On Saturday, the Vatican announced Pope Francis’s picks for the four cardinals who’ll preside over an October meeting of bishops focused on youth. All four come from what the pontiff has described the “peripheries” of the world: Myanmar, Iraq, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea.
Though a “president delegate” post doesn’t necessarily mean much in terms of the ability to shape discussion or ram through decisions, the choices are nevertheless telling as to where Francis wants the conversation in October to go.
The four prelates tapped to lead the synod are all cardinals Francis himself has created in recent years:
- Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Iraq
- Desire Tsarahazana of Madagascar
- Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar
- John Ribat from Papua New Guinea
A president delegate takes turns presiding over a synod meeting in the name of the pope. Usually, all that means in practice is calling on speakers in the order indicated by the synod office, so it’s generally not a terribly memorable role. On the other hand, a president delegate does have access to the microphone, and nothing prevents them from offering their captive audience the occasional fervorino.
In terms of symbolism, the most striking element of the four choices is that each represents one of what Francis considers the core challenges facing humanity today, and thus they embody this pope’s agenda for the world’s youth.
A martyred Church
Under the unwatchful eyes of an oblivious West, Iraq’s Sako is fighting against all odds to keep Christianity alive where the faith was born.
Over a million Christians have fled the country since 2003, escaping violence, war and persecution, with high-end estimates putting the number today at 300,000.
“We Christians, we are persecuted, this is part of our faith,” Sako told reporters on the eve of being created a cardinal, in late June. Despite the challenges he faces, he’s convinced that “the future will be much better than now.”
The blood “of love, of fidelity to the faith,” which runs deep in Iraq due to the martyrdom of so many, he said, “will be fertile, fecund.”
Francis has made his concern for the survival of Christianity in the Middle East evident by choosing Sako and the papal representative in Syria as cardinals, as well as through a July 7 ecumenical prayer in the southern Italian city Bari, where he gathered the heads of all major Christian churches with a presence in the region.
In Bari, Francis said that those who follow Christ in the region must be treated as “full citizens with equal rights.”
A missionary Church
“How I long for a poor Church for the poor!” are perhaps the most quoted words of Francis’s first week in office, offering a theme that continues to be front-and-center.
Soon after, he explained the meaning of his words to a gathering of “new movements”: “A poor Church for the poor begins by going to the flesh of Christ,” Francis said. “If we go to the flesh of Christ, we begin to understand something, to understand what this poverty is, the poverty of the Lord.”
Arguably, in few countries is this more of a necessity than in Madagascar, where Tsarahazana faces the daily challenge of leading a missionary Church in a nation that often ranks in the top 10 of poorest in the world, with a GDP per capita of $1,504, and where 90 percent of the population of two million lives below the $2 a day poverty line.
The neo-cardinal is often at the frontline in addressing the challenges faced by his country’s poorest, as is the Catholic Church in general. According to Catholic Almanac, the local Church runs hundreds of schools and dozens of orphanages and is active in the social justice concerns in this island nation.
A Church for migrants
In Myanmar, a Buddhist-majority country Pope Francis visited last year, Bo heads a Church that is at the forefront in aiding the victims of the fastest growing humanitarian crisis in the world: the Rohingya Muslims.
Some 700,000 Rohingya have been forcibly displaced in recent years into neighboring Bangladesh, and Catholic aid agencies such as Caritas, Jesuit Refugee Service and Catholic Relief Service, the overseas development arm of the U.S. bishops have stepped up to help.
The Rohingya fall prey to every tragedy associated with migration today, from families decimated as they run towards perceived safety through a dangerous route to being trapped by human trafficking networks that employ the Rohingya in slave-like conditions, many in the fishing industry in other Asian nations.
With both Myanmar and Bangladesh refusing to grant them citizenship, this community of about one million people is virtually stateless.
Christians represent six percent of the total population, and according to a 2016 report, “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma” by the United States Commission on Religious Freedom, they too are persecuted.
Francis’s decision to appoint Bo as one of the synod’s presidents suggests that for him, when it comes to addressing migrants, a majority of whom are young, the Catholic Church shouldn’t focus on faith but need.
A church of care for creation
In Papua New Guinea, a country of immense cultural and biological diversity, known for its beaches and coral reefs, Ribat leads the Church in an island in the Pacific that has began to experience the devastating effects of climate change.
Francis’s leadership when it comes to fighting climate change is abundantly documented, captured in his encyclical on the environment Laudato Si, released in July of 2015.
Since then, Ribat has emerged as a leading religious voice in the South Pacific in favor of strong limits on carbon emissions. In a Vatican press conference in October 2015, ahead of the Paris summit that took place in December of that year, he was visibly emotional.
“In Oceania, our survival and existence are at stake,” he said. “What we are asking for is a fair, legally binding and truly transformational agreement by all the nations on earth.”
Speaking for Oceania, Ribat said, “God gave us the same dignity as all other countries and continents in the world. But we belong to those groups most affected by climate change and sea-level rise.”
“This is my urgent call,” Ribat said to those who would negotiate in Paris: “Guarantee the future of Oceania. Change society to a low-carbon lifestyle.”
So far, attention surrounding the upcoming synod has been focused on traditional “hot-button” issues such as contraception or a married priesthood, and many observers have emphasized the fact that the preparatory document for the gathering is the first Vatican text to include the term “LGBT.”
It remains to be seen how active a role the four presidents delegate will have, and whether they may set the conversation towards, or away from, the usual topics. But one thing is certain: No matter what else, these four prelates will serve as a reminder that the synod, like the Church itself, is universal.