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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 14, 2023
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, relator general of the Synod of Bishops, speaks at a news conference to present an update on the synod process, at the Vatican in this Aug. 26, 2022, file photo. Looking on is Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod. The upcoming assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be focused on communion, participation and mission. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I sat down with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich at the Jesuit Curia in Rome on the afternoon of June 30. The following article, based on that conversation, is the second part of that interview. The first part can be found here. 

In the second part of this interview, Cardinal Hollerich, the relator general of the synod of bishops that opens in the Vatican on Oct. 4, explains that the synod seeks to recover the synodality that existed in the earlier history of the church, but which had largely disappeared. “We want the fullness of synodality back in the church,” he said. He also discusses the method of “conversation in the Spirit” and how that can help sideline the polarization that is present today in the church. He emphasizes that the theme of the synod is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission” and said that the synod may disappoint both the right and the left—for different reasons.

The synod’s working document includes three worksheets relating, respectively, to communion, mission and participation. Each worksheet contains five key questions that will act as a guide for the discussion in the small groups. When each question is broken down into sub-questions, almost all the major topics that were discussed in previous synods during this pontificate are present.

Cardinal Hollerich, who is from Luxemburg, explained that all these questions are there “not because we put them there, but because the people of God has raised them in the assemblies.” He emphasized, however, that the October synod is not a synod on single issues, like homosexuality or women’s ordination; “it is a synod on synodality,” and the other topics “appear only insofar as they are related to the theme of the synod.”

The Synod Is Implementing Vatican II

The cardinal said: “We know, when we look back to the church fathers, that synodality is part of the essence of the church. It disappeared very much [over the centuries], but it never completely disappeared. It has always remained in religious congregations and orders and so on. There were always synodal ‘animas’ (souls). But now we want to have that fullness of synodality back in the church to continue the path that Pope Paul VI has opened up.”

“This means going back to Vatican II,” I said. The cardinal agreed: “Yes, of course. This is not Vatican III, as some people say. This is going back to Vatican II, taking Vatican II seriously, trying to implement Vatican II.”

"This is not Vatican III, as some people say. This is going back to Vatican II, taking Vatican II seriously."

The Second Vatican Council has given all the elements; there is no new element given by us. Everything which is there is in the council. And also when you look to Christ, to the person of Christ, it’s not revelation, like in ‘Dei Verbum’; it’s the person of Christ himself. It’s true that there are many particular truths, but they’re all attached to the person of Christ. You cannot, let us say, isolate completely a truth from revelation in the person of Christ.”

Addressing Controversial Topics

Cardinal Hollerich went on: “The right is frustrated already because there is a synod [open to addressing issues] like that, and some words make them angry, so that they react against the words without looking at what has been said with these words, and how it has been said. And there will be a left who want a change of the church in its doctrine, but that will not happen.”

Significantly, however, the cardinal foresees that “there will be a change in the way of treating the topics” and that synodality may be a way to overcome the divisions on contentious issues. “How can a body like the Catholic Church make decisions? Just from above, it’s very difficult. Just from below, it’s nearly impossible. So we need a new way of decision making, and I think we should have the tools in the synod [for this],” he said.

“However,” he added, “this does not mean that all the differences get evened out. I mean, it would be very naïve to think that people come out and share the same opinions about all the topics in the church. But you can accept that your sister, your brother, has a different opinion and you can be in deep communion with them.” Cardinal Hollerich said he had seen examples of this in the continental assemblies.

According to the synod’s working document, “shared questions” and “shared tensions” have emerged worldwide during the first two phases of the synod process. Cardinal Hollerich remarked: “Tensions can be very fruitful. If we are afraid of tensions, we cannot move any more nowadays, because whatever you say could create more tensions. But we have to walk together as church. We have to answer the call of God. Where does God want the church to go? And if the church moves, it will be like the exodus. There will be some very dire moments, there will be tensions, of course. But that’s part of the way.”

"Tensions can be very fruitful. If we are afraid of tensions, we cannot move any more."

Since the working document says there is likely to be a need after the 2023 synod session for theological reflections and for discussions about changes in canon law, I asked the cardinal to give an example where he thinks there might be such a need. He cited the role of parish and pastoral councils, which are currently optional under canon law but may be necessary in the future. “Today that’s a possibility in canon law, but I think it should be more than a possibility. Because how can you as a bishop be the pastor of the church if there is no way of knowing what people think and feel about the church?” he asked.

He explained that councils are a good way for a bishop to be exposed to perspectives he may not have encountered. “I’m now [a] bishop for 12 years. And you are surrounded by a small group of people who have got more or less the same education as you, very often even at the same schools as you, and that’s not a very broad basis,” he said. “You need a broader basis; you have to learn what people think, what are their deep desires.”

At the same time, “It does not necessarily mean that you have to fulfill every wish. It’s not a kind of synodal fairy,” the cardinal said. He stressed that it is important for a bishop to be able to explain his decisions to the people. “You cannot just say I am the boss, you do it. If people tell you I do not understand your explanation—because that is what happens for many points in the church—you have to be able to explain it in such a way that people understand it. Otherwise, they cannot live with it,” he said.

Cardinal Hollerich said that, given his position, he hesitates to make suggestions regarding possible changes.

Defining Communion, Participation and Mission

Taking up the synod’s triple theme of communion, participation and mission, I asked if Cardinal Hollerich could synthesize in simple language what communion is, because when people hear the word they usually think of holy Communion or sharing.

The cardinal recognizes the difficulty, saying that there had been difficulty in translating the word “communion” during earlier synod sessions.

In German, for example, they say Gemeinschaft, which is “community.” Now, community has to do with communion, but it’s not exactly the same concept. When I think of communion, I first think of the communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So in the church it has to do with that communion. Communion has to do with communion with Christ. When we participate in Mass, as you say, through the Holy Spirit, God the Father puts us in communion with the death and resurrection of his Son. So it’s much more than an individualistic interpretation of one sacrament. It’s the mystery of the church in itself.

As for the word mission, Cardinal Hollerich said:

There is no church without mission. If we have no mission, then we are a club where we do some activities, [such as] liturgical activities and charity activities. But we are not a club; we have a mission from Christ. And we have to fulfill that mission. And that mission is not just given to the bishops and the priests; every baptized person is called to live the mission of the church, which is to proclaim Christ, risen from the dead. It’s the kerygma [proclaiming the Gospel] of the church that will be proclaimed in many different ways.

For example, he said: “There is a direct kerygma, there is somebody committed for the refugees and for the poor, somebody committed [to the] environment, for creation. That’s part of the mission of the church. That’s how we manifest that we believe in Christ risen from the dead. And if the church has no mission, if it becomes a sacramental consumption club, there is something wrong. And the essence of sacraments gets lost.”

"If the church has no mission, if it becomes a sacramental consumption club, there is something wrong."

As for the word participation, he said that this means the co-responsibility of everyone carrying out the church’s mission but in different ways.So the church is one body, the pilgrim church, the church on the move through times,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful.”

What Will Result From the Synod?

Since the cardinal suggested in Part I of this interview that there might not be voting at the end of the Oct. 2023 session of the synod, I asked if he thinks it likely that the assembly may produce a synthesis document. He responded: “Or we will have further questions. That’s also a possibility.”

“What will we do between the 2023 session and the 2024 session? I do not know. It will depend on what the synod asks for, because up to now we always have circularity, going back all the time to the local churches.” He added, “Of course, I have many ideas, but they’re even contradictory sometimes, and as relator I have to be very prudent about saying anything, because I do not want to be [seen as] manipulating the synod…. I think it’s the synod itself that has to show the way.”

He agreed with me when I remarked, “So in the words of [St. John Henry] Newman, it’s ‘lead, kindly light.’”

Cardinal Hollerich has been a bishop for 12 years, since Benedict XVI appointed him as archbishop of Luxemburg. I asked what is changing fundamentally for him now with this synodal journey.

He responded: “We are walking. I mean, the council said the image of the church is the people of God, walking with Christ. And I feel now it’s happening. We have started to walk and Christ must be the center. If Christ is not center, some people will walk to the right, others will walk to the left. We have to work together, with Christ. I am also not afraid that not all the questions will get answers [at the synod]. Because if we learn in the process how to live with differences inside this church walking together, it will be a wonderful outcome.”

Asked what kind of a church he expects to see emerge in these coming years, given the enormous changes that are taking place in today’s world, Cardinal Hollerich said, “I hope we will have a church which will not be afraid of changes in the world, which will see the presence of God in this world and be able to serve it and proclaim the Gospel in this way.”

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