ROME – A list of the 363 participants in the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality appears to reflect a relative balance of voices from across the Catholic spectrum, yet it also highlights ongoing tensions in the Pope Francis era, including in the Church in the United States.
Published Friday, the list provides the names of all 363 members of the synod, including 54 women who will have full voting rights for the first time.
Set to take place Oct. 4-29, the Synod will reflect on the topic of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is focused on how to transform church life and structures to make it a more welcoming place for all of its members.
It is expected to touch on several hot-button issues, including the role of women and the possibility of reinstituting the female diaconate as well as calls for women’s priestly ordination. Other issues such as the treatment and welcome of LGBTQ Catholics and divorced and remarried Catholics and the clerical sexual abuse crisis will also be discussed.
Delegates were appointed by the Vatican’s Synod office, by national and continental bishops’ conferences, religious orders and institutes, and by Pope Francis personally, though all nominations had to meet with his approval.
Of the 50 members appointed by Pope Francis himself, overall it appears to be a fairly balanced mix.
Yet looking just at the ten 10 prelates from the United States, five of whom were named by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and five by Pope Francis, it seems clear there are still contrasts at work.
Delegates tapped by the bishops’ conference include Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, who has led the United States’ synod preparations and had been previously selected by the Vatican’s synod office to serve on the synod’s preparatory commission.
The list also includes Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Order of the United States and President of the USCCB, as well as Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
Most of those prelates conventionally would be seen as moderate-to-conservative, sometimes not quite in keeping with the more progressive ethos of the Francis papacy.
Francis’s own U.S. appointees include several key allies, including three of the prelates he has named cardinals: Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago; Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington; Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, also named a cardinal by Pope Francis, was not on the list of papally-appointed members, but he was appointed as a member of the ordinary council of the synod. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, was also personally named by the pope.
Pope Francis also appointed Archbishop Paul Dennis Etienne of Seattle and Jesuit Father James Martin, a controversial figure due to his prominent advocacy of pastoral outreach to the LGBTQ community.
In general, it’s likely that the relatively conservative ethos of the prelates chosen by the U.S. conference will be interpreted in some quarters as an act of defiance, just as the pope’s appointments may be read as an effort to force through his agenda.
In a statement accompanying the publication of the list, Flores voiced gratitude to Pope Francis for his appointment as a presidential delegate to the synod, saying, “I place my trust in the grace of God to assist me in this important task.”
“I carry with me the great faith, prayers and sacrifices of the People of God in the Diocese of Brownsville, whom, by the grace of God, I am honored to serve,” he said.
Pope Francis’s list of personal appointees included several other allies, including French Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline of Marseille; Jesuit Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong; and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.
However, the list also included a few wild cards, such as German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Faith (DDF), a known papal opponent who has criticized not only several aspects of the synod process, but also the theology of Pope Francis’s pick as the new incoming leader of the DDF, Argentine Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández.
Fernández is one of some 20 members of the Roman Curia who will participate in the synod, and is a close friend of the pontiff and is a ghostwriter for several papal documents.
Also on the list is Müller’s immediate successor at the DDF after his term ended in 2017, Spanish Jesuit Cardinal Luis Ladaria, who is seen as being relatively moderate, falling in between the conservative stance taken by Müller and Fernández’s more progressive stance.
The inclusion of the past three leaders of the DDF is significant, especially as all three represent different perspectives on theological and doctrinal matters, implying the discussion will be diverse, yet balanced.
Pope Francis has also made noteworthy appointments when it comes to the debates over synodality and the future direction of the Church currently happening in Germany.
Synod delegates chosen by the German Bishops’ Conference include several firm supporters of the controversial “Synodal Path” that has unfolded over the past four years, such as Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, and Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg.
The recently concluded “Synodal Path” called, among other things, for women to be ordained as priests and for blessings be given to same-sex couples. Proposals also included an end to mandatory priestly celibacy and for clergy to marry, for women to be able to administer baptisms, and for laypeople to have a role in electing their bishops.
For nearly two years there has been a constant back-and-forth between the German bishops’ conference and the Vatican, with Vatican officials cautioning the German bishops to reign in the process while the German bishops have plowed forward.
Pope Francis’s list of papal appointees to the synod notably includes German Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a critic of the Synodal Path.
German Sister Anna Mirijam Kaschner is also on the list of participants. Though she was not a papally-appointed delegate, she was named as a representative of northern European nations and is a strong critic of the German synod process.
Pope Francis also notably appointed Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, as a delegate. His successor to that office, Bishop Robert Prevost, is among the curial officials who will participate.
Ouellet, seen as a papal ally, was among the Vatican officials pushing back against the German Synodal Path, and he has also voiced skepticism over some proposals made as part of the pope’s global synod process.
Other notable appointments among the experts and facilitators, meaning those who will attend the gathering and help facilitate dialogue but who are not members and thus will not having voting rights, include British papal biographer Austen Ivereigh; American Jesuit Father David McCallum, and American Sister Maria Cimperman.
Representatives of eastern churches will also be present, most of whom are the patriarchs of their respective churches. Among them will be Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The archbishop of the Archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi, will also participate, representing Russia.
This year’s October discussion is the culmination of a multi-year process that began with a broad consultation and the diocesan level in October 2021 and continued with discussion at the continental stage, and it marks the first of two universal gatherings based in Rome to conclude the process.
The final discussion will take place next year, in October 2024, following a year of reflection and discussion on the results of this year’s meeting.
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