Signs of the Times

Consistory of Cardinals Meets with Pope

In the largest meeting of its kind ever held at the Vatican, more than 150 cardinals joined Pope John Paul II to discuss questions of collegiality, dialogue and evangelization in the church. The pope opened the consistory, which met from May 21 to 24, with a prayer and a request for the cardinals’ input, saying he wanted a free and fraternal exchange of opinions. In response, the cardinals lined up to speak on a wide range of topics, including the role of the papacy and the need to improve relations between the Vatican and local church communities.

Two suggestions came from U.S. cardinals: preparation of a document that would clarify what is meant by the term new evangelization and an annual, worldwide synod of bishops that would have an open agenda for the purpose of providing more communication and unity of purpose within the church. Other cardinals focused on renewal of personal holiness, pastoral problems of the family, challenges of ecumenism, opportunities offered by modern media and the demands of justice and charity in globalization.


In a welcoming talk on May 21, the pope avoided specifics. He said the church needs to find the best ways to evangelize in modern societies, prioritizing its goals and evaluating every level of its pastoral operations. He described the meeting as a follow-up to the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and to his recent document, Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the New Millennium), which outlined pastoral aims and obstacles for the coming years.

The 81-year-old pope sat facing the cardinals in the Vatican Synod Hall, flanked by three prelates chosen to moderate the discussions: Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, dean of the College of Cardinals; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state.

All 183 cardinals were invited, and 155 attended the opening session. The meeting was a first-time experience for more than half the participants. The consistory was held behind closed doors, but the Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, gave brief-ings on the cardinals’ discussions, and the Vatican released texts of the main opening talks. The cardinals also spoke to reporters, and some made their speeches available.

Three introductory talks on May 21 provided an orientation for the discussions.

French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who presided over planning for the jubilee year, said the jubilee was a massive success that brought a needed spotlight to the liturgical life of the church. He also underlined the social aspect of the jubilee, saying the biblically rooted call to charity and poverty must permeate the entire church. Here, perhaps, we touch the most provocative question and the most urgent question for evangelization in the new millennium. Only a church that is poor can become a missionary church, and only a missionary church can demand a church that is poor, he said.

Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, another architect of jubilee events, said the jubilee experience of prayer, penitence and pilgrimage had left the church revitalized. Now it is important not to lose the spiritual momentum, he said. Later in the day, French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris spoke about the need for conversion and charity as the source of all renewal in the church. He said change can be accepted if it expresses greater mercy for the weak and poor and greater fidelity to Christ.

The meeting was a thematic free-for-all, Ukrainian Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Lviv, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, told reporters. But he said one recurring point was the need for the church’s central administration to keep in touch with the base, with the people, with bishops.

The idea of an annual synod of bishops, which several cardinals said was raised by Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, was seen as providing a forum for more open communication. The idea was that if the bishops met on a regular basis, it would give the Vatican and the Holy Father a chance to have more direct contact with what is happening at the base, Cardinal Husar said.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, called the restoration of Christian unity the theme of the new millennium. The German prelate said that despite the church’s great ecumenical advances since the Second Vatican Council, resistance and misunderstandings persist among some Christians, including Catholics.

U.S. Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., noted that papal primacy is often viewed as an ecumenical obstacle; but he pointed out that on the other hand, the lack of a central authority has caused doctrinal and disciplinary problems for some non-Catholic Christian communities.

Cardinal Lubomyr Husar said union with the Orthodox Churches should require only their openness to full communion with the successor of Peter. Everything else must remain intact. We must not ask anything more than this, he said. With union, he said, we Eastern Catholic Churches will have concluded our historic function and can rejoin the family of the currently Orthodox sister churches, as was our condition before the divisions.

A number of cardinals spoke about how to best evangelize in modern cultures. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles suggested preparation of a Directory on the New Evangelization, saying the term new evangelization has been much used and now needs to be better defined and applied in local churches.

In a speech praised by several participants, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore examined the evangelization opportunities of mass media, especially the Internet, which he said offers a direct channel to millions of people. He also said the church should reach out to and meet with media leaders.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said the church needs to show it cares for the poor by helping to build globalization with a conscience, so that new market forces do not benefit only the rich. If globalization helps only wealthy individuals and developed nations, it will divide the world as it has never been divided before, he said.

Several speakers talked about the need to renew the spiritual life of individual Christians, with one cardinal proposing what he called the globalization of holiness for the whole church. Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino also called for a bold, new pastoral plan of holiness for all Catholics.

Cardinal Francisco álvarez Martínez of Toledo, Spain, said the problems of the family, especially married couples, were the great challenge to the church’s social teaching of today. That was seconded by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who said his agency was preparing a lexicon of new terminology on sexual and marital issues.

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia cited the high numbers of cohabitating couples and out-of-wedlock births in the United States to show that the concept of marriage is challenged. Reached by telephone, Cardinal Bevilacqua told CNS that his speech went beyond statistics to examine the whole field of marriage and family life. He declined to elaborate.

Several cardinals called for improved communications between the Vatican and local bishops. As an example of areas that need improvement, one cardinal criticized the Vatican’s occasional practice of releasing church documents before they have been sent to dioceses and bishops’ conferences. In early May, some bishops made the same complaint about the Vatican’s recent instruction on translating liturgical texts.

A number of cardinals explicitly thanked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief and a consistory moderator, for his office’s declaration last September underscoring the unique role of Jesus in salvation. Among them, Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit said the document Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus) constituted a point of reference for discerning the balance between evangelization and dialogue.

Some cardinals wanted changes in the Synod of Bishops to make it a more responsive and effective instrument of cooperation among the pope, the Vatican and local churches. Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said he thought the church could use a synod that is more supple and less tied to the standard format of speech-giving. The framework [of synods] now is quite conciliar. Therefore, it’s not a forum for give and take, except in the small groups, Cardinal George said in an interview on May 23. It is very concerned about protecting the voice of each member, which is a good concern. But in protecting that value, it has sacrificed the kind of give-and-take discussion where ideas can be honed on the floor of the synod itself, he said.

Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Malines-Brussels, Belgium, told reporters that many cardinals spoke about the need to improve the synod process. What is absent in synods today is the possibility to have a debate. Bishops should be much more frank in their speaking. There are too many homilies. He said it would be better to proceed by topics in synods and similar meetings.

One irony was that the May consistory ended up being run like a brief synod, with three days of speech-giving followed by small-group discussions and a final report to Pope John Paul II. The structure is synodal, which surprised me, said Cardinal George. It is a synod in miniature. And the synod is a council in miniature. We still haven’t found that more supple framework for these discussions that I think would be helpful, he said. Cardinal George added, however, that there was one big advantage in the more formal, speech-giving format: It gives the floor to individual cardinals who can speak without fear of contradiction and challenge for eight or nine minutes.

The consistory had small-group discussions on the morning of May 23. Reports from each language group were read that evening to the full assembly, along with a final report written by Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez of Guadalajara.

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