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Clerical un-and-comers shine at European Synod

NCR Staff

Among Vatican-watchers, a synod of bishops generally matters less for its final results -- which, at least under this pontificate, often seem pre-determined -- than for the performances of its participants. Close attention often reveals rising stars.

One of the few signs that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków had a following outside Poland, for example, came in 1974 when he was chosen to work on the synod on evangelization’s final report.

In that light, it’s worth taking at look at who turned heads in this second European synod of the 1990s, which ended with a solemn High Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 23.

Italian Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, 65, of Genoa, was already considered papabile, and these three weeks boosted his stock. Tettamanzi has a roly-poly, affable bearing reminiscent of John XXIII. (In a phrase that will surely pass into legend if Tettamanzi is ever elected pope, Archbishop Keith Michael Patrick O’Brien of Edinburgh, Scotland, referred to him as “that wee fat guy.”)

Tettamanzi led the committee that produced the synod’s final message, and most observers believe he did well. The document is upbeat, in contrast to the gloom-and-doom of the opening address by Cardinal Antonio María Rouco Varela of Madrid. Tettamanzi was among the top vote-getters for the post-synodal council, a group that helps produce a papal letter that officially concludes the synod. The result suggests that Tettamanzi got high marks from his peers.

Italians say Tettamanzi is moderate-to-conservative on church issues. A moral theologian, he is rumored to have worked on John Paul’s encyclicals Evangelium Vitae and Splendor Veritatis. He is close to Opus Dei. In 1998, on the group’s 70th anniversary, Tettamanzi published an article praising founder José Maria Escrivá de Balaguer as comparable to Ss. Benedict and Francis of Assisi in terms of launching new movements within the church.

Many church-watchers had written off Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, 54, in the last year. He seemed incapable of curbing another Austrian bishop who called him a liar; he mishandled a critical visit of the Austrian bishops to Rome and then carried out an ill-executed purge of his staff. A recent poll in an Austrian newspaper concluded that a majority of Catholics disapprove of his performance.

Schönborn, however, is a bit like former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev: He may be unpopular at home, but everywhere else he’s a star. Schönborn is a Dominican and a former post-graduate student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He is the scion of a Bohemian aristocratic family; three of his ancestors were also cardinals. In the mid-1990s, he served as general editor the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Schönborn’s intervention won high marks, especially from Eastern bishops. He suggested that Western Catholics should ask forgiveness for their silence during the period of communist persecution, “so that the memories of the martyrs can be celebrated with a pure heart.” He said Western Catholics must draw from the theology and liturgy in the East, while Eastern Catholicism must learn how to overcome being a “national church.” Schönborn also won a seat on the post-synodal council.

Other papabile who made impressions include Cardinals Godfried Danneels of Belgium, 66, and Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, 72.

Danneels steered the synod toward a more optimistic tone. In an interview with NCR, he named three challenges that will face the next pope: the confrontation with modern culture, especially the relationship between faith and science; interreligious dialogue, especially with the great Asian religions; and the identity of ordained ministry in the church and its relationship with laity.

Asked if there was any part of him that would enjoy tackling these challenges as pope, Daneels did not hesitate: “There is no question.”

Danneels was elected as one of the three “grand relators” who put the final propositions of the synod into shape.

Martini generated the single biggest news day during the synod when he seemed to call for a new ecumenical council (he later told NCR he had been misunderstood, that he was calling for greater power-sharing in the daily life of the church).

Yet no one in the synod rose to support Martini’s proposal. At the concluding news conference of the synod, Tettamanzi said flatly in response to a question that Martini’s statement “did not find an echo within the synodal assembly.”

One theory making the rounds in Rome is that the next pope is not yet a cardinal, but will become one in a consistory projected for next year. Two figures who could fit that profile impressed people at the synod, but both may be long shots to make it into the College of Cardinals on John Paul’s watch.

According to many observers at the synod, Dominican Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe drew rave reviews. His intervention called on the church to reason with people, to share their experiences and to welcome them, rather than asserting authority ever more strongly. Several observers hailed it as the single most impressive speech of the event. In an interview with NCR, Radcliffe spoke openly about reform in the way power is distributed in the church. “I think there is a commonly felt desire that the dicasteries [curial offices] of the Vatican should be seen to be supportive of the local churches, empowering them,” he said.

Radcliffe is rumored to be on the short list as Cardinal Basil Hume’s successor in England. If that happened, he could be a cardinal in time for the next conclave. Yet at 53, he is almost certainly too young to be pope. Moreover, his reputation as a progressive makes it seem unlikely John Paul would select him for Westminster.

A better bet seems current auxiliary Bishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who was tapped by the pope as a special secretary at the synod and who was also elected to the post-synodal council. His comments were safe and moderate. In response to a reporter’s question about Martini, for example, he echoed his call for more Bible study -- a way of saying something nice without entering dangerous waters.

It’s improbable that Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, 63, will be named a cardinal under John Paul. Reputedly, his stumbling block is a pastoral letter he signed in 1993 with two other German bishops suggesting that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive the sacraments.

Moreover, Lehmann and several other German bishops have been locked in a battle with the Vatican since 1995 concerning 270 church-run pregnancy-counseling centers in Germany.

Yet Lehmann, who studied under Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner, the progressive German theologian, impressed people at the synod. In the face of growing alarm over Islam, he spoke about the complexity within Europe’s Moslem communities. He also called for structural reforms in the synod, especially in the selection of lay auditors. At this synod, that group was dominated by members of new movements such as Focolare and the Neocatechumenate.

Lehmann was elected to the post-synodal council, a show of support in light of his troubles with Rome.

The Italian press continues to tout Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, 71, who runs the synods, as papabile. Yet as in previous synods, Schotte’s penchant for secrecy and control alienated many participants. The argument for his candidacy seems to be that if the next conclave wants a pope strong enough to discipline the curia, he could be their man.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999