The new ‘Francis bishops’ at the helm of the Spanish Episcopal Conference are looking like they could finally bring the Spanish Church and country up to date.

– Cardinal Omella of Barcelona, new Bishops’ president; Cardinal Osoro of Madrid, vice

Tuesday March 3 the Spanish Bishops elected as their new president Cardinal Juan José Omella of Barcelona.

Omella will serve in the post for a period of four years, with Cardinal Carlos Osoro of Madrid as his vice-president.

Both Omella and Osoro are known as “Francis bishops” in Spain, and as such their election as the new Bishops’ president and vice-president is promising nothing less than a revolution in a Church dominated by conservatives for at least the last two decades.

– “Dialogue” and “collaboration” with the government, always “with love”

What does it really mean, though, to say Omella and Osoro are “Francis men”, and how will their election change the Church and country?

A sample of their ‘Francis philosophy’ was on display in Omella’s first press conference as Bishops’ president, in which the Barcelona cardinal repeated one word over and again: dialogue.

“We [the Bishops] are here to collaborate with all institutions, including with those of the State, because we are at the service of a common good, in a good dialogue. We all need each other”, Omella declared.

The cardinal added: “In such a complex society, I wish the government every success. I will pray and collaborate with the government to the extent that I can”.

That overture to the Spanish administration is significant in that not a few Spanish bishops have protested at its left-wing profile, and even actively tried to obstruct its work.

In terms of the “culture wars” Spain is currently immersed in, though – with governmental plans to legalise euthanasia, reform the Catholic school system, overhaul primary and second religious instruction and amend the Spanish Church’s economic and fiscal privileges, among other issues the Church has a stake in – Omella and Osoro have never taken the hard line the more conservative Spanish bishops have.

In fact, Omella has on more than one occasion preferred to go to a demonstration against hunger instead of a demonstration against the gay marriage Spain legalised in 2005 or the abortion it liberalised in 2010.

That’s not to say Omella won’t make the Church’s voice heard in the euthanasia, schools and Church economic privileges debates as the current legislature heats up.

But, as the cardinal explained on TV the night of his election, the Church’s contribution to society must move in the keys of respect, humility and dialogue: even if it reserves for itself the right to say “This way ‘no’, from our point of view… but with love”.

“We [the Bishops] have to be like parents, who tell the truth, but with love,” Omella insisted.

– Omella, a “bridge” between Madrid and Barcelona… and Rome

The dialogue Omella so prizes he has already displayed in the conflict in the Catalonia region, where up until the local government called the illegal independence referendum on October 1 2017 the Barcelona cardinal did his utmost to sit Catalan leaders down with their counterparts in Madrid to hammer out a less divisive solution to the separatist conflict.

One Spanish Church commentator called Cardinal Omella a “bridge” between Madrid and Barcelona, who in the conflict between the regional and central governments has always opted for “mediation in the purest style of classical Vatican diplomacy and as only the parish priest he is at heart is able”.

The new Spanish Bishops’ president is still drawing on that “bridge” facet of his personality, keeping up contacts with the Catalan independence movement leaders currently in prison on sedition convictions.

But Cardinal Omella is also known as a “bridge” between the Spanish Church and the Vatican, where he has a direct line to Pope Francis and a sincere friendship with the pontiff.

With his Francis-like down-to-earth style, sense of humour, tact and diplomacy, Spanish Catholics are hoping, then, that Omella will breathe new life into the stale debates suffocating not only Spanish society but also the Spanish Church.

Even more so alongside his vice-president Osoro, who is known as the ‘Spanish Francis’ for even his physical resemblance to the Holy Father.

And in that sense, the signs are positive so far, with even clerical abuse survivors hailing Omella’s election, and saying that in the Barcelona cardinal the Spanish Bishops has chosen as their head “a true pastor of the Church, one of the few who has listened to and attended to victims and survivors of child abuse”.

With respect to the intra-Church plans, Omella said at his inaugural press conference that as Bishops “we want to walk together and respond to the task we have to be evangelizers in today’s world, just as the Pope asks us: new languages, new methods and new fire to set up a Church going forth”.

“We’lll have to see what our priorities are and strengthen synodality, [and] walk together in the same direction”, Omella added, explaining that “all the magisterial documents of the Pope have in their title and in their background the word ‘joy’. We are called to recover joy in our Church”.

That emphasis on “synodality” and “joy” seems right out of the Francis playbook, and in case there was any doubt on Omella’s sincerity in implementing those two concepts, the cardinal announced a new forthcoming pastoral plan for the Spanish Church focused precisely on those themes.

Summing up his philosophy on inter- and extra-Church debates, Omella flagged the direction the Spanish Church will take for the next four years:

“We cannot serve a society, a community and a Church if we do not love it”.

Next on Novena:

Cardinal Omella of Barcelona: “In Europe, people look at the Church with discontent and disappointment”

Barcelona cardinal laments plight of half-million home-precarious, one-in-four in social exclusion

Cardinal Omella sounds alarm for 20,000 “energy poor” in Barcelona

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.