ROME — Theoretically, in a Synod of Bishops, all of the 200-plus prelates taking part from around the world are equal. Politically, however, some are clearly more equal than others, and this time around, few are more equal than Cardinal Péter Erdo of Hungary.
Erdo is serving as the relator for the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the Family, a position that means he sets the table for the discussion at the beginning and then sums it up at the end. Being chosen can be a hint of bigger things to come, since each of the last three popes at earlier stages in their careers had served as a synod’s relator.
The relatio ante disceptationem, or “speech before the discussion” this morning, amounted to an effort by Erdo to define the terms of discussion, focused as much on what the synod won’t be talking about as what it will. He took “doctrinal issues” off the table, but opened the door to practical changes such as a streamlined system for granting annulments, meaning a declaration that a marriage was invalid.
In truth, in past synods the opening relatio often didn’t have much impact on the exchange that followed, but it is nevertheless closely read as a signal of what’s on the mind of one of the session’s prime movers.
The 62-year-old Hungarian prelate is known as a strong defender of Church teaching. Erdo had enough going for him back in early 2013 that some considered him a candidate for the papacy himself, leading to speculation about whether the successor to Benedict XVI might be history’s first “Goulash Pope.”
A canon lawyer by training, Erdo has been on the ecclesiastical fast track his entire career. In 2001, while he was still an auxiliary bishop and before he’d even turned 50, he was elected to his first term as president of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe. He was re-elected to a second five-year term in 2006, a sign of the wide respect Erdo enjoys among his fellow European prelates.
In 2002, he was named the Archbishop of Hungary’s premier see at the tender age of 50, and made a cardinal a year later. At 52, he was the youngest cardinal to participate in the conclave that elected Benedict XVI in 2005.
Erdo represents a persecuted Church during the Soviet era, symbolized in the figure of Cardinal József Mindszenty, who was tortured and sentenced to life in prison by a Communist kangaroo court, took refuge in the US embassy in Budapest for 15 years, and died in exile in Vienna in 1975. Earlier this year, Erdo convinced the Hungarian government to formally drop the case against his predecessor originally filed in 1949.
Given his location in Hungary, where East meets West, it’s no surprise that Erdo is a leader in Catholic relations with the Orthodox churches, seen by many cardinals as a high ecumenical priority. He’s reached out to Jewish leaders, too, and was recently blasted by far-right forces in Hungary for having lunch at a well-known Jewish restaurant in Budapest.
Erdo is certainly a person of trust in Vatican circles.
In 2011, he was appointed as a member of the council of cardinals and bishops overseeing the all-important Second Section of the Secretariat of State, responsible for the Vatican’s diplomatic relations. In the same year, he was dispatched by the Vatican to lead an investigation of the Pontifical Catholic University in Peru, charged with defiance of church teaching and discipline.
On most matters Erdo is seen as a solid conservative, but also as a pastoral figure with a practical grasp of what works at the retail level. During a Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in 2012, for instance, many prelates were intrigued by Erdo’s description of “city missions” he’s encouraged in Budapest, in which laity visit all the Catholic homes in a given parish to invite them back to church.
Erdo may be well positioned to forge consensus in the synod, in part because of his strong relationships across the developing world.
As president of the European bishops, he’s forged strong ties with African bishops, staging biannual meetings that alternate between a European venue and one in Africa. As president of the European bishops, Erdo also coordinates support for the Church across the developing world, earning gratitude from a number of cardinals in those regions.
Americans may be intrigued to know that Erdo also has on-the-ground experience of the US, having won research grants in 1995 and 1996 to study at the University of California in Berkeley.
It remains to be seen whether the fences Erdo tried to put up in his speech this morning will actually hold up over the next two weeks, but there’s no doubt he’ll have what the Italians call una voce in capitolo, meaning a strong voice, along the way.