[From Austen Ivereigh in Rome] The synod of bishops is not a place for reaching agreement but a “protected space in which the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit”, Pope Francis told delegates gathered for the synod’s first working session this morning.
“I would like to remind you that the Synod is not a convention or a talking shop, nor is it a parliament or senate where people reach agreement,” Pope Francis told the synod delegates, “but the Church that walks together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God.”
The synod, he said, was “the Church that questions itself as to its fidelity to the deposit of the faith, so that it does not become a museum to be looked at or conserved, but a living spring from which the church drinks to quench thirst and to show up the source of life.”
The Pope was speaking to over 270 Catholic bishops as well as delegates from other Churches and invited guests and observers at the start of the three-week synod on the family.
Following on from yesterday’s robust defence of church teaching on sexuality and marriage, Francis used today’s reflection opening the synod — likely to be his last address to the assembly until after it concludes — to clear the ground for what he described as “a protected space in which the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit,” which “speaks through the language of all the people who allow themselves to be guided by the God who always surprises us.”
The synod could only be such a space for the Spirit if those participating adopt apostolic courage, gospel humility, and trusting prayer, he told them.
He said courage was needed to resist what he called “the world’s seductions” that seek to replace the “light of truth” with the “little and temporary lights”, while evangelical humility required “emptying oneself of one’s own convictions and prejudices in order to listen”. Trusting prayer, meanwhile, was “the action of the heart that opens to God”.
Without listening to God, he warned, “our words will be just ‘words’ that neither satisfy nor are of use.”
‘Not two sides’
The gathering began with mid-morning prayer, in which Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez de Maradiaga of Tegucicalpa, the president of Pope Francis’s council of cardinal advisers, offered a reflection.
“It saddens us at times to hear how the world has focussed on this synod, believing that we come as two opposing sides to defend absolute p0sitions,” he said. In fact, he added, “we all seek the unanimity that comes from dialogue, not from ideas defended at all costs.”
Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Paris, one of the synod presidents, told Pope Francis: “Without calling into question the sacramental tradition of our Church nor her doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, you are inviting us to share our pastoral experiences and to open up paths of mercy”.
In a clear invitation to the synod delegates not to use the media to promote their different points of view, he added that “we do not want to live this time time as a test of strength in which the cameras and the microphones will be the arbiters”.
The main business of the morning was the reading of a lengthy paper by Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdö of Esztergom-Budapest, who is the synod’s Relator, or Chair, and the president of the 10-man commission that will draw up the concluding document.
His speech, summarised by John Allen here, was intended to encapsulate the main themes both of the synod working document, as well as the input received from Catholics following last year’s gathering.
No compromise with indissolubility
He spoke in detail of the challenges to contemporary family life represented by what he called the “flight from institutions” and the rise of individualism, to which the Church was called to respond by affirming the missionary value of the family.
On the two “hot-button” topics dividing last year’s synod, Cardinal Erdö took a cautious line, saying that any “penitential path” to absolution and the Eucharist for couples who had remarried civilly called for a “deeper reflection” but could leave in no doubt that a valid marriage was indissoluble, as Jesus taught.
Referring to the practice of the Orthodox Church — a model urged by Cardinal Walter Kasper — Cardinal Erdö warned of deep differences in the eastern and western traditions and the relationship of tribunals with the law. Later, at the press conference, he said that the so-called “Orthodox solution” had been studied at depth by many bishops, who now had a much better knowledge of the complexities and incompatibilities of the different traditions.
The search for pastoral solutions for remarried divorcees, he said, cannot compromise faithfulness to the indissolubility of marriage, and recognising the positive elements in cohabitation should not be confused with what is good.
“Between true and false, good and bad, in fact, there is no graduality,” he said. “Even if some forms of living together bring in themselves certain positive aspects, this does not mean that they can be presented as good.”
On the Church’s response to gay people, the cardinal appeared to dismiss even the notion. “It is reiterated that every persons should be respected in his dignity, independent of their sexual tendency,” he said.
No change in church doctrine
The synod has 279 voting members, all bishops, most of whom have been delegated by their bishops’ conferences. Also attending are auditors — including 17 married couples — who will take part in discussions, but do not vote.
The Synod will continue in open session, hearing speeches, before being broken up into 13 small groups split by language (mostly English and Spanish, but also Italian, French and German) who will report towards the end of the week. The Press Office will host briefings on the discussions each afternoon.
Asked about the Kasper proposal at today’s briefing, Cardinal Vingt-Trois said that if the path was open at all to the divorced and remarried, it would not be a general one but an ‘individualised’ path of ‘personal engagement’.
American lobby groups — both liberal and traditionalist — have appeared in Rome in recent days urging ‘progressive’ changes to doctrine or ‘defending orthodoxy’. Among those at today’s press conference, for example, were ‘Future Church‘ and Michael Voris of ‘Church Militant‘.
Yet this synod was never going to alter key church teaching.
If someone had come to Rome expecting a spectacular change in church doctrine, Cardinal Vingt-Trois told journalists, “you will be disappointed”.
Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, the synod’s special secretary, said the assembly was not a doctrinal one, but pastoral, like the Second Vatican Council — intended to find a response to new times and new challenges.
“It will not lead to doctrinal changes, because it is about pastoral attention, pastoral care. We are about resonating pastorally,” Forte said.