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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 29, 2023
Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Robert W. McElroy of San Diego and arrive for a session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican's Paul VI Audience Hall Oct. 17, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Following the closing Mass of the first session of the Synod on Synodality in Rome this October, Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, spoke with America’s Vatican correspondent about his experience of the meeting and the synod’s synthesis document, published Oct. 29.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerard O’Connell: What is your overall take on the synthesis document?

Cardinal Cupich: The document is not as important as the experience that we had. I think the document tries to convey that experience. And it does a good job. But my hope would be that we are able to take that experience back home and share it with our people because that really is what the synod is about. It’s a new way of being church.

At the same time, the document does call for a codification of synods in the future [being] done along these lines, rather than going back to what we did before. That’s a very important statement, made loud and clear in this document.

We were aware that there are people in the life of the church and in synod hall who had their doubts about synodality itself as a model for church life. There were calls to develop [that model], theologically, so that we’re clear about this. But there was no doubt whatsoever that this is not only a new way that the church is going to function, but, in fact, [that it is] tapping into the roots of our tradition. The church has been synodal from the very beginning. What we’re doing is recapturing something that can serve us well in this moment.

GO: You participated in past synods. How has the fact that you have non-bishops voting changed things?

Instead of having bishops say, “This is what our people are saying,” in the old synods, which we tried to do our best to do, we actually had people there. Young people, elderly people, religious men and women, who, in fact, were on the ground in pastoral ministry, who gave voice in ways that were fresh, were challenging, and in ways that maybe a bishop could not say before.

There was an actual paragraph that was passed overwhelmingly about non-bishops being a part of this: Does it in some way take away from the understanding that it’s a Synod of Bishops? And there was a resounding acceptance that non-bishops should be a part of it because it’s not a threat. It allows the bishops to have that immediate interaction with the voice of the whole church.

That’s important. It was pointed out to me that if you look at the votes and you strip away all of the non-bishops who were a part of the synod, the propositions still pass by 75 percent.

GO: But even in this document, they talk about the need to clarify whether this is a Synod of Bishops or an assembly of bishops. Some people raised objections.

They did, but I think that there were some propositions that said very clearly that non-bishops should be a part of [the process] going forward in the future.

GO: So you see no going back.

I don’t think there’s a need to go back. We have made some real progress here, and the bishops enjoyed having lay people there. It wasn’t [simply] tolerating it. Maybe there were some voices that had difficulties with it because they wanted it to be all bishops [but] very few. By and large, the bishops interacted really well with lay people at the tables.

GO: One of the big developments in this document is the role of women in the church.

We’re talking about a real paradigm shift here. We recognize the fact that women, de facto, carry the life of the church, on so many levels, to make it operational on a day-to-day basis. But I think it’s more than recognizing that; it’s dealing also with how you include women in important decision making, how you place them within the life of the community so that their leadership is regarded, respected and protected.

[The document] talks about different ministries that might be created to do that. I know that there was a lot of discussion about women deacons, and that was not resolved here. But it was very clear that the assembly called for a study and hopefully that we would have the results by the next [synod meeting]. I imagine it’s going to be taken up again.

But it’s not only about [making] everything about women deacons. There has to be another way in which we respect that women bring a particular gift to the life of the church, that if absent, impoverishes the church. How do we take advantage of their gifts and charisms? That’s an agenda that’s not complete yet.

GO: From what I’ve heard, there was a real overwhelming feeling among the participants in the synod that the women have to be recognized and to have spaces open for them in decision-making positions of responsibility. They mentioned the example of the pope appointing women to the Roman Curia.

People are delighted with that. There is a real sense of importance of that. Many bishops in different parts of the world said that women are running communities where there are not enough priests. They recognize that in many [countries] of the Southern Hemisphere women have a major role already. How is it, though, that they’re not being recognized as such?

Looking at the question of being a pastor of a parish, which seems to link the one who presides at the Eucharist with actual leadership: Is that a connection that is absolutely necessary? Or can there be a leader of a community who is not the presider at the Eucharist but still has the same responsibility, authority and role within the community as a pastor would have?

GO: So do you foresee that they may recognize new roles, new ministries for women?

There could be, but I would say, talking to some bishops, they tell me already that they have women serving “as pastors,” who are serving as the head of communities because they don’t have enough priests. They don’t have the title, however. How do we officially recognize that, rather than seeing it as kind of an exception? I think we have to ask the question: Are these roles for lay people in the life of the community today just a matter of temporarily substituting [them because of] the shortage of priests? Or is there something about their baptism that, in fact, allows them to be able to have those roles not just in a temporary way, but as really a part of the ministry that belongs to their baptism?

GO: I was struck by the focus on baptism in this document and on the dignity and equality that comes from baptism.

Go back to the reflection that Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., gave on authority. He said, “We have to start with the premise [that] everybody has authority by their baptism.” It’s a different kind of authority. But everybody has authority. So it’s not a matter of somebody’s authority being jeopardized. It’s not a zero-sum game.

If you’re co-responsible, you also have co-authority. You can’t separate those two. So how do we recognize the innate authority, the baptismal of authority of the laity in such a way that contributes to the building up of the life of the community? That was a very important reflection that he gave us; it turned heads. People talked about that one. They had never heard before that everybody has authority, a different kind of authority. Because you can’t say we’re all co-responsible if you don’t recognize that.

GO: One of the other big issues was the question of formation. The pope gave a very powerful intervention on formation. And formation comes out in many places in this document.

It’s making sure that people who are called upon in the life of the church, to offer service to our ministry, that we invest in them; we don’t take advantage of their goodwill and generosity and put them in a place without providing them with the resources in order to flourish in that position. It’s not just a matter of people who are efficient and accomplish things. But how do they reflect upon it as part of their living out their baptism? That’s important.

There was one other thing that shouldn’t be missed in the formation: The new ratio fundamentalis for seminaries does not allow for women to be involved as formators. But the document we passed clearly stated that women should be involved, not just in teaching, but also in formation work. There might be an open discussion about what that means.

GO: There was a lot of discussion about bishops in the synod. The document included a proposal for looking for ways to evaluate a bishop’s performance, to relook at the criteria for candidates for bishops, to ask if the role of the Metropolitan should be revisited.

Those questions have not been raised before. You know, every organization that has credibility has some sort of an evaluative tool, a performance review of people. We do it, many dioceses now do it, with the priests; we do it with the laypeople and so on. So I think I would welcome that. This is not to be critical of the bishop. But like any performance review, it’s done in such a way that allows the individual to grow in the work that they’re doing, because you can encourage things that are going well and also address areas of concern. This is a mature way of assisting an individual to grow within their own ministry and service.

They also talked about the need for greater participation in the selection of bishops. I’ve always been for that. There should be broad and wide consultation. But [it should include] people who really know the individual, too. You can’t just cast a wide net out there. It does put a lot of pressure on the nuncios to be able to do some real serious investigation of where this individual that is being considered has served and making sure that they get the right list.

GO: So you get input from laypeople?

Yes, and religious women and priests, not just bishops. Many times in the past, it used to be that the bishops were the only ones who were asked about these things. It was interesting, too, that there was a call for evaluating nuncios.

That’s a broader question with regard to the Holy See. A lot has been done with regard to how the various dicasteries can perform better. There have been some studies of dicasteries in the past. So if they’re going to do that for nuncios, I think there should be performance reviews as well here in the Vatican. For those who lead major congregations.

GO: Is that in the document as well?

No. I just think it’s best practice. I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it. I think it sets a standard by which you use [a] human resource standard that is in the long run much better for an organization.

GO: This document talks about the church’s response to the abuse crisis. How do you read what is in the document on this?

First of all, it was on the mind of people—that we can’t shove this under the rug and that we have to hold people accountable. There have to be measures by which we evaluate how we’re doing with safeguarding. But in all of the various references to this particular topic, I was pleased that, for the most part, it began by putting the child in the middle of the room and making the safety of the child the priority. I’ve always said, if you start with putting the child in middle of a room, you get it right, no matter what the question is. That’s present in this document.

GO: There was a section on truth and love where the document talks about controversial issues and how to address them. In that section, the term L.G.B.T. doesn’t specifically appear. What do you see [that] is addressing that issue? Because it was discussed a lot in the synod.

Yes, it was. And it’s reflected in terms of how people identify their sexuality. And it was broader than the letters of L.G.B.T.Q. It also dealt with people who are in their second marriage.

What was being conveyed in the synod discussions and what the document tried to pick up was, first of all, that we should not start just with condemnations. [We should] also get to know people and realize that in many discussions, we don’t know a whole lot. We have to really be careful about going full forward and pronouncing on things because we believe that there’s a violation of God’s law or a church protocol. We really have to accompany people; nobody should feel excluded.

I would say this, [in regard to] the discussions about the L.G.B.T.Q. community: There was greater discussion about that than polygamy. And polygamy was named in the document.

It was interesting that when [the document] dealt with the question of ecumenism, it made an interesting distinction between ecclesial communion and sacramental communion, in which you have people who are of a different Christian faith tradition, who might not have full ecclesial communion, but [it asks]: Is there a possibility to reimagine what sacramental communion means? Is there an analogy that can be used with regard to people who might not be in full and complete ecclesial union because of some aspect of their life, and sacramental communion? Much along the lines of what the pope says: that the Eucharist is not a reward but a source of healing. I am not sure how to unpack all of that.

But I wonder whether or not there is an analogy—and analogies are not similitudes where they’re exactly the same. Because to talk about people who are in different Christian faith traditions and people who are in irregular life situations and Catholic surely are two different things.

But once you begin to introduce a distinction between ecclesial and sacramental communion, it might provide some insight into how to approach these issues in terms of including people.

GO: Were you surprised that there was less explicit reference to L.G.B.T. issues in the document?

Yes. Only because there was, at least in the groups that I was in, quite a bit of reference to that. People spoke of their experiences. There were some very compelling testimonies on the part of people about that in terms of their families. That was was not fully reflected in the document.

That doesn’t mean we’re not going to return to it next year. I think that’s going to happen.

I would say this, [in regard to] the discussions about the L.G.B.T.Q. community: There was greater discussion about that than polygamy. And polygamy was named in the document. And it was not a universal problem. And an issue like the gay and lesbian community would be.

But one thing that was in the same paragraph [on sexuality and identity] was that the church has the responsibility to defend the human dignity of everybody. And that’s a powerful message, particularly in some countries, where, in fact, gay and lesbian people are prosecuted, even put to death, I think it was a clarion call to all of the church, that we cannot tolerate that kind of violence against people. And we have to defend human dignity.

GO: Now this document is going back to the dioceses. It should be going to your bishops’ conference in November. Will it?

I believe that what our bishops’ conference is going to do is commit a good amount of time to talk about this but also to hear the voices, not just of the bishops, but some of the other people who were there.

The most important thing we have to communicate are not the various issues but the experience that we have had. I have said before that the bishops of the Second Vatican Council only brought back the decisions. They never shared with us the experience or replicated it. I think we have an opportunity now to replicate the experience we’ve had here in the next 11 months, then to come back and be able to share what it is that the people of God had said to us when they have experienced a synodal process the way we did?

I think that’s the challenge before us. And in fact, I think that the document moves in that direction. That very beautiful statement at the end is a call to action. And I think that’s something I’m going to take seriously in my own diocese.

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