Key papal ally says divisions in the church nothing new, can be healthy

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent
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ROME – A top papal aide and one of the main organizers of Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality has said current tensions within Catholicism, including those highlighted by the recent deaths of Pope Benedict XVI and Australian Cardinal George Pell, are nothing new and are potentially healthy.

Differences in opinion are actually good for the church, said Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, provided they are shared with respect and humility.

Speaking at the presentation of a major ecumenical event aimed at strengthening intra-Christian ties as part of Pope Francis’s synodal reform process, Hollerich said he’s not worried about perceived conflicts among different Catholic camps.

“That there are different opinions in the Catholic Church is quite normal,” he said, adding, “We live in a moment of change, a change of the era. We are in the year zero of digitalization, and this means that we have to see together how we can proclaim Christ in this new world emerging.”

Noting that a good deal of debate in the church is currently centered on the synod process, Hollerich said the synod itself “is not a divisive factor,” as there have always been differing opinions on key discussion topics, but rather the synod “is a factor that brings people together where you have to listen to each other, but not just as a position, but in order to discern what God wants for his people.”

Shortly after the Jan. 10 death of Pell in a Rome hospital, it emerged that his last essay was a piece for the Spectator objecting that the Synod on Synodality has developed into a “toxic nightmare” and that its preparatory document is “incomplete [and] hostile in significant ways to the apostolic tradition.”

Despite what Hollerich said are “loud and shrill” voices complaining about the synod process unfolding, he said an attitude of listening and discernment alone “can be the answer the church gives for all of these questions.”

“We have to go together, humbly walk with our lord, and really trust in God, trust in the Holy Spirit,” he said, saying, “it’s not about church politics, it’s about prayer, and it’s about the Holy Spirit, and it’s about the people of God walking humbly together.”

Christians obsessed with internal politics give the world an image of “a small group of people not interested in the world, in mission, but centered on themselves all the time,” Hollerich said, adding, “If that’s the image we want to give the world, we can try it, but I prefer the synodal way.”

President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union and relator general for the Synod of Bishops, Hollerich spoke at a Jan. 23 press conference presenting the “Together Project,” an ecumenical initiative tied to Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality.

Announced by Pope Francis earlier this month, the initiative includes a special ecumenical prayer vigil that will be held Saturday, Sept. 30 in St. Peter’s Square on the eve of the opening of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in Rome.

Young people aged 18-35 from different Christian traditions throughout Europe are invited to participate in a special program organized by the Taizé community, a prominent French ecumenical monastery, beginning that Friday, Sept. 29, and extending through the weekend.

Typically held every three to four years in Rome, this year’s Ordinary Synod of Bishops is distinct in that Pope Francis has extended the process into a multi-stage consultation that began in October 2021 with local consultations among lay faithful at the diocesan level, is continuing at the continental level, and will culminate with a two-part discussion in Rome that begins this October and closes in October 2024.

This year’s Synod of Bishops, which holds the theme, “For a synodal Church: communion, participation and mission,” will last from Oct. 4-29, and is part of Pope Francis’s broader effort to make the church a broader, more inclusive community.

Part of this inclusion for organizers means listening to the voices of Christians belonging to other rites, traditions, and denominations in a bid to further efforts toward Christian unity.

Hollerich said the synod gathering “is not about church politics, but listening to spirit of God, advancing together, and praying.”

To this end, he announced that after the Sept. 30 ecumenical prayer vigil, the participants in the month-long synod gathering will make a 3-day retreat near Rome from Oct. 1-3, that will be led by British Father Timothy Radcliffe, a former Master of the Dominicans.

Joining Hollerich at Monday’s press conference were other Christian leaders and representatives of different Christian churches.

Speaking about the difficulty of pursuing unity amid difficulties, as a broader Christian objective as well as within individual churches themselves, Archbishop Ian Ernest, personal representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Holy See and director of Anglican Center in Rome, said, “When we talk about unity, it’s not uniformity.”

Space ought to be given to those with different opinions on relevant issues, and a real community should “take their opinion to heart,” Ernest said, saying, “there’s a lot of suffering going on because one wants to see things going in one’s own way,” whereas the synodal process teaches one the importance of working together.

Likewise, His Emninence Khajag Barsamian, representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See, said one of the most important aspects of leadership is “leading people around the table to come to an alignment.”

“As we remember from Gospels, apostles also had disagreements, but when they were together, in that togetherness, in that moment of prayer, the spirit led them and they were able to become real disciples of Jesus Christ,” he said, adding, “Unity is the key.”

Barsamian also stressed the importance of being humble, saying some people think humility is a sign of weakness, “but it’s the contrary…the humblest is the strongest.”

According to Hollerich, most current tensions within the Catholic Church “come from the fact that each one honestly wants to see or share how we can follow and proclaim Christ in today’s world.”

That is the source of tension,” he said, noting that a document prepared for the continental phase of the synod, which is based on a synthesis of individual diocesan reports after consultation with lay people and pastors at the parish level, a certain level of tension was touted as “something positive.”

Referring to the Catholic Church as a tent, Hollerich said that “In order to have a tent, you need some tension, otherwise the tent falls down.”

“Listening to word of God, being together along the way, will ease those tensions. We do not want bad tensions destroying the church, but good tensions are sometimes necessary for harmony,” he said.

Christian leaders present at Monday’s press conference praised Pope Francis’s commitment to ecumenism, saying the prayer vigil on the eve of the synod’s opening in October signals a new stage in ecumenical efforts.

Reformed Pastor Christian Krieger, president of the Conference of European Churches and the French Protestant Federation, said the synodal path initiated by Pope Francis “is becoming a moment of great importance which will probably mark the history of the church for decades, the Catholic Church, but other churches as a whole, the ecumenical movement.”

While synods are nothing new in Christianity, as they have been a tradition in many churches, including Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, what is new, Krieger said, is “the listening process organized by the Catholic Church,” in which laypeople are consulted about problems and solutions to contemporary issues, as well as the invitation for all Christians to pray together for the Catholic Church’s individual synodal process.

“Ecumenism is necessary for the synodal process just as the synod is necessary for ecumenism,” he said, quoting Pope Francis, calling the participation of non-Catholic Christians in the synod process “a way to express unity in Christ,” and voicing his belief that through the synod, “that desire for unity will be more deepened in the future.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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