ROME. Press speculation about the “real” agenda of the extraordinary consistory of the College of Cardinals in May was even more fevered than usual. Every reporter I talked with was convinced that the consistory would be a dress rehearsal for the next papal conclave, a Roman version of Iowa presidential caucuses. The week before the cardinals gathered, a producer from one of the national networks called because his news room was convinced that John Paul II was going to resign during the consistory, which would turn into a snap-conclave to elect the Pope’s successor. I told the producer, “Sure. And the day after the Pope resigns, Senator Edward Kennedy will announce that he’s becoming a Republican.”
These kinds of speculations are inevitable, not least because of the American media’s dependence on Italian new sources for its Vatican coverage—and the Italians were in the flush of pre-conclave fever in the weeks before the consistory. But wouldn’t it make more sense on these occasions to take the Pope at his word? John Paul II had insisted since February that the purpose of the consistory was to think through the Church’s evangelical opportunities in the third millennium of Christian history. As things turned out, that was indeed what the cardinals discussed.
Arriving in Rome the day after the consistory concluded, I was impressed by the number of cardinals who stressed the spiritual intensity of their meeting. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, nicely summed up the meaning of the cardinals’ three days together by telling a gaggle of reporters, “This meeting was about Jesus Christ.” A piety? A dodge, from a man the Italian press considers eminently papabile (roughly translated,”popeable”)? I don’t think so.
For almost twenty-three years now, John Paul II has been asking the pastoral leaders of the Catholic Church to rekindle in their minds and ministries the vision of Blessed John XXIII in summoning the Second Vatican Council: the revitalization of the Church as an evangelical movement in history, telling the world the truth about itself, its origins, and its destiny. The years since the Council have been filled with debates about the Church-as-institution .These are important, but as John Paul told the Roman Curia in December 1987, the Church formed in the image of the Apostle Peter—the institutional Church of authority and jurisdiction—exists to serve the Church formed in the image of the Virgin Mary—the Church of disciples whose baptismal task is to be witnesses in the world to the fact that God is passionately in love with the world he created: so in love that he sent his only Son into the world to restore human history to its true trajectory, which points toward eternal life within the light and life of the Holy Trinity.
That is what the Church is for. And that places a special responsibility on the Church’s pastoral leaders. They have administrative responsibilities, to be sure; more than one American bishop is the chief executive of a multi-billion dollar corporation. But when those necessary administrative tasks so dominate the local bishop’s life that his primary role as a teacher—an evangelist—gets lost, something is awry. How to recover that sense of pastoral leadership as evangelical leadership was a crucial part of the cardinals’ discussions in May. We can expect that it will be a dominant theme, and perhaps the dominant theme, during October’s world Synod of Bishops.
It was also interesting that more than one cardinal took the floor during the consistory to underline the importance of the papacy as an evangelical office with universal reach. Many cardinals seem to have recognized that the Great Jubilee of 2000, whose full impact is only beginning to be felt throughout the world Church, would simply not have happened without the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. Others commented during the consistory on how important the papacy was as a source of doctrinal clarity and unity, and on the crucial role of the papacy as a catalyst for ecumenical initiatives—as demonstrated most recently in Greece.
Dull stuff? Not if you think that the Gospel remains the most compelling proposal on offer in the twenty-first century.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on The Catholic Difference