Monday, 26 October 2015

The only thing that’s changed is everything

Francis behind cross

2610 words, 13 min read

Yesterday, at the closing mass of the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis concluded his homily with the following words:
“There is a [...] temptation, that of falling into a “scheduled faith”. We are able to walk with the People of God, but we already have our schedule for the journey, where everything is listed: we know where to go and how long it will take; everyone must respect our rhythm and every problem is a bother. We run the risk of becoming the “many” of the Gospel who lose patience and rebuke Bartimaeus. Just a short time before, they scolded the children (cf. Mark 10:13), and now the blind beggar: whoever bothers us or is not of our stature is excluded. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to include, above all those kept on the fringes who are crying out to him. They, like Bartimaeus, have faith, because awareness of the need for salvation is the best way of encountering Jesus. In the end, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on his path (cf. v. 52). He did not only regain his sight, but he joined the community of those who walk with Jesus. Dear Synod Fathers, we have walked together.”
To my mind, these few lines sum up the Synod perfectly, by presenting two poles: one, characterized by rules, clarity and predictability and the other by an path that twists and turns, that is full of surprises, but where we are walking not only among Jesus’ friends, but side-by-side with Jesus himself.

Detractors of the Synod have already declared it a failure, a preservation of the status quo, a “no change” of doctrine, a failure for not opening up access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried and a giving-in to African pressures on gays. They, however, are precisely the group for whom Pope Francis had harsh words in the speech he delivered after the Synod Fathers voted on the final report (the Relatio Finalis) paragraph-by-paragraph:
“[The Synod] was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others. It was also about laying bare closed hearts that frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, and judge difficult cases and wounded families.”
Instead of being a failure, I believe, that the Synod was a dramatic first step along the path that Pope Francis presented the week before, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. In that landmark speech, Francis shared his vision of a synodal Church, a Church that is on a journey with Christ in the present moment:
“A synodal Church is a Church of listening, knowing that listening “is more than hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: each one listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).”
In such a synodal Church, authority too changes, and becomes rooted in the cross, as Pope Francis explains:
“Let us never forget it! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”(Mt 20: 25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we reach the heart of the mystery of the Church - “it shall not be so among you” - and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.”
Pope Francis is also very clear, in the homily he delivered on the morning of the Synod’s last day, about a consequence of being a journeying, synodal Church also being constant change. However, since the journeying party includes Jesus, it is not a thrashing about or a bending with the wind. Instead it is a tight adherence to the person of Christ, while being immersed in the ever-changing now. A freedom with rather than a freedom from or a freedom to:
“The times change and we Christians must change continuously. We must change while being firm in our faith in Jesus Christ, firm in the truth of the Gospel, but our attitude must move continuously according to the signs of the times. We are free. We are free by the gift of freedom that Jesus Christ gave us. But it is our task to look at what happens inside us, to discern our feelings, our thoughts; and what happens outside us and to discern the signs of the times. With silence, with reflection and with prayer.”
All of the above is, to my mind a beautiful spelling out of what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he said, at the beginning of the 2012-13 Year of Faith, that faith “is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church.”

With the above perspective, of a community walking with Jesus, where service is the basis of authority and where life is full of surprises because we aren’t following a set of instructions, but developing a relationship with Jesus instead, let us look at what the Synod on the Family was all about.

First, the Synod was a resounding endorsement of the family, as Cardinal Schönborn put very clearly:
“I think that the principal message of this Synod is the theme of the Synod: that the Catholic Church around the world, with one billion and 200 million Catholics, have discussed the topic of marriage and the family for two years, with all its positives aspects and difficulties ... This alone is a remarkable fact for our time, because the core of the message is this: a great yes to the family. The success of this Synod for me is a great yes to the family; that the family is not over, not an old model, but that it is a fundamental model of human society.”
Second, that this endorsement wasn’t just a pre-cooked message to be rubber-stamped, but that it was, instead, the result of an intense process of discernment, discussion and at times even outright verbal warfare both inside the Synod and by interests outside it. Just as examples, a letter from some cardinals to the pope got leaked and resulted in all sorts of recriminations, some cardinals accused others of being opposed to Jesus, and false news about the pope’s health was released two days before the final vote. The inappropriate nature of some of the behavior inside the Synod lead the German language working group to open their final report with the following words:
“We have observed the public statements of individual Synod Fathers regarding the people, content and course of the Synod with great dismay and sadness. This contradicts the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its elementary rules. The images and comparisons used are not only coarse and wrong, but hurtful. We distance ourselves from them categorically.”
Third, that there was a great diversity among the Synod Fathers. One of the English language working group’s reports stated that “[o]n many [...] points there was consensus, on others there was wide if not universal agreement, and on a few there was significant disagreement.” Pope Francis too saw this very clearly, when he said in his closing speech:
“[W]e have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”
To my mind this is a very positive picture, which sends a clear message that it is possible to talk about even divisive and sensitive topics openly in the Church.

Fourth, that there was a tremendous desire for unity in the Synod, in the face of the variety of disparate views represented in it. Two things evidence this very clearly. First, that all of the final report’s 94 points were accepted with a 2/3rds majority. In fact, the vast majority (something around 80% of the points) were accepted with near unanimity, and even the handful of more controversial points received support from over 2/3rds of the Synod Fathers. Second, that the German language working group, which included the strongest proponents of both positions in favor of least change (Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller) and of most change (Cardinal Walter Kasper), arrived at unanimous support for all of its reports. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who was also in that group, gave a very intimate account of how that came about in one of the official press conferences:
“You have to argue. You can’t say I have an opinion. You must be very clear in your knowledge, to quote St. Thomas and the others. When you listen for a few minutes to Cardinal Müller, Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Schönborn discussing about St. Thomas that is very interesting and when they say St. Thomas said this or that then he really did. So, you have to be together and say: that is the meaning of St. Thomas. [...] We had the will to make a text together. It was clear when we wouldn’t find unanimity but we tried to come together and also in the different points, for example regarding the divorced and remarried, we tried to make a text that everyone could accept as a proposal to the Holy Father. [Before the first set of reports we felt that other groups were looking to us to see whether we would find unanimity, given who we are in this group] and Cardinal Schönborn said: “The others are looking at us, so make an effort to come together.””
Fifth, the Synod presented the family as a subject, an agent, rather than an as an object, as something that needs to be managed. One of the Italian working groups put this particularly clearly:
“Given [...] that evangelization is the duty of the whole Christian people, [...] families, under the grace of the sacrament of marriage, need to become ever more subjects of pastoral care, expression of a mission that becomes visible through a concrete life, not something that is only theoretical but an experience of faith rooted in people’s real problems. Priests should therefore be trained to recognize families as subjects, valuing the skills and experiences of all: lay, religious and ordained.”
Sixth, that the sheer variety and breadth of family circumstances and factors affecting them requires closeness, tenderness and discernment to be the basis of sharing God’s love with all. No set of rules, laws, principles can be a substitute for personal relationships, and Pope Francis is very clear about this too:
“[T]he true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).”
An example of this personal discernment-based approach is also the proposal in the final report regarding the divorced and re-married, which says (in §85-86):
“It is [...] the task of pastors to accompany interested [divorced and civilly remarried] persons on the way of discernment in keeping with the teaching of the Church and the guidance of bishops. In this process it will be useful to make an examination of conscience through times of reflection and penitence. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves how they behaved toward their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; if there were attempts at reconciliation; how is the situation with the abandoned partner; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; what example it offers to young people who must prepare for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen the trust in the mercy of God which is never denied to anyone. [...] Therefore, while upholding a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that the responsibility regarding certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking account of the rightly formed conscience of persons, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of the acts carried out are not necessarily the same in all cases. The process of accompaniment and discernment directs these faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and the steps that can foster it and make it grow.”
Seventh, that mercy is the root of divine love [“Misericordia est radix amoris divini”] as already St. Thomas Aquinas taught and as Pope Francis again underlined as the Synod closed and as the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy approaches:
“The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50). […] In effect, for the Church to conclude the Synod means to return to our true “journeying together” in bringing to every part of the world, to every diocese, to every community and every situation, the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the Church and the support of God’s mercy!”
One of the Synod Fathers, Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, the director of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, summed this up beautifully in a tweet today:
“After #Synod15 the #Jubilee switches from the binary logic of a door, open/closed, to that of a face, which vitally changes before another face.”

Just in case you are left feeling short-changed about the content of the final report, the scarcity of references to it in the above post are a consequence of two facts: first, that it has no magisterial value (i.e., it is not the Church speaking to its faithful or the world through it - instead, it is a collection of ideas that serve as input for Pope Francis), and, second, that it was the shared journey of the Synod Fathers that matters rather than that document - in keeping with Pope Francis’ call for being a synodal Church instead of one that feels herself best expressed in laws, rules or documents.