If you are a regular on this blog, you’ll know that I have been following the Extraordinary Synod on the Family very closely. I have seen all the press conferences, read all the documents, watched all the interviews, waded through the, sadly mostly morass, of tweets tagged with #synod14, and have written blog posts daily. At the end of the Synod’s two weeks, I felt a great sense of joy and I delighted at the whole process, which, to my mind, was an example of a shared journey, of transparency, and of a group of bishops and lay people striving for the good of the family, with a tremendous sense of seriousness and honesty.
When I then read the first reports on Saturday evening, and then during the course of today in the general press, about what this Synod has arrived at, I have to admit that I came away from them with disappointment. I shouldn’t have been that naive, since this seems to be the norm in how anything moderately nuanced gets reported. From the perspective of the media, the result has been some variant of the following Guardian headline: "Catholic bishops veto gay-friendly statements leaving Pope Francis the loser."
What I have seen over the last two weeks couldn’t be further from a loss for Pope Francis, first of all because that is a meaningless way of looking at the situation. And even if one were to apply the loss/victory categories to the Synod, the opposite would be my conclusion. Let me therefore lay out what I believe just happened, in as blunt terms as I can, and, please, bear with me while I take a couple of steps back to do this picture justice.
In the beginning was the Word ...
No, let me not go back that far just yet (although that verse from the Johannine prologue is highly relevant to one of the keys to the Synod that I will return to in a later post) and instead start with a thought from Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation letter, where he assesses the current situation in the world as follows:
"[T]oday’s world [is] subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith"Questions of deep relevance need to be addressed and Benedict does not have the strength to do it. So, he does what a true servant of servants must, and vacates the See of Peter. A conclave is called and cardinals present their visions for the Church. One Jorge Bergoglio presents the following program:
"Holy Week challenges us to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others: those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help. We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold, but we should go out, with Christ, in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered.”He gets elected Pope Francis and, the next day, in his first address to the cardinals since his election he declares:
“[A]ll together, pastors and faithful, we will make an effort to respond faithfully to the eternal mission: to bring Jesus Christ to humanity, and to lead humanity to an encounter with Jesus Christ: the Way, the Truth and the Life, truly present in the Church and, at the same time, in every person.”Then follow months of Francis putting his mission to welcome and accompany not only every single person who comes his way, but to go out of his way to reach out to those who may feel far from the Church. His correspondence with the atheist Eugenio Scalfari, his iPhone video to Evangelical Christians in the US and his resounding “Who am I to judge them?” with regard to gays are just a couple of examples off the top of my head.
Eight months after his election and to drive home the message that being a Church that is open and welcoming of all is a must, Francis pens the magnificent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium - a magisterial document of the Catholic Church, where he declares in the section entitled “A mother with an open heart” that:
“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament which is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.” (§47)A whole year later, and a year where an outreach to the peripheries, an openness to all, regardless of how “proper” or well-ordered their lives are, have been Francis’ daily mission, he has the following to say on the eve of the Synod - just in case someone hasn’t been listening during the preceding year and a half:
“The temptation to greed is ever present. We encounter it also in the great prophecy of Ezekiel on the shepherds (cf. ch. 34), which Saint Augustine commented upon in one his celebrated sermons which we have just reread in the Liturgy of the Hours. Greed for money and power. And to satisfy this greed, evil pastors lay intolerable burdens on the shoulders of others, which they themselves do not lift a finger to move (cf. Mt 23:4)Note two things about what Francis says here: First, God’s dream is a holy people who are his own and who are looked after by his servants, servants who are not to overburden them. Second, he quotes Scripture and a saint to them [remember this for contrast with how he speaks to the Synod Fathers after the Synod].
We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. [...] We are all sinners and can also be tempted to “take over” the vineyard, because of that greed which is always present in us human beings. God’s dream always clashes with the hypocrisy of some of his servants. We can “thwart” God’s dream if we fail to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us that wisdom which surpasses knowledge, and enables us to work generously with authentic freedom and humble creativity.
My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by “the peace of God which passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7). In this way our thoughts and plans will correspond to God’s dream: to form a holy people who are his own and produce the fruits of the kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).”
A week of the Synod later, during which Francis attends almost every single session (skipping one due to the General Audience on the Wednesday), but during which he does not intervene, the interim report of the Synod is published - written by Archbishop Bruno Forte, whom Francis directly appointed to the job of doing so. What does the interim report (the “relatio post disceptationem”) say? Well, amongst other things:
“[I]t is the task of the Church to recognize those seeds of the Word that have spread beyond its visible and sacramental boundaries. Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings. [...]The Pope listened to everyone speaking their mind and then had “his man” pen the key takeaways - recognize a participation in the life of the Gospel no matter under what circumstances it happens, be welcoming, look for ways for everyone, who wants to, to find their place in the Church.
In this respect, a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. [...]
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
A week later, during which significant resistance is shown by some cardinals to the interim report, a final report is produced that tones down the interim reports’ language, but that still speaks about all the topics mentioned in the interim report. The final report is voted on paragraph by paragraph, but instead of only those paragraphs that have reached the 2/3 majority needed for them to be official proposals from the Synod to the Pope, all paragraphs are published on the Pope’s orders, including the data on how many votes each paragraph received. The purpose of this final document of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family is that it sets the agenda for the work of this, next year that leads to the Ordinary Synod on the Family in October 2015. Keeping all topics from the interim report in the final report means that they will get discussed both over the course of this year and at the next Synod.
Is that the end of the story? Not at all! What Pope Francis does next is to completely upstage the final report of the Synod, by delivering an amazing closing speech. Why does he do that? Because this Synod is not about its final document - it is the kick-off for a year of discernment and work towards the next Synod, after which proposals are going to be made to the Pope.
So, what did Pope Francis say at the end of this year’s Synod? First, he thanked all for their great effort and then he moved straight to telling them the temptations he saw them struggle with: “the temptation of hostile rigidity,” “the temptation of destructive do-goodery,” “the temptation to turn stone into bread and also to turn bread into stone,” “the temptation to come down from the cross” and “the temptation to neglect the “deposit of faith” and the temptation to ignore reality.” Ouch!
Then he proceeds to spell out, yet again!, what he is looking for:
“And this is the Church, the Lord’s vineyard, the fertile Mother and caring [female] Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on the wounds of men (cf. Lk 10: 25-37); who does not look at humanity from a glass castle to judge or categorize people. This Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, in need of His mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, seeking to be faithful to her spouse and to his doctrine. It is the Church who is not afraid of eating and drinking with prostitutes and tax collectors (Luke 15). The Church that has doors wide open to receive the needy, the repentant and not only the righteous or those who think they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and does not pretend not to see him, what’s more, she feels involved and almost obliged to raise him and encourage him to continue his journey, and she accompanies him to the final encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.”But he doesn’t leave it there and in true Steve Jobs fashion pulls a “one more thing”:
“We will speak a little bit about the Pope, now, in relation to the Bishops [laughing]. So, the duty of the Pope is that of guaranteeing the unity of the Church; it is that of reminding the faithful of their duty to faithfully follow the Gospel of Christ; it is that of reminding the pastors that their first duty is to nourish the flock – to nourish the flock – that the Lord has entrusted to them, and to seek to welcome – with fatherly care and mercy, and without false fears – the lost sheep. I made a mistake here. I said welcome: [rather] to go out and find them.”Francis pulls a great in-joke here, since the word “welcome” as applied to homosexuals was one of the most contested points in the interim report. Note the serrated edge that the above (“I made a mistake here. I said welcome”) gets in light of what Francis says at the end of his speech. First, however, he reads to them from one of Benedict XVI’s General Audiences:
“His duty is to remind everyone that authority in the Church is a service, as Pope Benedict XVI clearly explained, with words I cite verbatim: “The Church is called and commits herself to exercise this kind of authority which is service and exercises it not in her own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ… through the Pastors of the Church, in fact: it is he who guides, protects and corrects them, because he loves them deeply. But the Lord Jesus, the supreme Shepherd of our souls, has willed that the Apostolic College, today the Bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter… to participate in his mission of taking care of God’s People, of educating them in the faith and of guiding, inspiring and sustaining the Christian community, or, as the Council puts it, ‘to see to it... that each member of the faithful shall be led in the Holy Spirit to the full development of his own vocation in accordance with Gospel preaching, and to sincere and active charity’ and to exercise that liberty with which Christ has set us free (cf. Presbyterorum Ordinis, 6)… and it is through us,” Pope Benedict continues, “that the Lord reaches souls, instructs, guards and guides them. St Augustine, in his Commentary on the Gospel of St John, says: ‘let it therefore be a commitment of love to feed the flock of the Lord’ (cf. 123, 5); this is the supreme rule of conduct for the ministers of God, an unconditional love, like that of the Good Shepherd, full of joy, given to all, attentive to those close to us and solicitous for those who are distant (cf. St Augustine, Discourse 340, 1; Discourse 46, 15), gentle towards the weakest, the little ones, the simple, the sinners, to manifest the infinite mercy of God with the reassuring words of hope (cf. ibid., Epistle, 95, 1).”In other words, Francis is saying: what I have set out before you at the beginning of the Synod is pretty much what Benedict asked of you four years ago and what I have been telling you day in, day out, for the last year and a half.
And, just to sharpen the point a touch - and make it more directly understandable for those who have been misusing the law as a veto against accepting change - Francis concludes by quoting canon law to them (a. k. a. reading them the riot act!):
“So, the Church is Christ’s – she is His bride – and all the bishops, in communion with the Successor of Peter, have the task and the duty of guarding her and serving her, not as masters but as servants. The Pope, in this context, is not the supreme lord but rather the supreme servant – the “servant of the servants of God”; the guarantor of the obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church, putting aside every personal whim, despite being – by the will of Christ Himself – the “supreme Pastor and Teacher of all the faithful” (Can. 749) and despite enjoying “supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church” (cf. Cann. 331-334).”Boom! Oh, you think my saying “welcoming” was a “mistake”? Think again.
“Catholic bishops veto gay-friendly statements leaving Pope Francis the loser.” Not even close.