Thursday, 21 November 2013

Synod of Bishops Upgraded

One of the very first things Pope Francis did, mere moments after his election, something which, encouraged by one of his fellow Latin American cardinals, he did instinctively or intuitively or whatever but most assuredly without having thought the consequences through, that is without discernment, has, in the sober light of day, proved to be crucially important.

When he returned to the Sistine Chapel from the Room of Tears and received the homage of the cardinal electors, he then received the homage of the Secretary of the Conclave, the Master of the Papal Liturgical Ceremonies and the two Assistant Masters of Ceremonies. As the Secretary, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, knelt, Pope Francis placed on his head the scarlet cardinal’s zucchetto of which, naturally, he had no further use. Thus the new Pope indicated his intention, according to an ancient tradition not always followed in modern times, to reward the Secretary of the Conclave with the Sacred Roman Purple at the first opportunity.

It must be remembered, of course, that Mgr Baldisseri was not a stranger to His Holiness. His Excellency was Nuncio in Haiti and Paraguay 1992-99 and in Brazil 2002-12 and they would have often met at CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano) the Latin American Episcopal Council. (In between times he had been Nuncio to India and Nepal.) Moreover, Mgr Baldisseri was a classmate and friend at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (Academia Class of ’71) of one of the few men in the Roman Curia whom the Pope knew extremely well, because he was one of his priests before his election as Pope, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches (the 22 Eastern Rite Churches in full communion with Rome). Like the Pope, Cardinal Sandri’s parents were Italian immigrants to Buenos Aires.

When Mgr Baldisseri was recalled to Rome from Brazil in 2012 it was upon his appointment as Secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, on January 11. Two months later, on March 7, he was, as is customary, appointed Secretary of the Sacred College of Cardinals. It was in this capacity that he served the Conclave.

On the day our own Mgr Cushley was being honoured with episcopal ordination and installation as Archbishop and Metropolitan of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh, September 21, back in Rome Pope Francis was making a few announcements involving some of his former colleagues in the Secretariat of State. One was entirely routine: Archbishop Miroslaw Adamczyk Apostolic Nuncio to Liberia and Gambia was also given responsibility for Sierra Leone. Another was less so but not unexpected: Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a former sostituto was confirmed as Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. (It was Cardinal Filoni who, as Apostolic Nuncio to Iraq, 2001-6, was the only Ambassador to remain at his post in Baghdad during the Second Gulf War.)

But the other changes involving alumni of the Academia were not so straightforward. They were all consequent upon the removal of Archbishop Nikola Eterovic from his post as Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops. Naturally, His Excellency was given an important assignment, Apostolic Nuncio to Germany. Aged 62 years, His Excellency will in all likelihood be made cardinal when in due course this present mission is concluded since now reunited Germany is again one of the most important delegations. But why remove him? His Excellency certainly had done nothing wrong, either personally or professionally.

Pope Francis had early decided that the Synod of Bishops was to be central to his Pontificate. After due deliberation, he has further decided that in consequence it has to be headed by a cardinal, or by a prelate who can be created cardinal at the first opportunity. Elevation in Archbishop Eterovic’s case would have been premature at this time. Not unmerited, simply premature. And so Pope Francis decided that the man for the job was the man he honoured mere moments after his election: Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, aged 73 years.

If anyone doubted the importance Pope Francis attaches to the work of the Synod, then last week was instructive. “Pope Leaves Vatican” ceased to be front page headline news after Pope Paul VI left the Vatican and Rome for the Holy Land on January 4, 1964 (he would leave it on another ten occasions, eight of them to venture furth of Italy). But last week Pope Francis again astounded the Vaticanisti when, on both Monday and Tuesday, he left the Vatican and made his way the short distance along Via della Conciliazione (the magnificent street created by Mussolini which leads directly onto St Peter’s Square from Castel Sant’Angelo).

He was headed to the Palazzo del Bramante for meetings in the office of the secretariat of the Synod of Bishops to discuss both changes needed within the secretariat and the agenda Extraordinary Synod of Bishops called for October 5-18 next year on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the Evangelization.”

This was a case of Mohamet come to the mountain not because it would not come to him, but because he did not presume that it ought. (See Francis Bacon “Essays” 1625, Chapter 12.)

It is no surprise that comment on the Extraordinary Synod has focused on the vexed question of the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, and not least their being denied Holy Communion, but another most important aspect of all this has been ignored, or, and this is more likely, missed. Pope Francis,  like his three immediate predecessors — ignoring Pope John Paul I as he died before anything concrete could be deduced of his intentions in the matter — sees reconciliation with the separated brethren of the Orthodox East as the most important, and achievable, goal of ecumenical activity.

On Saturday 18, September 2008, at early Vespers in the Sistine Chapel to celebrate the participation of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, at the XII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, His All Holiness said at the beginning of his remarks: “It is well known that the Orthodox Church attaches to the Synodical system fundamental ecclesiogical importance. Together with primacy, synodality constitutes the backbone of the Church’s government and organisation. As our (the Pope and his) Joint International Commission on the Theological Dialogue between our Churches expressed it in the Ravenna document, this interdependence between synodality and primacy runs through all the levels of the Church’s life: local, regional and universal. Therefore, in having today the privilege to address Your Synod our hopes are raised that the day will come when our two Churches will fully converge on the role of primacy and synodality in the Church’s life, to which our common Theological Commission is devoting its study at the present time.”

Pope John Paul II’s dream of the Church breathing with both lungs, East and West, has just come a lot closer to being realised. 

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