October’s synod assembly boasts an unprecedented level of participation in a Synod of Bishops. Of the record-high 360-plus voting members, nearly 27% of them are non-bishops, including women and sizable numbers of laypeople, for the first time ever at a synod. But even with this widened degree of participation, it’s still true that the synod proceedings — and the media narratives that emerge around them — will likely be shaped by a few key actors. Here are 23 key movers and shakers to keep an eye on at the 2023 Synod on Synodality.
Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church and president of the synod
To be clear from the start: The synodal buck stops with Pope Francis. Although the Pope has expanded the right to vote beyond bishops and has previously even changed canon law to allow for the final synodal document to be accepted as magisterial (with the Pope’s approval), it is still true that the Pope — and the Pope alone — has the final say on what official impact the synod has on Church teaching and practice. Francis has emphasized that a synod is not a parliament, but rather an experience of the Church coming together around the pope to help him discern. This principle seems to have guided him in synods before, such as when he passed on approving the ordination of married men at the 2019 Amazon synod, despite significant support in the assembly for it. Only time will tell, though, how the Pope chooses to respond to the proceedings of the October synodal gathering.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, general relator of the Synod on Synodality
The Luxembourg cardinal is the synod’s general relator, a significant position responsible for orchestrating the October assembly and summarizing its final conclusions. Some have questioned his suitability to play such a role following his shocking 2022 comments that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is “false,” but the Pope’s confidence in his fellow Jesuit has never waned. In fact, he named Cardinal Hollerich to his exclusive “council of cardinals” earlier this year. Given his significant role, his controversial views and his rapport with the Holy Father, Cardinal Hollerich is likely the most important figure in the synod after Pope Francis.
Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the synod
Appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Synod of Bishops’ support office in 2019, the Maltese cardinal has been an instrumental figure in the Synod on Synodality from the very beginning. He has frequently spoken of greater incorporation of synodality as the fulfillment of Vatican II’s emphasis on including the “People of God” in Church governance, but has also emphasized that the focus of the current synod should be on ecclesiology, not moral or sacramental issues. He’ll remain a vital figure at the October gathering, especially in its organization and implementation.
Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the General Secretariat for the Synod
Described as “the most powerful woman in the Vatican,” Sister Nathalie was the first woman to become undersecretary of the General Secretariat for the Synod in 2021. The French Xavière sister has been one of the Synod on Synodality’s greatest advocates, particularly focusing on its capacity to expand women’s role in the governance of the Church — though she has also made clear that women’s ordination as priests is “not an open question.” As the female face of synodality, Sister Nathalie will likely have clout in both the synodal hall and before members of the media.
Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith
The Pope’s longtime theological ghostwriter, Cardinal-elect Fernández was recently propelled to center stage of the universal Church after Pope Francis named him the next head of the DDF — and then announced he would be made a cardinal at the end of September. In a multitude of interviews given since, Cardinal-elect Fernández has kept people guessing by, among other things, expressing openness to “rethinking” the DDF’s 2021 rebuttal of a German push to bless same-sex relations, but also criticizing the German theological establishment. Armed with the confidence of someone who knows he enjoys the favor of the Pope, expect Cardinal-elect Fernández to be vocal at the synod — and for others to give extra weight to his words.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith
In a somewhat surprising move, the former head of the DDF was personally selected by Pope Francis to participate in the synod — despite Cardinal Müller’s sharp public criticisms of the entire process, which he has described as a “hostile takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ” that must be resisted. A reliably orthodox theologian in the mold of Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Müller’s presence may serve as inspiration for others with similar views to speak up if problematic proposals are pushed forward. Another German critic of the Synodal Way invited by Francis: Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, whose less-confrontational style could also have an impact in October.
Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi, leader of the Maronite Catholic Church
As head of the Maronite Catholic Church and the Assembly of the Catholic Patriarchs in the East, Cardinal al-Rahi may be the most influential of the 20 Eastern Catholic episcopal representatives at the synod assembly — an especially significant group, given that the current focus on “synodality” is often justified by the synodal practices of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Not all Eastern Catholic bishops agree with this connection — one recently criticized the synod’s approach as at odds with the Eastern synodality — making the contributions of the Eastern Church delegates in attendance at the October assembly all the more important. Another patriarch to watch: Bishop Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak, head of the Coptic Catholic Church, who will serve as a “presidential delegate” at the synod.
Austen Ivereigh, synod expert/facilitator and journalist
Ivereigh won’t be voting at the October assembly, but the British journalist and Pope Francis biographer has already demonstrated that there are other ways to influence the synodal process. He was part of the small team that wrote “Enlarge the Size of Your Tent,” the controversial synthesis document that served as the basis for the synod’s continental stage. Ivereigh and other facilitators (a brand-new role at a Synod of Bishops) will be responsible for guiding small-group discussions and synthesizing their conclusions — a role that some may question his suitability for, given his brashness on several hot-button issues, such as the Catechism’s language regarding same-sex attraction and traditionalist movements in the Church. Other experts/facilitators hold even more controversial public views, such as Bishop Philippe Bordeyne, the president of the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences, who has argued for same-sex blessings, and Brazilian Jesuit Father Adelson Araujo dos Santos, who has called for ordaining married men and attempted women’s ordination.
Cardinal Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar
A widely respected and leading voice of the Church in Asia, Cardinal Bo’s profile was significantly boosted by his serene calls for peace during the 2021 coup in Myanmar and by his willingness to criticize regional powerhouse China’s abuse of human rights. Considered solidly orthodox, Cardinal Bo is also a major proponent of the listening and discernment at the heart of synodality, which he says will help the Church “better witness to the Gospel.” Expect his voice to carry above any ideological fracases that break out in October.
Cardinal Luis Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples
Another prominent Asian Churchman, the Filipino cardinal has established himself as a moderate whose emphasis on dialogue and gradual reform places him at the center of Church disputes. Seen by many as a possible successor to Pope Francis (even with a recent shake-up at Caritas International under his leadership), Cardinal Tagle can be expected to play the role of “bridge-builder” between the various camps and viewpoints that emerge in Paul VI Hall.
Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle, archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana
The Ghanian archbishop was one of several Africans at the 2015 Synod on the Family who offered a counter to progressive views on sexuality — a role he could reprise in October. However, Archbishop Palmer-Buckle’s resistance to secular sexual values is coupled with an appreciation for the ongoing focus on synodality in the life of the Church. The Ghanian has said of the African delegation that “the Spirit is sending us to bring some freshness to the world and to the Church.” His combination of doctrinal orthodoxy and openness to synodality may allow the Ghanian and like-minded Africans to rise above some of the camps that are likely to form in October.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishops’ Conference
The German Synodal Way’s brand may be significantly tarnished, especially after Pope Francis’ string of criticisms of the process, but Bishop Bätzing and his confreres come to Rome with a clear mission: push for changes related to priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, and sexual morality. Interestingly, the Vatican’s criticisms of the Synodal Way have largely focused not on the substance of its proposals, but on pushing for them not in conversation with the universal Church — suggesting that the Germans may be able to make their case in October.
Sister Anna Mirijam Kaschner, secretary-general of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference
The secretary-general of the Nordic Bishops’ Conference and a member of the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, Sister Anna has emerged as a leading critic of the Synodal Way in her native Germany. While acknowledging the need to consider issues like priestly formation, the position of women in the Church, and the communication of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, she has emphasized that there can be no revision of “issues that contain unchangeable parts of the Church’s teaching.” Expect this outspoken, well-respected religious sister to take a similar stand if the Rhine flows into the Tiber at October’s synodal proceedings.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna
Once closely associated with Benedict XVI, Cardinal Schönborn has played an important role in Francis’ pontificate, prominently defending the controversial 2015 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The Dominican cardinal has also shown a shift in his theological positions, recently expressing openness to same-sex blessings and women’s ordination. Kept on by Francis three years after retirement age in an expression of trust, the German-speaking cardinal could be called upon to forge some sort of “compromise” with the more extreme elements of the synod.
Cardinal Leonardo Steiner, archbishop of Manaus, Brazil
The Brazilian prelate was a strong advocate for ordaining married men at the 2019 Amazon synod. Pope Francis didn’t accept this proposal — but he turned around and made the Franciscan the first-ever cardinal from the Amazon in 2022. Known as a champion of the poor and the Indigenous (and also seen as “LGBTQ-positive” ), Cardinal Steiner said prior to receiving his red hat that “there will be a way” to end mandatory priestly celibacy. Expect him to approach the October synod as an opportunity to take care of this “unfinished business” from the 2019 gathering.
Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
A former papal diplomat with a wide network of relations beyond the U.S. Church, Archbishop Broglio is well-suited to lead the American delegation at the universal synod — perhaps especially at a time of heightened tension between the Vatican and the U.S. episcopate. But the diplomatic tendencies of the head of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and his hope that the synod can help overcome polarization likely won’t preclude him from taking strong stands, especially if versions of synodality that suggest a departure from Church teaching on sexuality are advanced. The U.S. episcopacy’s perspective still carries weight in the universal Church, and Archbishop Broglio is well poised to deliver it.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, archbishop of Newark, New Jersey
While Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego has aggressively declared that the synod is the place to push for the women’s diaconate and changes to the Church’s approach to sexual sin, Cardinal Tobin, a fellow Pope Francis-created American cardinal, has taken a far more restrained approach, emphasizing that “doctrinal change” is not the point of the synod. That doesn’t mean, though, that the Newark cardinal doesn’t share some of Cardinal McElroy’s theological views — he has previously signaled openness to women deacons and rejects the Catechism’s description of same-sex attraction as “intrinsically disordered.” But Cardinal Tobin’s more measured public approach to the synod, as well as his deep connections in the universal Church gained through his time as head of the Redemptorist Order and in the Roman Curia, may make him the most effective mover and shaker among the American “Francis cardinals.”
Renee Köhler-Ryan, national head of the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia
Australian Archbishops Timothy Costelloe and Anthony Fisher will play big roles at the synod (likely with differing emphases), but another significant voice from Down Under is Renee Köhler-Ryan. A scholar of the Catholic intellectual tradition with a particular focus on the thought of St. Edith Stein (Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Köhler-Ryan is a powerful advocate for women in the Church — but also clearly embraces the Church’s teaching on sacramental ordination. With many claiming that women can’t be respected unless they’re ordained, Köhler-Ryan is likely to offer a powerful counterpoint.
Archbishop Stanisław Gadecki, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference
One of three delegates from the Polish Bishops’ Conference, the archbishop of Poznan is no stranger to standing up for the Catholic faith when he deems it’s being threatened. He played a significant role in the 2015 synod in resisting efforts to normalize same-sex relations, and, more recently, he has been deeply critical of the Synodal Way in neighboring Germany. Expect him to be an especially strong voice for the Church’s established teaching on sexuality in October.
Jesuit Father James Martin, author and LGBTQ activist
A leading advocate for what he calls “inclusivity” for LGBTQ-identifying Catholics, Father Martin’s somewhat-ambiguous activism has long raised concerns among some Catholics about the possible subversion of Catholic moral teaching in the name of being more “welcoming.” But the Jesuit priest’s approach seems to have the support of at least one prominent figure: Pope Francis, with whom Father Martin apparently has a near-direct line of communication. He is one of the Pope’s 50 personal picks to participate in the synod gathering, where the Jesuit priest said he hopes to be “one of the voices for LGBTQ people.” Always a media favorite, Father Martin could have as big an impact outside Paul VI Hall as inside it.
Sister Josée Ngalula, theologian at the Catholic University of Congo
The first African women to serve on the International Theological Commission, Sister Josée sees synodality as a tool to address the problem of clericalism in Africa and the hesitancy of African clergy “to embrace change.” But rather than suggesting a push for women’s ordination, as those kinds of phrases could be interpreted in the West, Sister Josée’s focus seems to be on addressing practices in African culture that don’t respect the dignity of women, such as domestic violence or dismissing the views and contributions of women. As such, she could be a prominent voice for addressing questions of the role of women in the life of the Church that steer clear of sacramental redlines.
Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas
Bishop Flores is widely respected in the U.S. Church for his theological depth and above-the-fray disposition, two qualities that helped him to navigate the role of guiding the synodal process in the U.S. in his capacity as the USCCB’s doctrine head. The Texas bishop not only has the respect of his brother bishops, who picked him to be one of five U.S. episcopal delegates to the synod, but also Pope Francis. The Pope tapped Bishop Flores to serve as a presidential delegate at the October meeting, a role that includes signing any final documents. If and when controversies break out in Rome, Bishop Flores will likely be a figure who participants and U.S. Catholic media look to for a steady way forward.
Helen Jeppesen-Spuhler, Swiss Catholic Lenten Fund
The Swiss laywoman is very clear about her intentions at the assembly: She will push for attempting to ordain women. Jeppesen-Spuhler has said that “the priesthood of women will not be introduced immediately,” but that the October synod could be a stepping stone towards it, as “a large number of bishops” are ready to discuss women in the diaconate. Jeppesen-Spuhler also holds heterodoxical views on sexuality and has said that Eastern Europeans hold “backward-looking positions.” A sign that she might have some clout in Rome: She was invited by the Vatican to speak at the June press conference introducing the synod’s instrumentum laboris.
This article was previously uploaded on the National Catholic Register.
Jonathan Liedl is a senior editor with the National Catholic Register based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds an MA in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN) and a BA in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently completing a MA in Theology at the Saint Paul Seminary and School of Divinity (MN). His background includes state Catholic conference work and three years of seminary formation.