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The rise of Cardinal Grech

Cardinal Mario Grech’s profile is on the up in Rome.

As the face of the world-wide synod on synodality, the Maltese cardinal has become much more than a coordinator or administrator of a process. He has become the leading champion of the concept of a “synodal Church” and a key voice in a global debate about the future of Catholicism, and the very nature of the Catholic Church.

The synod on synodality is likely to be remembered as the cornerstone of Pope Francis’ legacy. And Grech’s prominent role in the synodal process means that, for a certain set of Churchmen, the cardinal has come to regarded as the torchbearer for Pope Francis’ vision for the Church.

And with the pope about to turn 86, and some conversations in Rome turning to a future conclave, Grech may well be seen as a natural heir to Francis, and the cardinal who will best be equipped to carry on much of the pope’s vision for the future.

But with the Vatican synodal session next year set to become the crescendo of standoffs between the Vatican and several bishops’ conferences, Grech could find himself by next year with either an inside track to the papacy, or with the legacy of having trapped the Church in a crisis from which there is no obvious route out.

When Pope Francis appointed Grech to a leadership job in the Vatican’s synodal office in October 2019, the Maltese bishop inherited an office that had been steadily growing in both visibility and influence.

Although the Synod of Bishops office was established by Pope St. Paul VI after Vatican Council II, its work rose in prominence under Francis, especially during sessions on the family and on youth, which were accompanied by vigorous debates over Church teaching on issues like divorce and homosexuality.

The synod meeting on the pan-Amazonian region, which coincided with Grech’s arrival at the Vatican’s coordinating office, also was an occasion of controversy — this time over calls for married clergy and the ordination of women.

But Grech’s department, and the cardinal himself, have found themselves at the epicenter of the universal Church only after the pope’s 2021 announcement of a worldwide synod on synodality itself.

Grech’s office, the synodal secretariat, is charged with collecting, weighing, and synthesizing feedback from local and regional processes from around the globe.

As the global synodal process exposes — some argue exacerbates — rifts in the Church, Grech’s department, and vision, have become a reference point around the Vatican for what will come next — both after the synod and after Francis himself.

Ever since Pope Francis announced the global synodal process in 2020, Grech’s department has promoted the idea that the notion of synodality wasn’t yet fully understood, and couldn’t be defined until after the synodal process had concluded — even while the Church’s International Theological Commission had already defined the term “synodality” in 2018.

Since the beginning of the global synodal process, redefining the concept of “synodality” has evolved among the world’s bishops into a proxy for a wider debate about the Church’s fundamental ecclesiology and self-conception, and the evolution of doctrine, something Grech himself has encouraged.

Speaking Wednesday at the Lateran University, Grech claimed that the synodal process is a “mature fruit” of Vatican Council II — a shift in tone from his department’s previous image of the synod as a “flower” that had yet to bloom.

While the cardinal reiterated that the synod does not aim for “cheap consensus,” he did repeat his belief that the process is an exercise of “the prophetic dimension” of the people of God.

This “prophetic dimension” has become a key focus of the synodal process, with otherwise controversial proposals — like the ordination of women and the recognition of same-sex unions — being presented as in line with a concept of the entire synodal process as a fruits of a listening process supposedly inspired by the Holy Spirit and representing the sensus fidelium.

“A correct reception of the Council’s ecclesiology,” Grech said, is “to open up scenarios that not even the Council had imagined.”

But some Churchmen have pushed back on the idea that the synodal process is a version of the “sensus fidelium,” pointing out that the synodal participation rate in many regions has been around or even below 1% of local Catholics, and has often lacked demographic and viewpoint diversity.

More important, they argue, an authentically synodal process cannot lead to the contradiction of perennial Church teaching, but must be coherent with the faith.

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Nevertheless, it is Grech, more than any other individual, who will shape the synodal agenda ahead of next year's meeting, and determine how feedback from around the world should be synthesized and presented — effectively making him responsible for shaping the conversation about the future life and shape of the Church.

In that role, the cardinal has already emerged as a key reference point around the Vatican. While the synod’s secretariat is not even technically part of the Roman Curia, officials in several Vatican departments have told The Pillar that it now functions as a new kind of “first dicastery.”

Asked about recent moves by bishops’ conferences in Germany and Belgium to push ahead with proposals for lay governance of the local Church and church blessings for same-sex unions, one official at the Secretariat of State told The Pillar that “everyone is just waiting for the synod now.”

“The [Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith] can say what it likes about faith and morals, but if it is on the synodal agenda, it is essentially open for debate,” the official said. “The [synodal] permanent secretariat is the new la Suprema, it’s their interpretation that matters most now.”

Another Vatican official told The Pillar this week that “Cardinal Grech is in the middle of everything.”

“He is a new locus,” the official said. “In the middle of these bishops [in Germany and Belgium], the curia, and even Pope Francis, there is the synod — and that is Grech.”

When bishops from around the world wrote to the German conference earlier this year to echo the Vatican’s concern with the synodal way’s proposals, the official noted, it was Grech who denounced the episcopal criticism as “unhelpful” and “polarizing,” while expressing confidence that the German synodal leaders “know what they are doing.”

As the German bishops continued preparations for their ad limina visit in Rome this week, Grech’s department put out a press statement on the “great cordiality” of his meeting with the head of the German conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing — even as other curial cardinals expressed sharp criticism of the idea that the synodal process could form a source of “new revelation” for the Church.

When the final synodal session begins next year, the official at the Secretariat of State said, Grech stature will likely have grown even further.

“[Cardinals] Ladaria and Ouellet [prefects of the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Bishops, respectively] will be retired — but Grech will still be there,” the official said.

While predicting that new curial prefects will be appointed “with the reality of the synod” in mind, the official said that Grech is seen by many in the Curia as speaking for “the future direction of the Church.”

If a conclave were to take place prior to the conclusion of the synodal process, the official told The Pillar, “voting for Grech will be like voting for the synod itself.”

It is, of course, entirely uncertain whether a conclave will precede the synodal session next year. While Pope Francis continues to suffer limited mobility because of pain in his knee, the pope has been emphatic that he is otherwise in rude health.

But it is also possible that a later conclave might see a strong Grech candidacy, too.

If the synod is brought to a conclusion and produces a final document endorsed by the pope, it would likely be widely credited to Grech’s efforts.

If the synodal text does not openly call for or endorse, for example, same-sex blessings or women’s ordination but acknowledges the calls for both, it would be in line with similar final texts from recent synodal sessions, which acknowledged extreme positions without affirming them.

But in that case, Grech might be pitched by some as the architect of a grand emergency compromise, especially if the final text is largely accepted by the German and Belgian bishops.

Alternatively, if the synod does push for real doctrinal developments outside of the Church’s tradition and teaching, it could cement Grech’s reputation among left-leaning European bishops as the man who finally delivered the progressive agenda — perhaps even as much as Francis.

If so, Grech would likely be considered the natural choice among European cardinals for a “continuity Francis” candidate, whenever the next conclave did meet.

While the received wisdom is that anyone who “enters a conclave as pope comes out a cardinal,” the truth is that being the obvious frontrunner is not always disqualifying; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was, by far, considered the leading candidate in 2005, and he left the conclave as Benedict XVI.

And among a college of cardinals which has only met a handful of times in the last five years, being well-known could be an unusually powerful asset.

Grech’s ever-more-prominent status in the Vatican, along with his work coordinating the global synodal process, means he will occupy a uniquely visible place between the curia and the cardinals from around the world.

But if Grech more frequently appears to be the “synodal cardinal” and heir apparent to Francis, his papabile status may then hinge on the appetite for both at a future conclave.

Grech seems increasingly to embody the view that the synod is the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church. But if a synodal Church becomes synonymous with permanent ecclesiastical crisis, his relative stature may yet leave him standing as the tallest poppy in the Sistine Chapel.

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