So, there needs to be a certain formation.”
He agreed that this synod will be unlike any past synod where people used to come with prepared positions, often even written texts, on certain questions. He says there is a movement afoot on the continental scene to hold a meeting with the delegates before the synod as “a kind of formation to synodality,” because “the problem is that not all the bishops who are delegates have been participating very actively in the synod. So, there needs to be a certain formation.”
At the same time, he said, “We believe in the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit will even work in the hearts of these bishops.” Cardinal Hollerich did not refer specifically to any bishops, but some of the nominees, like Cardinal Gerhard Müller, have publicly criticized the Synod on Synodality and have not participated in the process hitherto.
The methodology that will be used at the October synod is a key factor in helping the synod members discern, the cardinal said. It is called “conversation in the Spirit,” and it is one of the fruits that has resulted from the listening and participating phases of the synod since the process started in October 2021.
He recalled that “in the beginning, we spoke about ‘spiritual conversation,’ but now we speak about ‘conversation in the Spirit.’” He recalled that in all the continental assemblies that were held in person (only the continental assembly for the United States and Canada was held online), “people mentioned this new way of conversation.” At the assembly for Asia held in Bangkok, for example, “they had to vote on the priorities of the final text, and they voted by table (small group) after their sharing, not by individual vote.” He acknowledged that “it’s easier in Asia to work this way because the group is more important [culturally] there, and group decisions are more important than in Europe or in the States.” He said, “This shows what is possible already. Everybody was happy with that. Nobody complained. Everybody felt that what she or he had said was taken seriously, even if there was no individual vote.”
This “conversation in the Spirit” methodology is “the fruit of synodality,” he said. “It’s the fruit of the experience that people have had in the synod process since it started. The method has arisen as a result, the method is part of the result and how the people of God can come to some common stances.”
Part II of this interview will be published July 14, 2023.