ROME – August is really no time to be in the Eternal City. With temperatures in the upper nineties and the Mediterranean sun scorching the cobblestones for more than thirteen hours a day, most Italians have the good sense to simply stay away until September. Pope Francis, however, has other considerations. On August 27, during the weekend when most Romans are enjoying a gran finale at the beach or in the Alps somewhere, the pontiff instead held a consistory in St. Peter’s Basilica for the creation of twenty new cardinals, including San Diego’s bishop, Robert McElroy. What’s more, on August 29 and 30, Francis is hosting meetings with nearly two hundred of the world’s cardinals, for discussions about his recent reorganization of the Vatican’s central bureaucracy. It’s the first time he has convoked the entire College of Cardinals since 2015.
This rare event comes as the pope has been seen using a wheelchair in recent months because of persistent knee pain, and there is speculation in some quarters—especially quarters unhappy with Francis’s nearly ten-year papacy—that he is setting up a sort of “end game” for his time as bishop of Rome: call the cardinals to Rome, add some preferred voices to their ranks, and prepare the stage for the election of the next guy. But Francis doesn’t appear to have anything like that in mind. Instead, he seems to be encouraging a style of dialogical leadership, in the mold of his unprecedented, two-year global process for the upcoming Synod of Bishops, which will culminate in a month-long meeting in Rome in October 2023.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian head of the Vatican’s peace and justice office, had a one-word answer when asked in a recent phone interview what he is expecting from the next months of Francis’s papacy: “synod.” “The synod, in a truly inspiring way, is the carry-out, is the follow-through, is the huge next step in the whole papacy,” said Czerny, who is also the prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
For his part, McElroy said on August 26 that he believes the objective of the synodal process “is to change the culture of the Church in a lasting way.” “That would be my overarching belief in what is truly important in what is going on in the life of the Church in this moment,” McElroy said in an interview at the Pontifical North American College, the day before he was formally made a cardinal by Francis.
McElroy said the outcome of the process, which has already involved hundreds of thousands of consultation meetings globally at the diocesan level, “is not pre-determined.”
“We don’t know exactly where this is going to lead us,” said McElroy. “We just know that being the type of Church we’re called to be in synodality leads us to be a more Gospel-oriented, more Christ-oriented Church.”
“There will be surprises, not just from this pope, but from where God leads us all in this process,” he said.
The formal agenda of the unusual meeting this week among the cardinals and pope is to discuss Praedicate evangelium, the apostolic constitution Francis signed in March to reorganize the Roman Curia. One major innovation of that document is its declaration that “any member of the faithful”—including laypeople—can lead a Vatican office. It also makes clear that evangelization is the key goal of the whole Vatican structure. In its listing of the Vatican’s sixteen primary offices, known as “dicasteries,” first on the list is the newly constructed Dicastery for Evangelization, not the once seemingly all-powerful Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.