On September 30, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, will be created a cardinal by Pope Francis. The 77-year-old French archbishop talks about the difficulties of his mission and the meaning he gives to the cardinalate that the Pontiff will confer on him.
How did you hear about your cardinalate, and how do you feel about it?
Pierre: I learned the news by accident: I was woken up on Sunday morning by a call from an American journalist. It’s the Pope’s decision and privilege; he didn’t warn me before appointing me. The Pope surprises us every time; he chooses who he wants. For my part, I never aspired to it. Why I was called, I can’t say. Maybe because of my background or the role I’ve played. I feel it’s one more demand on my life. When you’re a nuncio, it’s not usual to become a cardinal. In the past, there was a certain tradition of nuncios in major countries becoming cardinals, but they left office before that.
I was surprised by the announcement, but what pleased me most were the letters [of good wishes] from the American bishops. It shows that a good relationship has developed.
The situation in the USA
You are the nuncio to the United States in a tense climate. What are you doing to calm things down?
Let’s not be too hasty in talking about tensions, or in classifying conservatives and progressives. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. If there is tension, it has to be seen in the context of a world in tension at every level.
Tension is not an evil in itself. Our faith puts us in the position of being in tension, in a world that has often eliminated God from its perspective and no longer holds values shared by all. The risk in managing this tension is to turn our faith into a system of ideas, which we defend against other ideas. I turn the other into my enemy, and enter into a cultural war. That’s what happens in society and also in the Church.
Sometimes it’s almost inevitable — as in France, for example, with the euthanasia bill. But the challenge for the Church is to know how to defend life while being sensitive to human situations, accompaniment towards death, suffering and so on. This is what’s happening in the United States with the abortion issue. I’m completely with those who are against abortion, but we’re not just defenders of an idea, we’re also witnesses to respect for life. Hence the need to commit ourselves to enabling people to go beyond the desire for abortion.
In short, this tension expresses the difficulty of being a Christian in a society that has become inhuman. Inhumanity is everywhere: in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, in the act of abortion, in the refusal of migrants, in the lack of effort for the poor, in the lack of attention to ecology … but I have to be careful not to wage war in the name of defending life.
… I have to be careful not to wage war in the name of defending life.
Is the Pope right to point the finger at the “backwardness” of part of the American episcopate, particularly in terms of liturgy?
It’s true that in the United States there’s a tendency to focus on forms — kneeling, receiving the Host on the tongue and not in the hand, etc. — but what’s the most important thing? What’s more important, the form or the content? The Pope wants to help us rediscover meaning. When you look at all the blogs, of which there are hundreds in the United States, they’re all polarized around this. When they criticize Pope Francis, it’s always about liturgical reform. And they can’t get out of it.
We need to understand the mechanisms of this liturgical division, and not just the most superficial consequences. I’ve noticed that many young people are tired of a poorly made liturgy, and are attracted by the liturgy of the past.
We don’t analyze this nostalgia enough. Their dissatisfaction has much deeper roots. It concerns the meaning of liturgy in their lives, and their malaise in a society that is no longer Christian. They’re often looking for something else that they won’t necessarily find in the old liturgy. They sometimes expect elements outside their faith, such as silence, contemplation and beauty.
To say that we “prefer” the old liturgy is to be subjective. The mass is not our preference; it is given by a Church, it is the fruit of a Church that is moving forward. The mass of today is the mass of all time. We can’t abolish the Church until John XXIII.
In the 10 years of his pontificate, the Pope has shaken up the major poles of the Church. Dioceses that were traditionally cardinal’s sees have been passed over in favor of smaller, more peripheral dioceses. How do you explain this?
This is the history of the Church. The times have changed and the Pope is the one with the antennae, the one who is inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s a bit fashionable to criticize the Pope. I find it very unhealthy. You have the right to think for yourself, but when you belong to the Church, you believe it has a supernatural dimension, built on Peter.
For one of my posts, I went to New Zealand and met the bishop of Tonga. Tonga is tiny. It’s one of the oldest kingdoms in the world, but in global geopolitics it’s not considered a big deal. And yet its bishop is a cardinal! That’s part of the Pope’s vision: The world is seen more clearly from the peripheries than from the center.
These are elements of analysis. I’m fascinated by this Pope because I think he has a vision that’s baffling, but extremely rich, extremely coherent, if you understand it properly.
At the level of the College of Cardinals, what the Pope also expects of us is that we should all have a certain vision of the world, of society, so that we don’t lock ourselves into something restricted, something small.
You took part in Cardinal Zuppi’s visit to Washington; he is the Pope’s peace envoy for the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. How did you find the reception at the White House? What do you plan to do next, with the trip to China?
We spent two hours in President Joe Biden’s office. The Pope is taking the risk of dialogue. It’s the antidote to war, because it’s the path to encounter. He’s making an effort to become part of a peace process that doesn’t yet exist, sending someone who has been to Ukraine, Moscow, Washington, and China. It’s interesting that the Pope’s envoy should go to Beijing on this subject, when there are so many disputes between China and the Church.
We shouldn’t expect too much, but we should expect something. We’re not yet at the level of negotiation, but at the level where we’re trying to talk to each other.
I’ve been involved in political meetings all my life, and I’ve worked in nine countries — countries with dictatorships, Cuba, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Haiti… When it comes to dialogue, you know very well that you’re not going to win the day that way, but it’s useful nonetheless. For some, the Church is not credible — that’s the game of politics — but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to do something.
Could the Holy See’s diplomacy evolve toward more frequent recourse to lay people, even if it means opening up the Ecclesiastical Academy to new kinds of candidates rather than just clerics?
I don’t see why not. We need to see what it’s all about. What is a nuncio? Our main job is to help popes discern and appoint bishops. It’s one of the reasons why, when you become a nuncio, you are also ordained a bishop, to be in a world of bishops.
There are areas of papal diplomacy, such as multilateralism, where it’s quite conceivable that a permanent observer in Geneva might be a layman. But in a world of bishops, there are things that in my experience could not have been done if it had been a lay person.
Synodality is about listening to each other
How do you see the Synod on Synodality? Is it a revolution for the Church?
Here too, let’s not jump to conclusions. We need to know why the Pope launched the idea of the Synod. Six years ago, I gave a lecture at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., on the theme of synodality according to Pope Francis. I didn’t invent anything, I just did some research.
If you read what I wrote six years ago, it’s exactly what’s happening today. This word that we hadn’t seen was already there. I read about the need to move forward together, to relearn how to be together in a fragmented world. Synodality isn’t about inventing a world that doesn’t exist, it’s about being able to live out a dimension necessary to the Church, first and foremost by listening to each other.
People have interpreted it by seeing agendas, which always concern the same thing: the shortage of priests, the female diaconate. But if we become polarized about one aspect, we don’t move forward. The Pope won’t accept just anything. Synodality means walking together to find ways of evangelizing in a new context.