TRADITIONALLY, the Synod of Bishops has been a good place to watch ecclesial careers on the rise.
The Church’s future all-stars are often found in the line-up of top synod positions like presidential delegate or recording secretary and among the small number of papal appointees to the assembly.
Many officials in Rome remember how a young Cardinal Karol Wojtyla came to the attention of the global Church through a series of synods – in 1969 as a papally appointed member, in 1971 as an elected member of the synod’s general council, and in 1974 as the synod’s recording secretary.
When he was elected pope in 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla was still a relative unknown to the great public but a household name to hundreds of bishops around the world.
This month, those sitting on the presidential dais included three presiding delegates – Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iniguez and Indian Cardinal Telesphore Toppo.
Cardinals Arinze and Sandoval were familiar faces to the bishops and both were mentioned as possible papal candidates in the last conclave.
Cardinal Toppo, 65, is a relative newcomer to the synod’s higher echelons.
How he got there is by catching people’s attention.
The Ranchi archbishop stood up at a 2001 synod and said bishops need to live with the poor in the style of Jesus – a revolutionary step that he said could attract many Asians to the Gospel.
The synod’s recording secretary, Italian Cardinal Angelo Scola, has bolstered his standing as one of the Church’s deepest thinkers and wordiest speakers.
His task of summarising and synthesising some 200 speeches ensured that he was overworked, but that’s something he’s used to, even as patriarch of Venice.
His synod assistant, French Archbishop Roland Minnerath, 58, is a newer face who impressed people when he prodded the synod debate toward some sharp questions midway through the assembly.
Already a seasoned expert in Vatican diplomacy and management, don’t look for him to end his career in Dijon, France, where he has been archbishop since 2004.
Experienced observers of the synod look closely at its internal elections.
The commission in charge of writing a message to the world was headed by Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, Canada, a papal appointee. Highly regarded in Rome, he was the only North American on the panel.
The bishops elected most of the other commission members, including one relatively unknown leader of a new generation of Italian Church leaders, 56-year-old Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto.
The election of moderators for small discussion groups also produced one less familiar name – Bishop Jean-Louis Brugues of Angers, a 61-year-old Dominican theologian and current head of the French bishops’ doctrinal commission.
A papal appointee to the synod, Bishop Brugues made an impression when he helped write the International Theological Commission’s landmark document in 2000, “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past”.
But the figure who drew the closest attention at this synod was no newcomer. All eyes were on Pope Benedict XVI.
The assembly was, in a sense, the Pope’s debut in front of the world’s episcopate, and it was characteristically low key.
By the synod’s midway point, the Pope had asked for the microphone only once, to lay down some theological markers during a debate on the Eucharist as sacrifice versus the Eucharist as communal meal.
The Pope showed up for most but certainly not all the synod’s meetings, routinely skipping afternoon sessions until the free discussion period.
On the synod’s first day he had to excuse himself for a dental appointment, and he later missed the presentations of the non-Catholic “fraternal delegates”.
Bishops watched Pope Benedict toting his own black briefcase to and from the synod hall, which many saw as a small sign of humility.
The Pope held court at the morning coffee break, chatting informally with bishops invited by language group. It was Pope Benedict’s abbreviated version of the private lunches Pope John Paul II used to host with groups of synod participants.
The big novelty this year was a daily hour of free discussion, with an open mike for speeches of up to three minutes.
Officials flashed a warning light every 60 seconds and turned the microphone down if the speaker went over time. The idea was to pick up the pace and favour a free flow of ideas.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, USA said the innovation worked very well, and that the Pope seemed engaged during these discussion periods – listening carefully, taking occasional notes and chuckling at the humorous asides.
When the Pope asked for the floor, however, he enjoyed papal privilege, speaking for 12 minutes. No one turned down his microphone.