ROME— When one thinks of Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin getting together on a semi-regular basis as members of the G8, it’s easy to imagine clashes between these strong personalities — and, of course, we don’t really have to imagine it, since some of those run-ins are well documented.
A similar expectation of butting heads naturally comes to mind when thinking of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisers, which since the first year of his election has been meeting to advise him on the reform of the Church’s governing body in the Vatican, the Roman Curia.
Long-time Vatican watchers couldn’t avoid surprise when it was announced that widely differing figures such as German Reinhard Marx, Australian George Pell and Laurent Monsengwo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo would all be meeting on average four times a year. It seemed highly plausible that they’d spend a fair amount of their time taking swipes at each other.
Yet according to one of those personalities, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, from India, the group’s diversity is also its main strength.
Speaking to Crux at the Casa Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where the “C9” holds its sessions, Gracias said the council is a “collegial body [where] no one dominates, and everybody has a chance to speak.”
“I can see why from the outside some might think differently … not all [of us] have the same ideas … we would differ, but it has to be like this,” he said. “There’s no one there you can say who doesn’t have a strong personality and strong views, and no one changes them quickly.”
One of those who has a chance to speak, of course, is Francis himself. He attends each session, spending the mornings and afternoons with the group, and one way in which the pontiff underscores the collegial atmosphere is that he raises his hand when he wants to chime in.
“At the beginning it was a bit weird, to see him putting up his hand,” Gracias said, adding that sometimes he has to nudge Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga from Honduras, who coordinates the meetings, to notice that the pontiff has something to say.
Although pictures from the encounters show the seating arrangements vary sometimes, Gracias said he and Maradiaga are often next to each other.
The body, which Gracias describes as the “cabinet of ministers of the Holy Father,” has become the “sounding board” of this papacy.
From the outside, it’s sometimes tempting to conclude that the C9 hasn’t actually accomplished very much. To date, among the few major decisions directly and publicly attributed to its input have been decisions to consolidate a cluster of Vatican offices into two large departments, which can come off as mostly shuffling the bureaucratic deck.
Gracias, however, says it’s much more than that, saying Francis consults the group on 75 or 80 percent of the decisions he makes, including upcoming documents and the profile of the people needed to fill specific vacancies.
When the C9 meets, the Vatican often releases a short statement, including some generic issues that were discussed. These often include a progress report from Pell, who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy, created at the C9’s advice, or from Boston’s Sean P. O’Malley, the only American in the group, who heads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, also created at the group’s recommendation.
However, as Gracias underlined during the interview, the pope’s C9 is not a governing body, and as such they can’t actually tell the pope what to do, they can only make suggestions. In what he called a very “Jesuit” style, Francis often has his mind set on something and it can be a challenge to make him shift positions, yet Gracias said he’s watched it happen.
“I’ve seen clear instances of [Francis changing course],” Gracias said. Furthermore, Gracias added he couldn’t think of a “singular instance in which he’s actually vetoed a particular idea.”
With 15 meetings under their belt, the nine cardinals, according to Gracias, have achieved a comfort level in which they can tell Francis when they believe he’s said or done something they found inappropriate.
“I probably wouldn’t say it publicly, not even when it’s all of us there, but have a coffee, make sure I’m alone with him. Some, I think would tell him straight on! There’s that comfort level, that kind of exchange,” he said.
This honesty, Gracias said ahead of the group’s Sept. 12-14 meeting, is not “being disloyal but helpful,” and he acknowledged having told the pope that “I was surprised this is what you had to say.”
“We’re some of the few with such easy access to him, if we don’t tell him, don’t give him accurate feedback, which is so hard for a leader to get, [Francis could] get cut off,” he said.
Although it wasn’t the main reason behind his election, it’s a truth long accepted that Pope Francis was elected in part on a mandate to reform the Vatican.
And a month after he was chosen, he called some of his old acquaintances, such as Maradiaga and Francisco Javier Errázuriz, of Chile, with whom he’d worked in Latin America.
The rest of the team is made up by Italians Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and Giuseppe Bertello, President of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State. The only extra who’s a permanent fixture in the meetings is Italian bishop Marcello Semeraro, who works as the group’s secretary.
When the group meets, they often do so for three days, and at Francis’s request all of them stay at the Santa Marta, where they not only have their assemblies, but also share their meals at the “big kids table,” which is especially reserved for them.
All the sessions are in Italian, “the only language we all have in common,” although the council has benefited from the passage of time, since not everyone’s language skills are equal: “By now we know each other so well that we know what the other wants to say,” Gracias said.
Francis attends all the meetings but those which take place on Wednesday morning, when he holds the public weekly audience in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.
The C9 was set up by history’s first Argentine pope to help him review the Roman Curia and the Vatican’s constitution, called Pastor Bonus. But along the way, it’s also allowed Gracias to personally experience the “universality, the needs of the Church,” as a whole, and the importance of getting to know each other.
“It was the first time I experienced the Church as Church,” he said, adding he knew nothing of the church in Latin America until he was summoned to the group. Gracias believes the same could be said for the rest of the team.
One of the challenges he faces personally is having to remind himself when he speaks with Francis, that he’s talking to the pope: “He seems like another fellow bishop when we’re meeting in the G9.”
“I can’t imagine myself sitting and talking to Benedict XVI and John Paul II as I do with Francis,” Gracias said towards the end of the interview.
During the time of the Polish pontiff, he was a priest, and describes feeling a “sense of awe” for the pope. Benedict, he said, is “such an intellectual giant that you would listen to him, but you wouldn’t argue.”
“Francis, on the other hand, wants you to say no if you don’t agree,” Gracias said.