Bergoglio’s List: the pope’s bid to heal a broken Church through synodality


What do Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the Reverend James Martin SJ have in common? They are both members of the Roman Catholic clergy who tend to be polarising figures in the Church.

The first is a hero of traditionalists, while the second is a champion of those who want reform.

And now the German cardinal and the American Jesuit are both voting members of the upcoming meeting of the Synod – by direct appointment of Pope Francis.

On July 7, the Synod’s secretariat published the full list (naturally, only in Italian) of those who will be participating in the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place October 4-29 at the Vatican.

And while most of the prelates who are listed have been elected either by national or regional episcopal conferences, or (as in the case of the heads of Roman Curia departments) will be participating in an ex officio capacity, the pope has hand-picked more than 50 others.

He’s selected 10 people from 20 candidates – among laity and clergy – who were proposed by the bishops of each continent (the Synod lists seven).

The 70 people the pope chose all participated in the continental synodal gatherings that were held several months ago.

Striking a balance

What’s interesting about “Bergoglio’s List” (to borrow the title of a book that came out in 2013 and sought to tell “the untold story” of “how a young Francis defied a dictatorship and saved dozens of lives” during his native Argentina’s so-called “dirty war”) is that our now much older Francis is trying to use the synodal process, in defiance of widespread cynicism and indifference, to save the Church from internal polarisation.

It’s a high-wire act, to be sure.

And his decision to invite both Müller and Martin shows that he’s well aware that Catholics of all points of view must be part of the synodal process, his audacious project to reform and re-energizs the Church’s sense of communion, participation and mission.

Francis’ decision

to invite both


Cardinal Gerhard Müller and


Fr James Martin

shows that he’s well aware

that Catholics of all points of view

must be part of the synodal process.

Most people have focused on the people Francis has chosen to be at next October’s assembly (and likely at the one in 2024), some complaining that he’s actually stacked the deck in favour of reformers and has invited only a handful of folks like Cardinal Müller who have been critics of this pontificate and/or the synodal process.

Actually, the pope has done an impressive job of trying to strike a balance.

He has answered episcopal conferences (like the one in the United States) that elected delegates who have been hostile or lukewarm towards his pontificate by personally appointing delegates from those same regions who are his supporters.

On the other hand, Francis has appointed more “traditionalist” participants to the Synod assembly from places like Germany, where the so-called “progressives” were elected by the bishops’ conference.

Who can preside at a Synod assembly?

Francis has also introduced another complete novelty to the Synod’s structure, which has largely gone unnoticed or has been dismissed as something of little significance. And that has to do with who presides over the Synod meetings.

The Bishop of Rome is the president of the Synod of Bishops, but he usually appoints three cardinals to serve as “president delegates” during the general assemblies.

Why cardinals?

Evidently, they are the men on the highest rung of the hierarchy.

Only cardinals can elect the pope and the one who gets elected is almost always a cardinal.

So, naturally, popes choose cardinals as their legates and, in the case of the Synod, their stand-ins to run the working sessions.

That’s the way it has been since Paul VI instituted this modern-day version of the Synod of the Roman Church and held its first assembly in 1967.

But Pope Francis has now shattered that 56-year-long custom and has appointed nine president delegates – and only one of them wears the red hat: Cardinal Carlos Aguiar of Mexico City.

Among the other eight is an Eastern Church patriarch from Egypt, three other bishops (from Ecuador, Australia and the United States), an Italian priest, a religious sister from Mexico and a female lay missionary from Japan.

The message here is that any member of the People of God (both ordained and non-ordained) can preside over the Synod assembly as the pope’s delegate.

This is a radical step forward that most people seem to have missed.

Perhaps that is because the duties of a president delegate have been viewed as merely ceremonial.

But ceremony and symbol in the Church almost always signify a deeper or greater reality. Francis’ innovation in this regard should not be passed over quickly.

He’s made an important statement by allowing members of the lay faithful to preside at the synodal proceedings.

We’ve only just begun

Certainly, there is more to be said about the list of participants the pope has put together for the October gathering.

There are 364 members with the right to vote, including 52 women – only two fewer than the number of cardinals who will be participating.

There are also a number of young people who are voting members, some of them still doing undergraduate studies in university.

Francis’ inclusion of Cardinal Müller is extremely significant, given that the pope did not renew the German theologian as the head of the then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2017, but left him – at only 69 years of age – without a job.

But Müller, who has been quite critical of the revamped synodal procedures, is not the only former doctrinal chief – or “retired” head of a Vatican office – that the pope has called to the upcoming Synod assembly.

Cardinal Luis Ladaria SJ, who succeeded Müller and retires in September, will also be a voting member.

Francis has also made Cardinal Marc Ouellet a member of the October assembly.

The French Canadian, who served thirteen years as head of the Dicastery for Bishops, is a disciple of the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

And the list, as they say, goes on…

But the synodal process, to be perfectly honest, has only just begun.

And no one can be sure where it will lead, especially with the hundreds of participants who will be bringing different experiences, passions, hopes, fears and expectations to this first of the two gatherings.

By launching the Church on this unclear journey, Francis – who will be 87 in December – has created a process that will either lead to the Church’s rejuvenation or he has opened a Pandora’s box that will only hasten its implosion.

We’ll have a better idea of which it is at the end of October.


  • Robert Mickens is La Croix International Editor. First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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