Topics known to be on the agenda range from the relatively small to the rather big: from whether the pope should bestow honorific titles on priests to how the Vatican's governance structure is arranged.
But what key changes can we expect to come out of the Dec. 3-5 meeting in Rome of the eight cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforms of the church's bureaucracy?
Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who serves as the coordinator of the pope's so-called "kitchen cabinet," put it this way in one November interview: "We'll see. Nothing's decided."
Rodríguez, archbishop of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, is part of the group known officially as the Council of Cardinals, which the pope announced in April he had formed to "advise him on the government of the universal church." Gathered from six continents, the prelates are intended to bring the voices of local churches into decisions made in Rome as Francis considers possible reforms.
December's meeting will be the second for the eight, who met together in Rome for the first time Oct. 1-3. The lone North American in the group is Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley.
While the October meetings were held behind closed doors -- and the cardinals allegedly agreed jointly to keep all discussions private -- knowledgeable sources told NCR afterward that key considerations revolved around how to reform the Vatican bureaucracy to be more efficient, more representative of the world's population, and to more substantively include laypeople.
Rodríguez said in his November interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that his group was considering how to "merge" several of the Vatican's offices and are considering also a new congregation for the laity.
While there is currently a Pontifical Council for the Laity, making such an office a congregation would give it a higher standing in the Vatican bureaucracy, making it equal to offices like those that are responsible for enforcing church doctrine or selecting bishops around the world.
While the exact agenda or outcome of the cardinals' December meeting is unknown, several lay groups and noted academics are making known what they think might best be discussed.
In one case, an international federation of Catholic academics proposed in mid-November three key changes in the governance of the global church, including a global meeting of laypeople partially tasked with helping the Vatican better include women in its highest positions, and moving at least some Vatican offices away from Rome to places around the world.
Pax Romana, considered one of the oldest movements of Catholic laypeople, made its recommendations in a white paper they put online Nov. 19 and said they had already sent to several of the eight cardinals.
"As a witness and a sign of the universality of the Catholic mission and communion, we believe that certain curial offices could be relocated to major centers outside Europe," the group wrote in its three-page proposal, suggesting the Vatican might move some positions to Hong Kong; Nairobi, Kenya; or Beirut.
"We recognize the positive logistical benefits of having all curial offices in the same location and the symbolic power of being in proximity to the Chair of St. Peter," they state.
"However, we believe that the relocation of some curial offices and/or opening of satellite offices outside of Europe would be an important witness to the call and example of the Holy Father for the church to 'go to the margins' and for the church to become a 'church that is poor and for the poor.' "
Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, a senior analyst for NCR who has also authored several books on the organization of the Vatican, writes in the latest issue of the international theological journal Concilium that Vatican reforms should include restricting who is chosen to lead the church's key offices in Rome.
No longer, Reese writes in the issue of the journal released Nov. 25, should those in the leadership roles be bishops and cardinals.
"Not making curial officials bishops or cardinals would provide a severe blow to careerism in the Vatican," Reese states. "Priests could no longer look at working in the Vatican as a way of moving up the ecclesiastical ladder. If they want to be a bishop or cardinal, they would have to leave the curia."
Organized as two separate groups for students and graduated academics, Pax Romana was founded in 1921. It is recognized as a lay association by the Vatican and has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.
The group for graduated academics, also known as the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, boasts members in more than 60 countries across five continents. Its members are the leaders of national associations of Catholic intellectuals and professionals.
Proposing a global meeting of all international lay groups recognized by the Vatican, the academics also called for "greater efforts" to include the voices of laywomen in the Curia.
"The number of lay women, and in particular those who are not in consecrated life ... has not grown much since Paul VI," they wrote. "International lay associations can help the Curia identify qualified women with diverse experiences to share their gifts with the Church."
Reese also called for the reorganization of the curial offices along the lines of a separation of power between legislative, judicial and executive functions. Noting that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigates, prosecutes and judges theologians it deems at fault with church teaching, Reese states, "In civil society, this would be considered a violation of due process."
People looking for quick action by the eight cardinals on any particular issue, however, might be disappointed. Just looking at the schedule of events, it seems the December session of the cardinals' group may be something akin to the smaller meeting between the bigger meetings.
The Vatican has said the third meeting of the group will come in Rome Feb. 17-18, followed by an as-yet-unscheduled meeting of the full body of some 200 cardinals around the world. It's at that meeting, some observers say, the eight cardinals' group might present to the other hierarchs some sort of list of "action items" they are considering in terms of reform.
February will also see Francis' first naming of new cardinals. He is to host a consistory -- a formal ceremony for the creation of new cardinals -- on Feb. 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter.
As the pontiff has not yet said whom he has chosen to join the ranks of the only group that gets to vote for the next pope, it also seems possible he may call upon the eight cardinals' group for advice on who to choose.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR national correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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