In the wake of the announcement of the new composition of the Synod of Bishops, 64-year-old Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and relator general of the upcoming assembly, takes stock of the work in an interview with Vatican media.
Andrea Tornielli (AT): The Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023 will include a significant number of voting members who are not bishops: priests, religious men and women, laymen and laywomen, with 50 per cent women and a special focus on the participation of young people. What is the significance of this decision?
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich (CH): It is not really new, because in the past there have already been members with voting rights who were not bishops. There were no women voters, but there were non-bishop members. It can therefore be said that that small group now becomes larger.
The Synod remains [a Synod] of the bishops, because the bishop is always the pastor of his Church; one cannot see the function separated from his people, from his people. I am the archbishop of Luxembourg, when I am in Rome I miss my Church: I think of the people I see in the first row, the second row, the third row in the cathedral, I think of those I meet every day… and I miss them. A small part of these people will be present at the Synod to be with their pastors. They will have a special mission, they have already had a great experience of synodality in the dioceses, then at the level of the bishops’ conferences and finally at the continental level. Not all the bishops who will participate have had this experience. Therefore, the task of these new members is to be witnesses of what they have experienced in order to communicate it.
AT: Despite this, the Synod remain ‘of the bishops’?
CH: Yes, it remains so because the bishops are the majority! It is up to the bishops to undertake a discernment, which has been done at different levels and ultimately arrives at the Holy Father. Now there is the bishops’ stage, but there is a matter of discernment and this matter has been offered by the people of God. The new members of the Synod represent, so to speak, the ‘non-episcopal’ portion of the people of God.
AT: Can it be said that it is a synod of bishops accompanied by a representation of the people of God?
CH: But bishops also belong to the people of God! At least I want to belong to them… otherwise I would feel bad!
The subject of the Synod
AT: ‘Synod on synodality’ is a rather technical title, which sounds far removed from people’s lives. For those who have lived this experience, however, it is exactly the opposite. Can you tell us what the subject of this synod is?
CH: [It is] this: how we, together, can be a missionary Church, today and tomorrow. How we can be a synodal and missionary Church.
I think it is important to emphasise this: this is not an analysis or meditation, no! We are there to live the Church as God desires for our times, to proclaim the Gospel to the world, to our contemporaries. And this is beautiful.
The Church has always been synodal. St John Chrysostom says that Synod and Church are synonymous… The path we are on, the involvement of the whole people of God, shows that the Holy Spirit is leading us in such a way as to put into practice what the Second Vatican Council, and in particular the Constitution Lumen gentium affirmed.
AT: So at the centre of the next General Assembly is this way of being Church, and not individual topics?
CH: Yes, and I believe this is also a response to the sickness of our time. Because what characterises our post-modern or digital time, as we could call it, is an individualism that is becoming more pronounced every day. And we see that with this individualism humanity cannot subsist: we need community elements to survive.
Then there is the phenomenon of growing polarisation, in society and in the media, even in those outlets that have reference to Catholicism.
The people of God walking together is a response to these tendencies. Be careful here: it is not that we have ‘invented’ synodality to respond to these tendencies, but rather it is the Holy Spirit who in this period has rekindled the desire for synodality already experienced by the first Christian communities. And it is a way to respond to the challenges we face, because otherwise humanity is in danger.
A spiritual conversation
AT: The Pope often emphasises the importance of listening in a time when everyone talks and everyone is engaged in polemics, but few listen…
CH: As a bishop, I see that when I listen I sometimes change my mind, and that is good for me. My diocese is not large: my country has 660,000 inhabitants, but the bishop has an entourage of people who have more or less studied the same things, sometimes in the same places, with the same professors. They think in the same way. There is evidence that is not obvious to every member of the people of God. In that sense it is good to have this openness, to know how to listen.
And it is also good for people to go and listen to the bishops, because bishops have not only the role of listening but also the role of offering answers and being shepherds of the people.
We do not have a synodal parliamentarianism, where the majority decides and everyone follows. The synod is not a parliament. We want to discern the will of God, to let the Holy Spirit lead us.
AT: How does this process take place?
CH: It is a spiritual process; and that is why we have this spiritual conversation, or rather this conversation in the Spirit: it is a way of listening and entering into dialogue, not with an attitude of opposition, in order to reach a common conclusion. It is clear that there is always a need for conversion in this process: sometimes it is the bishop who must convert, sometimes it is the laity who must also convert.
AT: It happens that even in the Church one is confronted with a political mentality, that one wants to ‘count’ in order to obtain certain results. What is it that really makes the difference?
CH: A certain ecclesiastical parliamentarianism belongs more to the synodality of our Protestant brothers. We must practise a Catholic synodality, which is different. We have ordained ministries, the collegiality of bishops, responsibility for the Church, the primacy of Peter. All this will not be eradicated with synodality.
Rather, synodality is the horizon in which the bishops’ collegiality and the Pope’s primacy are exercised, to seek God’s will together.
So it is not a matter of saying: ‘Here is this problem, there are these two positions, whoever has the majority wins and it will be done like this’. Because that destroys the Church. We do not want that. We must walk together as a Church community.
AT: What does ‘walking together’ mean concretely?
CH: When we walk, Christ is the centre. There are people on the right, on the left, there are those who walk further ahead, there are those who take longer and stay behind: it is normal when we walk together. We must learn that certain tensions in the Church are normal: it means the Church is close to the people, because not everyone thinks in the same way on all continents, on all issues. So it is important to listen with a lot of respect, also for different cultures, seeking God’s will, to decide together the way forward.
Since there are several people who ‘place’ me on the left, let us say that I am walking on the left. If I take Christ as the centre and look at Him from the left, I do not see Him alone, I see Christ with the people walking on the right. I cannot see Christ without also seeing them: that means that those walking on the right are also part of my community. It means we have to walk together. I hope the same experience happens to those who are walking on the right side, those who go forward, those who go behind…
If Christ is truly the centre – and the Holy Spirit is the instrument and the guarantee that the Lord who died and rose again is at the centre – we are all missionary disciples.
AT: Sometimes it seems, however, that we are busy or preoccupied with something else, with structures and strategies…
CH: The Church cannot always be busy talking about its structures, its organisation. Wouldn’t you find it strange to have a football club where you only talk about the rules without ever playing a game? There won’t be many people to join that club and support the team! It is the same for the Church: our faith is lived by serving, in the Church and outside the Church. It is lived in service to God and in service to people.
The novelty of the continental stage
AT: What was the experience and also the novelty of the continental stage of the Synod?
CH: It was very beautiful, we saw what the different episcopal conferences proposed at the level of the different continents.
We also saw the differences: for example, in most of the continental stages everyone loved the image of the tent. In Africa, however, they did not, because the tent for them is the tent of refugees, it is the tent of misery, of poverty, and they prefer the image of the family of God. They explain that the tent cannot be enlarged, it tears, while the family can be enlarged.
I realised at that moment that we cannot present just one image, but several images that speak to the different religious cultures of our peoples. And I am sure that those who love the image of the tent can learn something from the image of the family of God, and vice versa. It was important to attend the continental conferences, I did so not to speak, not to influence, but to listen, to realise the diversity that is experienced. We will have to do this at the Synod of Bishops.
AT: What emerges from the eight final documents, those of the continents but also that of the digital synod? Individual topics or the synodal way of being Church?
CH: The ‘digital synod’ was a beautiful experience… From all the documents, what emerges is the experience that was had, the joy of the people. In Europe, in Asia, they asked to be able to repeat the assemblies. I was worried about Europe, because we know there are big differences. But here, too, the people want to go forward, and we must go forward with our differences and walk together. We must look at what is important for communion, for participation, for mission, and present it to the Synod of Bishops in October.
AT: How did you work to highlight the contributions of the different continents?
CH: In groups, in a synodal way. It is not the activity of a single person. There were several groups that worked on various topics: primacy, ordained ministries, baptismal ministries, collegiality of bishops. We asked ourselves what the continental assemblies had to say about this and put it together, looking at what the Magisterium of the Church, the Popes, the Second Vatican Council, say, in order to include all that has emerged in the common path.
What to expect
AT: What should we expect from the Instrumentum laboris?
CH: It will be a short text. It will help us in sharing, in participation, so that the members of the Synod can express themselves. Indeed, I hope that the members will also be free to say: let’s throw it away, let’s do something else, also because we have a two-year Synod ahead of us and there is no hurry. We must not arrive at an artificial compromise. We have time to truly understand the call that God makes to His Church in today’s world.
AT: Concretely, what will happen between now and September?
CH: The text will be sent and presented to the participants. I think we will still have a lot of work to do, because there are so many new elements to see point by point. And it is not certain that our decisions – those of the rapporteur, the general secretary, the special secretary – will have to be followed, because everything will be submitted to the Synod Council and to the Pope.
There is no synodality without the bishops, nor against the bishops, and there is no synodality without Peter or against Peter. Everything is proposed to the Holy Father for his OK, for his blessing, otherwise we cannot continue. We are Catholics and we want to remain Catholics!
Engaging those on the margins
AT: You have participated in assemblies on different continents. Have you also encountered ‘lukewarm’ responses or any resistance?
CH: I have noticed two temptations. The first is to assimilate everything into the old patterns. It is the temptation that I conveniently call ‘right-wing’, which says: we want to do what we have always done, we do not really want to worry about something new.
But there is also the ‘left-wing’ temptation, according to which all issues considered important in the Church must be discussed at the Synod. But this is not possible. The Synod has a title and this title is a task for us: synodality, communion, participation, mission. The Synod will focus on this, not on all the other topics. I do not dispute the importance of the other themes, which we will bring to the Holy Father, so that he can reflect on them in the way he chooses. But the Synod will be on synodality.
AT: How can the Synod address a person who will not be directly involved and has not had the opportunity to be so in the preparatory phase in the dioceses?
CH: First of all, I would ask them to pray, because in order to do God’s will we must pray a lot. We must have the support of the prayer of the whole Church.
And then I would ask them to try to live the Synod in their own hearts, in their communities – work or ecclesial – because then their prayer will not remain abstract.
I dream of great participation in prayer for the Synod. Cardinal Mario Grech said something I found beautiful: let us try to have the style of Jesus. When you see the Church, you must recognise Jesus. This is very important, otherwise how could we evangelise if people do not recognise Jesus in us?
And for that we need conversion. Synodality is not possible without conversion, and this conversion is required of everyone, right, left, and even centre.