He is the archbishop of one of the world’s smallest countries. But Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich is also one of Europe’s most influential Catholic leaders.
How did the 63-year-old Archbishop of Luxembourg attain such prominence? And how is he likely to influence the global Church in years to come?
The Pillar takes a look.
Made in Luxembourg
Jean-Claude Hollerich was born on Aug. 9, 1958, in Differdange, southwestern Luxembourg, close to the French border. But he grew up in Vianden, in the northeast, near the frontier with Germany. From the very beginning of his, he lived at the junction between cultures — a hallmark of Luxembourg’s place in Europe itself.
Hollerich was raised a Catholic within the Archdiocese of Luxembourg, which has ancient roots, but was only raised to the rank of an archdiocese in 1988. The archdiocese, which is immediately subject to the Holy See, covers the entirety of the country.
The prosperous nation officially known as the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has a population of around 645,000 people and extends just 998 square miles. While Luxembourgish is the official national language, French and German are widely spoken in the landlocked country bordered by Belgium, Germany, and France.
Hollerich was named the archbishop of Luxembourg by Benedict XVI in 2011. When he celebrates Mass in his cathedral, he gives the homily in both French and Luxembourgish. The diverse local Catholic community includes English speakers, Portuguese speakers, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and Filipinos.
The Jesuits and Japan
Hollerich began studying for the priesthood in 1978 at Rome’s Gregorian University. In 1981, he entered the Society of Jesus, spending his novitiate in the Jesuit Province of South Belgium and Luxembourg.
In 1985, the young Jesuit left for Japan, where he absorbed the local language and culture while taking theology classes at Tokyo’s Sophia University, founded by the Jesuits in 1913.
After four years in the Far East, Hollerich continued his studies in the German city of Frankfurt. His immersion in the German theological world would later prove significant.
He was ordained to the priesthood in Brussels, Belgium, in 1990, and then embarked on a postgraduate course in German language and literature at the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich.
From 1994 to 2011, Hollerich lectured in German and European Studies at Sophia University, becoming a full professor in 2006.
In 2002, he took his final vows at the Church of St. Ignatius in Tokyo, entering the Jesuit Province of Japan. In 2008, he became rector of the Jesuit community at Sophia University.
In a recent interview with the German magazine Herder Korrespondenz, Hollerich said that Japan changed him profoundly.
“I am a bishop who comes from Japan, and I think many in Luxembourg have not yet fully understood that,” he said.
He added: “In Japan, I got to know a different way of thinking. The Japanese don’t think in terms of the European logic of opposites. We say: It is black, therefore it is not white. The Japanese say: It is white, but maybe it is also black. You can combine opposites in Japan without changing your point of view.”
Taking the European stage
Not long after his installation in Luxembourg, Hollerich rose to leadership positions within European Catholic institutions.
In 2014, he was named president of the Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions. In 2017, he was chosen to lead the youth commission of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). A year later, Hollerich became head of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). And in 2021, he was elected a vice-president of the CCEE.
Those posts helped the cardinal to build a network of contacts within the Catholic Church in Europe. They also put him on the Vatican’s radar. In 2019, Pope Francis named him a cardinal. Appointments as a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and Congregation for Catholic Education followed.
Hollerich is acutely aware that the Catholic faith is waning in Europe. He has suggested that COVID-19 accelerated the continent’s secularization by 10 years. At the International Eucharistic Congress in Hungary in 2021, he lamented that the “faith in Europe has become a very small flame.”
He is less clear about what should be done about it. In his Herder Korrespondenz interview, the cardinal insisted that he was “not a prophet.”
“We have to learn that the Gospel must be translated again and again, into today’s own experiences. From this, new narratives must emerge. Scientific exegesis has shown us that what is called the Word of God was prepared by a community using specific narrative patterns. This thought can help us understand the meaning of faith today.”
“I am not a prophet, so I cannot say exactly how we should do it. But at the same time, I see precisely the limitations of our previous system, which has difficulty reformulating faith. In the Middle Ages, most believers could not read, yet the faith was passed on. When you look at Echternach Abbey and its Gospels, you come to understand how the transmission of the faith goes beyond the written word.”
Steering the synod on synodality
In 2021, Hollerich received arguably the most significant appointment of his ecclesiastical career when the pope chose him as relator general of the upcoming synod on synodality.
The relator general plays a critical role in an assembly of the Synod of Bishops, opening the gathering with a report and presiding over the preparation of a final document that is then submitted to participants for approval.
Being named relator general is a significant sign of papal favor. Pope Francis himself served in the role at the 2001 assembly of the Synod of Bishops, after Cardinal Edward Egan returned to New York following 9/11.
Why did the pope choose Hollerich for this demanding role? He has never offered a public explanation. But several characteristics might have recommended the cardinal for the role.
First, Hollerich is a Jesuit like the pope. Pope Francis has a habit of naming Jesuits to sensitive roles, as can be seen with his choice of Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer as Vatican doctrinal chief and his appointment of Fr. Stephen Chow as bishop of Hong Kong.
As a member of the Society of Jesus, Hollerich is deeply familiar with the concept of “discernment,” which Pope Francis recently described as the “the charism” of the Jesuits. Discernment is central to what the pope understands by “synodality,” which he insists is not a parliamentary deliberation but rather a collective act of discerning the Holy Spirit’s will for the Church.
Second, Hollerich is a pivotal figure. He is at home both in the French Catholic world and the German one, and thanks to his European roles, he understands the Church’s situation elsewhere in Europe. He also has deep experience of Asia, which the pope is said to have called “the future of the Church.” So the polyglot cardinal is likely to be good at bringing people with varied cultural backgrounds together.
Where does he stand?
Hollerich’s most famous comment is that the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality is “no longer correct.”
It was especially significant that he made the remark in an interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA — the cardinal’s view echoes that of participants in the German “synodal way,” who recently backed a draft text calling for the “a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality.”
The cardinal’s statement generated criticism, including from Cardinal George Pell, who urged the Vatican’s doctrinal dicastery “to intervene and pronounce judgment on the wholesale and explicit rejection of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics.”
But neither the Vatican nor Pope Francis responded publicly.
Hollerich has frequently expressed his admiration for the German synodal project, saying that he has “great respect” for it because it is daring “to ask very big questions.” But he has moderated his praise by noting that other parts of the Church find its proposals unacceptable.
In the Herder Korrespondenz interview, he acknowledged that he would have nothing against the introduction of women deacons.
“But reforms need a stable foundation,” he said. “If the pope were now simply to allow viri probati [the ordination of mature, married men as priests] and deaconesses, the danger of schism would be great.”
“After all, it’s not just about the German situation, where perhaps only a small part would break away. In Africa or in countries like France, many bishops would possibly not go along with it.”
Hollerich also accused the German bishops of misunderstanding Pope Francis, saying: “The pope is not liberal, he is radical. From the radicality of the Gospel comes the change.”
Unsurprisingly, the cardinal has a negative view of traditionalism. He told Herder Korrespondenz that he occasionally used Latin when celebrating Mass in his private chapel, but was reluctant to do so in public.
As for the cappa magna, the “great cape” worn by tradition-minded cardinals, Hollerich said that if he wore it, he would feel that he was “betraying Christ.”
Hollerich is likely to become an even more prominent figure as a result of the synod on synodality, which some commentators have billed as the most important Catholic gathering since Vatican II.
His role as relator general will conclude with the synod. His five-year mandate as president of COMECE will also end in 2023, but he may be elected for a second term, like his predecessor Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
In any conclave, Hollerich would be likely to play a notable role because he is so well known and well connected within the Church.