Pope Francis “is remarkably well informed and he takes seriously the unity of the Church,” said Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, at a press briefing at the Holy See Press Office on October 10, 2023. As the Synod on the Future of the Church enters its second week, the cardinal came to share his experience so far.
He was joined by Colombian nun Gloria Liliana Franco Echeverri, president of the Confederation of Latin American Religious (CLAR). The American cardinal explained that the Synod intends to focus on the concrete lives of those who “feel they are not at home in the Catholic Church” and highlighted the “diversity” of people in this process of discernment.
“We believe in a God who became flesh and blood like the rest of us; he didn’t stay in some celestial isolation, and so the Church always has to be concerned with flesh and blood issues,” the Cardinal explained, regarding the themes discussed during the Synodal process.
Church is most beautiful “when the doors are open and welcoming”
Responding to a question about the themes addressed during the assembly discussions, Cardinal Tobin said he was concerned about reaching out to those who feel excluded by the Church. He recounted how, some years ago, he “welcomed a pilgrimage of people who felt marginalized because of their sexual orientation, LGBTQ+ people, to the cathedral” of his diocese.
Cardinal Tobin shared the “wonderful reflection” of one of his auxiliary bishops, Manuel Aurelio Cruz, who had accompanied the group. Bishop Cruz had remarked that the Cathedral was very beautiful but especially “when the doors are open.”
“I think the real beauty of our Catholic Church is clear: when the doors are open and welcoming,” Cardinal Tobin said. “It is my hope that the Synod will help us do that in a more significant way.”
Traditional Latin Mass-goers have not been “banished by the Church”
When asked about the “open doors” of the Church in relation to Catholics who are particularly attached to celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass, Cardinal Tobin acknowledged the pain that some may feel about recent changes, while also highlighting they can still celebrate, just under different conditions.
“I would say the experience of feeling banished is something that is sadly part of the signs of the times, not simply for people who very much love the Traditional Mass,” the Archbishop of Newark said. “For people who love the Traditional Mass, they are still under the conditions of two Motu Proprios, as well as the decisions of the Dicastery for Divine Worship; there are still opportunities for it, but not perhaps what they have been accustomed to. I know it has caused a lot of grief among people who particularly identified with that Mass, but I don’t think they have been banished from the Catholic Church.”
Conflicts going on in the world are part of the Synod
Cardinal Tobin, who has previously taken part in six other synodal assemblies – initially as Superior General of the Redemptorists, then as a bishop – remarked that the current synod assembly is “the most diverse” that he has attended. He gave the example of the English-speaking group he worked in on October 10 that was made up of people from a wide variety of backgrounds: a Pentecostal pastor from Ghana, a theologian from Malaysia, a Singaporean, and two young women from Ukraine and Russia. “For me it couldn’t get better than to be in a group like that, and to listen,” he said.
“The war in Ukraine has come up, along with several other areas of conflict, one which we all know broke out over the weekend,” the Cardinal answered to a question about the presence of a Ukrainian and Russian woman in his group, and alluding to the conflict in Israel and Palestine. “The wars that have the headlines are part of the reflection but also the wars that unfortunately are not always covered in the press, such as the wars in Africa and some of the conflicts in Asia.”
Cardinal Tobin emphasized the multicultural dimension of the Catholic Church and the Synod, which he said he also experienced growing up in a large family of Irish origin in an international neighborhood in Detroit. In fact he said that in his Diocese of Newark, the Eucharist is celebrated in 23 different languages.
“Discernment,” not a “parliamentary decision”
The Archbishop of Newark highlighted how the Synod requires “serious discernement” and that ultimately Pope Francis decides what to do. “You can decline the verb ‘to discern’ this way in the context of the Synod: I discern, you discern, he decides,” Cardinal Tobin quipped. “That may sound rather authoritarian or totalitarian, but it isn’t. I have been able to cooperate with Pope Francis on different things and he listens very carefully, he is remarkably well informed and he takes seriously the unity of the Church.”
“There have been Synods recently when there was a decision taken by vote and the Pope didn’t accept it at the time. I believe he said something like this was a parliamentary decision, it wasn’t a decision reached by serious discernement,” the Cardinal said.
He highlighted how, for example, the moments of silence built into the Synodal process help to discern and reflect.
“No hidden agenda”
Colombian nun Gloria Liliana Franco Echeverri, president of the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR), also explained that the Synod aimed to listen to “the cry of the poor” and “the cry of the Earth” and to look into “the face of the poor,” especially migrants and victims of human trafficking. She added that the Synod should help the Church take on the appearance of a “family dinner table” in which there is “a place for everyone.”
By relaying the testimonies of trafficked people, the Latin American nun sought to inscribe this synodal process in the “realities of our world,” by echoing the “concrete cry of people.” The nun also assured that the Synod has “no hidden agenda.”
The president of the Commission for Information of the Synod, Paolo Ruffini, reported that 346 participants had taken part in the meeting of the various language groups on Tuesday morning, October 10. The General Congregations then resumed in the afternoon, with Pope Francis.
The Bishop of Rome had been absent earlier due to, among other things, the ad limina visit of the bishops from Congo, explained Ruffini.