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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 10, 2023
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, India, attends a Vatican news conference in this Oct. 26, 2015, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

India’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias believes that synodality is the way forward in the Catholic Church in the coming years, but he also sees there could be “roadblocks” to its realization, just as there have been roadblocks to the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. He told this to America’s Vatican correspondent in an exclusive interview on Oct. 30 at Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where Pope Francis lives and where the cardinal stayed during the Synod on Synodality.

In an hour-long interview, the cardinal shared his views on the synod and emphasized the importance of making productive use of the 11 months between now and the opening of the final session of the synod in October 2024, including in the field of canon law.

Cardinal Gracias, 78, was appointed archbishop of Bombay, India, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 and was made a cardinal in 2007. One of Asia’s most distinguished prelates, he is serving a second term as president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, and from 2012 to 2019 he was president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. Pope Francis appointed him a member of the Council of Cardinal advisors in 2013, a position he still holds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerard O’Connell: You’ve been to many synods in your life. How does this differ from previous ones?

Cardinal Gracias: This synod is certainly different from other synods in the sense that the participation was different; it included the people of God and lots of non-bishops. I see advantages and disadvantages to both types of synods. In the previous ones, you’re quite pointed, you save time, you’re worried about efficiency. Here, there was no hurry, except at the very end when we had to vote on the final document and the letter to the people of God, and we realized we were running short on time.

India’s Cardinal Oswald Gracias believes that synodality is the way forward in the Catholic Church in the coming years, but he also sees there could be “roadblocks” to its realization.

Many said they liked it very much. I see there are two types, with advantages to both. I would not blindly say that this [synod] was outstanding in that sense. You can see advantages when the bishops meet by themselves; it’s a different atmosphere, a certain seriousness, a certain depth of theology. Here, theology was not the priority. It was more [about asking]: what are the needs, what is the church thinking, which is very important, too.

The synthesis document says “synodality is the future of the church.”

I would not express it that way. I would say it’s natural that the church is moving toward synodality, but when you say “the future,” it means everything depends on synodality. I don’t think it does.

I see synodality as a natural outcome of ecclesiology and theology, understanding our baptismal responsibility, the need for an inclusive church, a participatory church. Pope Francis has been particularly insistent on bringing everybody together, and this is not just because it’s nice to be together. Rather, it’s giving value to our baptismal calling.

I wouldn’t exaggerate by saying it’s “the future.” Rather, I would say it’s a natural development, and Pope Francis has made a tremendous leap forward by getting everybody to feel part of the church, reminding everybody of their responsibility. It directly confronts clericalism also. Clericalism, where the clerics are people of power, is not good for the church. Synodality is a game changer in that sense.

I know there’s some hesitation about synodality. I would be happy to hear from those who oppose synodality and hear their objections so we can answer them. We must be open and listen to those voices also.

You had the chance of doing that at the synod, where there was a place for “divergences,” but that section disappeared in the final document.

It disappeared in the sense that instead of using the word “divergences,” we used [the expression] “matters to be considered.” Really, [the divergences] are there. The synod secretariat and the redactors have been very fair, and they put into the synthesis document everything that everybody said; it’s very comprehensive. No one can say that the redacting committee had an agenda and were steering the synod in a particular direction.

It’s natural that the church is moving toward synodality, but when you say “the future,” it means everything depends on synodality. I don’t think it does.

But we’ve got to prioritize now for the sake of having a productive session next October. Much work will have to be done by the synod secretariat.

I don’t think there is time for the whole discernment process of getting the dioceses involved, the conferences involved, the continental groups. One year is too short to get feedback from all that. They’ve got to prioritize synodality.

That’s the central theme, really.

Yes! The issue is: What is synodality, and how are we going to be a better, more synodal church? What are the implications, what is the outcome? The convergences and divergences should have been on synodality, not on other matters.

Many who participated in the synod said they don’t see any going back now from involving all the people of God in future synods. Is that how you see it?

Not necessarily. I can see that in this synod that [feeling] has come out so strongly because we’ve got the very clear ecclesiology, we’ve got people who have said synodality is important, we’ve gone ahead. I don’t think we can go back on synodality. Synodality involves walking together, but how do you do that? This is one method of synodality, and we’re still evolving it.

It’s a work in progress.

That’s a very accurate description. But there will be roadblocks, certainly, which everybody is aware of. There are people who have objected to it. Some bishops’ conferences, some bishops have not taken it seriously. Now, I’d like to engage them—for the sake of the church, for unity in the church, for the sake of making synodality more effective. You will get that only if you really listen to all the voices and try to get everybody on board.

Do you see future synods continuing with lay participation?

Not necessarily so. Looking to the future, I think we’re evolving to a state where there could be a three-tiered synod. First, broad consultation with lots of lay people, even more than what there’s been up to now, and then a synod of mainly bishops, with some lay people. Second tier: really the bishops, collegiality, because of the college of bishops is all about this. And finally, the papal magisterium. The Holy Father wants to consult the people of God. I think this is the direction we possibly, even probably will move ahead to. I don’t think that we would go back. But we could; it could happen.

I hope we don’t go back. I think this is a beautiful moment; I hope it affects civil society also. As a church, we can’t be inward-looking. The church doesn’t exist for herself. Our Lord founded the church not to make a small group of holy people; he really wanted it to be outgoing and therefore, theologically, I think synodality has got to move ahead to be effective, to influence the outside world.

As I see it, this synodal method is overcoming polarization, which is a major problem in the church and world today.

There was no polarization at the synod. That is one of the biggest results, the effect of this process.

The retreat before made a big difference to the atmosphere, the preparation; everybody came back with a little calm and peace, and then you can get into the conversation in the spirit. That method helped us enormously. It overcomes polarization by recognizing divergences. That was a big achievement in comparison with the past.

Regrettably, however, there are people who are not on board. We shouldn’t be complacent thinking everything has gone well, even though we’ve worked very well.

When you return home, what do you think you should do in the light of the synod?

This year should not be just an empty waiting period. If the next session is to be fruitful, I think there should be experimentation, implementation and feedback. If we want to help the Holy Father to take a decision and give more direction, we’ve got to give accurate feedback. But there’s not much time.

As you look forward, what do you hope for in the next session of the Synod of Synodality in October 2024?

Right now we must concentrate on the next session. That’s absolutely essential, not to lose the momentum we’ve gained and the progress made. The Holy Father said that our Lord wants the church to be a synodal church. He felt that in prayer, and therefore I think that’s what the Lord wants; and we’ve got to get on with it, seeking to implement Vatican II.

The pope always, from the beginning, has been saying, “I’m not bringing something new; it’s there in Vatican II,” which I think is true. Now, we must keep up the momentum.

There’s a recognition that there are differences, and importantly, there’s a recognition of the different cultures.

There’s recognition from outside, theoretically. But now, there’s also a consciousness among us in Asia of our own continent and what we can give the world church. There’s a recognition of the contribution that we in Asia can make to the world church because of our own circumstances, culture and interreligious background. That is a big plus point.

Do you see roadblocks to the synodal path?

I can see roadblocks to the synodal way, just like there were roadblocks after Vatican II to its implementation, and perhaps even bigger ones, because then there was great momentum.

I can see roadblocks to the synodal way, just like there were roadblocks after Vatican II to its implementation, and perhaps even bigger ones.

The challenge now is how to make sure synodality goes forward. One of the things I personally feel is that we should study the codes of canon law because they affect the lives of people. We should study both codes—those of the Latin and of the Eastern churches—and start implementing what is already there for the women, laypeople, deacons and so on but also see what has to be updated.

The synod document advocates reviewing aspects of canon law. As a canon lawyer, how do you see it?

I would be in agreement with that. But we should not wait for the final session to start before studying the changes because it takes a long time. These things need research, consultation, getting [input from] different cultural backgrounds because it’s for the universal church. I’m a little wary of waiting until 2024, because it will be 2025 before we begin to start thinking of it.

Some say synodality is the project of Pope Francis and wonder what will happen when he’s no longer pope. How do you read it?

Certainly, Pope Francis has taken a leading role. He’s given the call, and he’s personally accompanied this whole process from the beginning. But it’s not a personal project of the pope. I’ve been working closely with Pope Francis [from the beginning], and I can see that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church [through him]. In prayer, the pope has come to this conclusion that the Holy Spirit wants the church to go this synodal way.

Like John XXIII who said, in his first encyclical, “Ad Petri Cathedram,” that he felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to call the Second Vatican Council.

That’s true. He did not know what he was calling; he didn’t know what would be the outcome,

but he felt inspired. I see that also in Pope Francis. He appeared simple at the very beginning, and then he’s made so many changes, he’s opened the church so much, and this [synodal way] is one of those [changes]. Therefore, I feel we should not go back. I know that there are roadblocks. I know that somebody will put on the brakes. But I believe the church will go forward [on this way]. It is the work of the Spirit. It will not die out. It will carry on.

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