Pope Appoints Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich the Synod’s New Relator General

The Luxembourg cardinal, who will play a primary role in shaping the upcoming ‘Synod on Synodality,’ is known for his reformist views, including support for Germany’s ‘Synodal Path.’

Pope Francis received in a private audience Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union, at the Vatican on Sept. 10, 2020.
Pope Francis received in a private audience Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, archbishop of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union, at the Vatican on Sept. 10, 2020. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, a Jesuit who has expressed his support for Germany’s “Synodal Path” and advocates greater lay and youth involvement in the Church, will be the relator general for the 2023 Synod of Bishops on Synodality. 

Pope Francis appointed the cardinal on July 8, making the 62-year-old archbishop of Luxembourg the chief coordinator of the 2021-2023 synod whose theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.” 

The multiphase synod will consist of a diocesan phase and a continental phase, two working documents, and finally a conclusive phase at the level of the universal Church. 

The Vatican has called it “not just an event, but also a process that involves in synergy the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, each according to their proper function.” 

Cardinal Hollerich’s duties will include helping to prepare the synod, presiding over the drafting of both the working and final documents, and presenting a summary of topics that emerge from the synodal discussions. 

The role is significant and sometimes seen as a stepping stone to the papacy. 


Prior Relators General

Both Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once held the positions, respectively serving as relators general for a 1974 synod on evangelization and a 1980 synod on “the Christian family.” 

Other cardinals today considered papabile have also served as relators general, such as Cardinal Peter Erdo (the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family), Cardinal Peter Turkson (the 2009 Synod on Africa), Cardinal Marc Ouellet (the 2008 Synod on the Word of God) and Cardinal Angelo Scola (the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist).

Others who have served as relators general include Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the late archbishop emeritus of Milan who once dreamed of a permanent synod and who held the position in 1983 for a synod on “Penance and Reconciliation in the Mission of the Church,” and Cardinal Godfried Danneels, a key figure of the St. Gallen group that fought against the election of Benedict XVI, who was relator general of a 1985 synod marking the 20th anniversary since the end of the Second Vatican Council. 

Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, for many years a progressive papabile, was relator general at the most recent general assembly of bishops, the 2019 Synod on the Amazon.  

Like many of these cardinals, Cardinal Hollerich is a rising star in the Church’s hierarchy. Benedict XVI appointed him archbishop of Luxembourg in 2011, and in 2018 he was elected president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). Pope Francis elevated him to the College of Cardinals in October 2019. 


The Cardinal’s Priorities

Born on Aug. 9, 1958, in Differdange, Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Hollerich began his priesthood formation in 1978, when he studied philosophy for two years at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. In 1981 he entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained in Brussels nine years later, spending four of those formative years in Japan — a period that kindled a lifelong love for the country and led him to spend much of his priestly life there as a missionary. 

From 1994 to 2011, he served as a chaplain, lecturer in European and Germanic studies, and eventually vice rector for general and student affairs at Sophia University in Tokyo. He took his perpetual vows as a priest of the Society of Jesus in Tokyo in 2002. 

In his official biography on the Vatican’s website, the cardinal is described as an “advocate for greater involvement of the laity, particularly the young, in the ecclesial sphere,” and he launched a pastoral project in the Luxembourg Archdiocese in 2013 that was “dedicated to the laity.” 

Jean-Claude Hollerich
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich.

His emphasis on giving the laity a voice in the Church is consistent with the priorities of Pope Francis, who has called for a “listening Church” that gives greater prominence to the “People of God,” particularly through synodality. 

Cardinal Hollerich has also been heavily involved in youth ministry, becoming a member of a number of youth associations. In 2017 he was elected to lead the Commission for Young People within the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) and in 2018, he participated in the Synod of Bishops on “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment.”

In 2014 he took 138 students on a trip to northern Thailand, on the border with Myanmar, where they spent two weeks in a refugee camp. Since April 2019, he has been president of the Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium, the Church’s international association of altar servers.

Social-justice issues have been important to the cardinal, and from 2014 to 2018, he was president of the Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions.


‘We Must Make Sacrifices’

Cardinal Hollerich has similar positions to Pope Francis on migration issues and populism. 

He told the Register in 2019 that migration is not a political question. “We cannot let people die,” he said. “It goes against all of the Gospel’s teachings. So we must react and save people. We must make sacrifices to save human lives.” He added that those opposed to mass immigration to Europe on the grounds that the majority are Muslim and can therefore destabilize countries “are exaggerating,” but said that it would be better if “civil society was responsible for migration; then integration would be far easier.” 

The cardinal respected Britain’s democratic decision to leave the European Union, but views the bloc as important for peace. He told the German news agency KNA that although he doesn’t think British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is a populist, “his behavior is populist,” adding that “such dangerous [populist] tendencies can be very damaging to the world order.”

The Luxembourgian prelate has expressed support for the ordination of married men to the priesthood. Asked if viri probati (the ordination of married Catholic “men of proven virtue”) was a solution to a crisis of vocations in the Amazon, he said, “Why not?” adding: “I love my celibacy, I stand by it, but I see that married deacons can preach differently than I do, and I find that, in itself, it is a wonderful addition.” 

But perhaps most notable have been Cardinal Hollerich’s recent comments on the German bishops’ controversial “Synodal Path,” the direction of which has been criticized by, among others, German Cardinals Gerhard Müller, Walter Kasper and Rainer Woelki, as well as by senior Church leaders in Rome, including Pope Francis himself. In a 2020 interview with KNA, Cardinal Hollerich did not speak of any doctrinal concerns with the “Synodal Path,” but rather said he had “great respect for daring to ask very big questions,” which, he added, “must also be asked.”

He recognized the difficulties of bishops from different countries agreeing on, for example, the blessing of same-sex unions (he was speaking before the definitive “No” given by the Vatican in March regarding this matter). “The Churches often think too nationally in relation to the situation in their respective country,” he said. “They need to share more.” 

Asked what he thought were the most important questions being discussed in the “Synodal Path,” Cardinal Hollerich replied, “The position of women in the Church: I am not saying that they have to become priestesses; I just don't know. But I am open to it. It is clear, however, that the current situation is not enough. One must see and notice that women have a say in the Church.”

He added, “What I like about the Synodal Path is that you don’t always know how it will continue. You take steps and look together for the next ones.”

Cardinal Hollerich has spoken highly of Francis’ encyclicals, especially his environmental letter, Laudato Si (Care for Our Common Home), and remarked that he would prefer it if his 2020 social encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (All Brothers), were called Fratelli e Sorelle Tutti — “All Brothers and Sisters.”

Regarding the COVID-19 crisis, Cardinal Hollerich has suggested that limits on access to the sacraments will result in a smaller Church, but he also sees it as an opportunity. Christ’s death and resurrection “must be the focus,” he told KNA; “otherwise, we would have nothing to say in the COVID crisis.” 

“We can give hope,” he said; “we need new forms of evangelization, not the restoration of previous conditions.”