Call for synodality part of a bigger strategy, Part 2 of 2
Pope Francis presided over the last consistory when 21 new cardinals were given their red hats. He was on a wheelchair. The surreal view of him surrounded by new cardinals gave the impression that Francis is perhaps truly contemplating retirement. One of the things he talked about was to reform the current set up where a retired living pope still wears the cassock and is called pope emeritus. Francis wants retired popes to go back to their old names and just “fade away.”
Which brings up a very important point. Who will succeed him? Clearly, he is old and ailing. Two cardinals are emerging as pope-possible (papabili): Cardinal Antonio Tagle (Philippines) because of his closeness to Pope Francis, and Cardinal Peter Erdo (Hungary). The betting is on Erdo as the likely pick of the College of Cardinals. If Francis will have his way (through the cardinal electors where two thirds of them are allied to him), it will be neither of the two. My two cents tell me that it will be a huge upset win for the newly minted Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego, California.
Tagle, a Liberal albeit progressive minded from a conservative country who was promoted in 2019 when Pope Francis appointed him as the head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Pope Benedict was the one who promoted him cardinal. Pro-poor and advocate for missionary work, his current position is where the pope wants him to be. He joins other newly elevated cardinals as the face of the “new” Church who will tend more to the poor with Asia as his field of dreams.
The Philippines 87% Catholics but also that many percentages of the population being poor. It is also a percentage where the trajectory of new converts is going the opposite direction especially after the recently completed presidential election when 31 million Filipinos (presumably overwhelmingly Catholics) voted against the pick of Catholic leaders. Along with the newly appointed cardinal, Jose Advincula, Archbishop of Manila; the two Filipino cardinals will need to find a way to redirect their evangelizing.
Archbishop Peter Ordo is a conservative of the Latin Rite and aligned with Pope emeritus Benedict. He is probably the last person Francis would want to succeed him. Erdo as the Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest covers a large following of Catholics and is a staunch defender of the Catholic Doctrine. He is perfect where is currently assigned to provide a buffer to a German group espousing a progressive group called the “Synodal Path” who has been making waves for a more progressive interpretation of Church dogmas.
The problem in that part of Europe is that many Catholics have left disgusted with the thousand cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The synodal consultations that were to take place have been postponed “because of the pandemic,” and are being rescheduled. The German Church synodal path wants to give lay people more prominent roles in church leadership (as Pope Francis has envisioned) and vocally calling for women to be ordained priests and eliminating mandatory priestly celibacy thus opening the door for priests to marry. They also want for the Church to declare that same-sex marriage is not sinful.
Pope Francis is not too keen on the aggressive synodal path consultations being taken by the German group. The Vatican even served a warning that the “Synodal Path” is a “threat to church unity at a universal level” and stressed that the group “lacks the authority to compel bishops to make changes on doctrine or morality.”
According to Pew Research, the numbers are alarming in Europe, United States, and Latin America where religious conversions are climbing and the numbers affirming affiliation with the Catholic religion are nose diving. Western democracies are predominantly Protestants and a goldmine for conversions. McElroy’s near split image with Pope Francis’s liberal bent makes him the perfect choice to lead the institution into the new millennium.
Noteworthy is Cardinal McElroy’s selection besting Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco; and Bishop Jose Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles – the largest Catholic community in America - and who also serves concurrently as President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cordileone and Gomez are both perceived as critics of Pope Francis and promoters of conservative values, of self-ambitions.
The future of the Catholic Church in the United States is bleak with more episcopal jurisdictions closing. The projection is that in 2050, the Catholic community in the nation will dwindle to a very small number. American Catholics are mostly immigrants and the country is currently divided with what to do with the huge influx of Latin America asylum seekers. McElroy’s view on immigration is critical to recapturing those who left (wars, famine, economics) and those who are coming as refugees, migrants, and immigrants seeking a better future.
Which brings us to Cardinal Robert McElroy, lone choice pick from North America. “The West has lost its synodality,” said Pope Francis a couple of months ago. The pope was not only alluding to the clergy scandals in the United States with Canada included, but also developments in the UK and Germany akin to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Christianity is in precipitous decline in the West and McElroy’s stay in the U.S. makes him a lonely voice. Rome is a bigger pulpit.
The good news is that there are two geographical areas where a significant increase in the number of religious conversions is taking place: Asia and Africa with Africa the most. The new cardinal picks (including Tagle) form a powerful block to form new converts into the new face of the Church. Africa happens to be the place where St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his “City of God,” in response to the sacking and burning of Rome, the seat of Christianity, in 410 AD by the Visigoths.
But St. Augustine’s concept of a “City of God” is not necessarily an actual location of a jurisdiction. To him, the modern concept of a city is manmade and is a reflection of the love of self, of earthly desires. A city made by God is a city of love formed in heaven, according to him. The distinction between the two cities becomes more critical as the Catholic Church tries to survive through achieving synodality.
It is worth noting that all paths that lead to a synodal Church go through Jesus, the WAY, the LIFE, and the TRUTH. The first commandment says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is followed by the second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Pope Francis’ political instincts are clearly trained for the long haul. He knows that significant changes in the Catholic Church take centuries to mature. With climate change, wars, migration, poverty, and indifference literally destroying the world, he needs a successor who will espouse his legacy.