Pope’s picks for synod leaders express passion for peripheries

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako during a consistory in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday, June 28, 2018

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 and John Ribat from Papua New Guinea

A president delegate takes turns presiding over a synod meeting in the name of the pope. It’s generally not a terribly memorable role. On the other hand, a president delegate does have access to the microphone, and may offer his audience the occassional advice.

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.

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.”

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, 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. The local Church runs hundreds of schools and dozens of orphanages and is active in the social justice concerns in this island nation.

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.

In Papua New Guinea, 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 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.”