The following is a reflection given yesterday by the Vatican official with overall responsibility for the synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, to a group of British parliamentarians in the company of the British ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker (see his blogpost here). While telling them what it was like inside the synod hall, he also makes some important observations about what a synod is and how the reforms Pope Francis wants to see will enable it to function better. Synods, Cardinal Baldisseri notes, “are not about taking a poll or voting in a democratic way on Church teaching and practice but …. the Lord leading the pilgrim church through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Distinguished Members of the British Parliament,
It is an honor and privilege for me to address you today on the theme of the recent Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization that we just concluded in the Vatican one week ago. I am very grateful for your kind invitation.
First allow me to offer you some background on the meaning of “synod.” The very word “synod” comes from a Greek word formed by combining roots meaning “together” and “going” or “way;” literally, journeying forward on the way together. The word “Synod” has been used over the centuries to refer to an assembly of bishops, as in the Oriental Church, at which Church leaders would elect the patriarch and establish church law.
In September 1965 at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Pope Paul VI, the Council’s h
elmsman, desired to build upon the tremendous fraternal spirit that reigned during the Council’s sessions and to strengthen the bonds that united the Bishop of Rome with the bishops of the world. He created the Synod of Bishops to give the world’s bishops a voice – a sounding board that would advise the pope on various aspects of the Church’s life. From the beginning, synodal assemblies would be consultative, not legislative.
Since Blessed Paul VI established the format in 1965, the global gatherings have certainly not produced new dogma or overturned Church teachings. The majority of Synods took place during the long pontificate of St. John Paul II. The final documents of these meetings are called “Apostolic Exhortations” and clearly bear the mark of the reigning Pontiff.
No one can deny that the synodal process and structure had grown tired with the passage of time, and there seemed little opportunity for evaluation or renewal. Pope Francis mentioned this in an interview last year. He said, “Synodality should be lived at various levels. Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the tradition of synodality” (Civiltà Cattolica, Sept. 19, 2013).
Within months of his election as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis appointed me as the new General Secretary to head the Vatican’s Synod office. The Synod of Bishops is a body outside the Curia itself, accountable to the Pope but also to the bishops. The Holy Father’s desire was clear: he wished to give new life to this important body and allow it to become once again a sounding board, a place for authentic dialogue, debate and fraternal sharing – all for the good of the Church. Pope Francis wished to reform the synodal structure so that it could better discuss and consult on major questions facing the Church, just as it did in the early centuries of Christianity.
The most recent Synod, from October 5-19, did not come in the normal sequence of every four years. It was an Extraordinary Synod bringing together the presidents of national bishops’ conferences, heads of Eastern Catholic churches and members of the Roman Curia. Although the number of participants in the extraordinary synod was smaller, it also included twenty-six voting members named by the Pope, three priests chosen by the Union of Superiors General, sixteen expert advisers, eight representatives of other Christian communities and thirty-six observers, more than half comprised of married couples who addressed our assembly.
The “Ordinary” Synod of Bishops, which will include a larger assembly of Church leaders, will meet at the Vatican from October 4-25, 2015, to continue the discussion on pastoral approaches to the challenges facing families today. The most recent Extraordinary Synod prepared the agenda for discussion for that Ordinary Synod which will have as its theme: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.
Many of you undoubtedly followed the recent Extraordinary Synod in the mainstream media, and you may have received indications or impressions that the Synod was a time of great tension, revealing differing opinions within the Church. This morning I would like to share with you what this experience was for us – a journeying together – and how the results of this Extraordinary Synod have an impact not only on the Church but on the world.
I wish to stress one of the most important contributions of the recent Synod, and hopefully a constitutive part of future Synods – the rediscovery of the synodal process. A very important aspect of the Church’s life is based on our understanding that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is given to all the baptized. Synods are not about taking a poll or voting in a democratic way on Church teaching and practice but they embody a humble openness to the fact that the Lord is leading the pilgrim church through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Last fall, in preparation for the recent Synod, Pope Francis had the Synod office send out a questionnaire to the whole Church, raising very important topics that included the problems facing the family today: the extensive practice of divorce, cohabitation, contraception, procedures of artificial procreation, same-sex unions and polygamy (cf. Instrumentum Laboris, n. 27). We received responses to the consultation from 101 bishops’ conferences (an almost 89% response rate) and nine-hundred and eighty-three Catholic organizations and individuals. Though the timing of the questionnaire was somewhat problematic given the short turnaround for responses, the process nevertheless ensured that the Synod did not begin with abstractions and hypotheses but from a real, direct knowledge of the many challenges sweeping across the globe.
Some responses questioned the Church’s teaching or encouraged greater understanding of people who cannot always live up to that teaching. I stressed on several occasions over the past year that we must recognize that the faithful perceive the truth about the Gospel and its values and their input cannot be ignored. But the bishops have the responsibility and authority to discern ways to apply the constant teaching of the Church.
Synodal Members who took part in the recent Extraordinary Synod described an honest and prayerful attempt to discern answers to complex pastoral challenges across many cultures and ways of thinking. They said the discussions allowed for a genuinely dynamic synod, and that its overall purpose was achieved: to find ways of preaching the Gospel of the family in contemporary society and to find pastoral solutions for families facing difficult situations. The Synod’s purpose was to highlight the Church’s teaching on the family, which always reveals the missionary and pastoral dimension of that teaching, and the Church as merciful, healing, loving and welcoming.
During the first week of the Synod, instead of reading their presentations, the bishops had three or four minutes to summarize their texts – focusing only on one theme – and included ideas or clarifications that had come from listening to their brother bishops.
The second week of the synod was taken up mainly by work in small groups, organized according to language, that treated every theme that had been raised during the prior week. Instead of brainstorming propositions for the Pope, the small groups worked, theme by theme, on amending the summary report, which will be used as the working document for the 2015 Synod.
The recent Synod ended with a ‘Synod Report‘, each paragraph of which Synod Members were able to vote for or against. The votes, which were published with the final text, indicated where there was or was not a two-thirds majority. This Report or “Relatio” now forms the starting point for the next Synod on the family, to take place in a year’s time.
We spoke together about the beauty, dignity and sacredness of marriage – as a vital institution for the Church and for the world. We recalled the words of St. John Paul II, that “the future of humanity passes through the family.” The pastoral mission of the Church is to preach the Gospel of the family clearly and with humility, accompanying people in difficult or exceptional situations. That is what comes first. From this point, we learn to move together towards conversion and towards the goodness of life that God has for us and that Jesus opens for us all. This positive approach flows right through the “Relatio” or Synod Report.
Pope Francis spoke about his duty to guarantee the unity of the Church and to remind the faithful to follow the Gospel of Christ. He also stressed that pastors must see it as their duty to nourish the flock that the Lord has entrusted to them, not only welcoming the lost sheep with fatherly care, but also going out and finding them.
It was hardly surprising that there was such a huge media interest in the recent Synod, unlike many previous Synods. Our Synodal experience together in Rome focused on important issues pertaining to marriage, family, and sexual morality – including those that are controversial both within and outside the Church. For this reason, it generated increased interest in certain areas of Church teaching. The themes we addressed touched on the reality facing the majority of Catholics in their every day life.
The Synod was an attempt to “lend an ear to the rhythm of our time,” as Pope Francis put it. Across the Western world, the collapse of the cultural narrative of marriage means fewer marrying and more and more children born into families lacking necessary stability. This is a serious challenge, because the family is the “school of humanity” according to Gaudium et Spes, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (n. 52), and also the “domestic church,” the locus of spiritual life for most ordinary people, as well as the primary vehicle for learning and handing on faith down the generations.
The recovery of the Gospel of the family is key to a more missionary Church that can walk with contemporary people, binding their wounds and guiding them into the spiritual life. The Church is called to live in the harmony of mercy and justice, the pastoral and doctrinal, working out how to be both compassionate mother and clear teacher.
His Eminence, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, participated as a Member of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops and recently published a very timely Pastoral Letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Westminster, which sums up beautifully the experience of the Synod. He wrote that it was an opportunity to strengthen and reinvigorate the pastoral practice of the Church. Allow me to quote from that Letter: “This Synod … was about the pastoral care that we try to offer each other, the ‘motherly love of the Church’, especially when facing difficult moments and experiences in family life … At the end of our meeting Pope Francis spoke at length about his joy and satisfaction at its work. He told us to look deeply into our hearts to see how God had touched us during the Synod, and to see how we may have been tempted away from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. The Synod, he insisted, has been a spiritual journey, not a debating chamber” (Pastoral Letter on the Synod on the Family, October 26, 2014).
I would like to conclude with the words of Pope Francis himself at the closing of the Synod, with which he summarized the synodal experience as a “journey” moving towards the next stage of the Synod to take place in 2015. The Holy Father said, “I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of ‘Synod,’ a path of solidarity, a ‘journey together.’ And it has been “a journey” – and like every journey there were moments of running fast, as if wanting to conquer time and reach the goal as soon as possible; other moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say ‘enough’; other moments of enthusiasm and ardour (…). A journey where the stronger feel compelled to help the less strong, where the more experienced are led to serve others, even through confrontations (…). This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy(…). It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.”
Thank you very much for your attention and interest. Let us continue our journey together.
+Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri
Secretary General, Synod of Bishops