That evening, Pope Francis was unusually lyrical. For months, expectations had been building about the October 2014 Synod of Bishops, a gathering of 253 Church leaders from throughout the world convened to discuss the family. Addressing a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square of 40,000 persons, many of them with lighted candles, Pope Francis asked for prayers:
“Evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour at which one willingly returns home to meet at the same table, in the depth of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which anticipates the unending feast in the days of man. It is also the weightiest hour for one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of shattered dreams and broken plans; how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, of abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes the wine of joy has been less plentiful, and therefore, also the zest — the very wisdom — for life … Let us make our prayer heard for one another this evening, a prayer for all.”
It was not the way Popes had usually spoken. But few things about Francis were usual.
The word “synod” in Greek connotes a gathering or assembly. In more modern times the word signifies a gathering of bishops to decide teaching or governance issues, a concept that took on special meaning when Vatican II established the international synod of bishops as an occasional advisory body to the Pope. Since 1965 the Synod of Bishops has met 13 times and dealt with themes ranging from catechesis, to the sacrament of Penance, to the role of Bishops.
Few were surprised, therefore, when barely 100 days into his pontificate, Pope Francis announced his plans to convene a Synod. What was remarkable, however, was that the topic he proposed was “the pastoral care of marriage.” The issue had already been treated in the 1981 Synod, and had been summarized in Pope John Paul II’s masterful Apostolic Exhortation “On the role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.” The doucment spoke clearly against artificial birth control, affirmed the inviolability of the marriage bond, and laid out what one author described as “the fullness of theological truth… concerning Christian marriage and family.” It was therefore unexpected when the new Pope chose to revisit this topic.
What was also surprising was the sure-handed manner in which the new Pope implemented this process. Differing considerably from the scripted style of traditional Roman synods, his methodology resembled that long in use by the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), a process typically preceded by several years of consultation with the lay faithful and the clergy. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio – the future Pope Francis – had used such an approach to reinvigorate CELAM after a long period of inactivity. As chairman of the Latin American Bishop’s theological drafting committee for the 2007 Conference in Aparecida, Brazil, Bergoglio distinguished himself for successfully building trust and consensus among the 130 participants. His ability to synthesize differences, one observer noted, “was a brilliant performance that brought people clapping to their feet at the end of the conference.”
As plans for the Roman synod matured, there were also the noticeable differences in tone and emphasis. The theological roots of Pope Francis, and his circle of close advisors were far less cerebral than European theological approaches, and heavily focused on evangelization and interpreting Scripture in concrete situations of ordinary life. Although Southern American theologians had routinely served on the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, hitherto their presence had largely gone unnoticed.
Pope Francis was therefore coming from a mature tradition that set him apart from previous Popes. Seeming to show no hesitation about introducing new themes or reopening topics considered off limits, he announced that the Synod would approach marriage and family on a large canvas. When correspondents sought to focus on the issues of communion for divorced Catholics, or the Church’s acceptance of gay members, the Holy Father repeatedly emphasized a broader perspective. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Pope Francis noted. “When we talk about these issues, we have to talk about them in context.”
The context was broad indeed. Among the topics to be considered were “mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; … legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.”
To those familiar with established Vatican discourse, the questions contained in the first phase of the consultative process with the world’s bishops,were also unusually direct. Under the heading of “Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations,” questions asked to the world’s bishops included:
a) Is cohabitation …a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?
b) Do unions that are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?
c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programs?
The openness of the questioning process in turn produced candid replies from national hierarchies. The Japanese Catholic bishops confessed, “Generally speaking, people are only aware of the bans on abortion, artificial birth control, divorce and remarriage. They are more influenced by societal mores than by those teachings…” German bishops noted that to most German Catholics the Church’s teaching on sexual morality “is judged as being incomprehensible and unrealistic in its argumentative style and language.”
All of these responses were synthesized into a working paper that – not without raising a few eyebrows — provided the basis for discussions that took place in Rome in mid October 2014. The Synod itself was unusual for the open and direct give and take among participants representing divergent opinions. “You can’t take (the) opinion of one person or draft. The synod has to be seen in its totality,” Pope Francis explained to journalists. “The synod is not a parliament, it is a protected ecclesial space.”
The 2014 Synod is the first step of a two-year process. A follow-up scheduled for fall 2015 is to propose practical guidelines. Between the two gatherings, national bishops conferences are “to choose a suitable manner of involving all components of the particular churches and academic institutions, organizations, lay movements and other ecclesial associations.” This would be the largest pastoral consultation ever to take place in the Catholic Church, and in the United States, dioceses and parishes would be challenged to accommodate a new and unfamiliar process.
In his closing speech to the bishops of October 2014 Synod, Pope Francis reflected on the fruitful but at time contentious work of the Synod. “I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage and of candor. And I have felt that what was set before our eyes was the good of the Church, of families, and the “supreme law,” the “good of souls.” He went on to describe the face of the Church that the Synod revealed, and once again invoked poetic imagery.
“This is the Church,who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wound; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. 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!… This is the Church, our Mother! And when the Church, in the variety of her charisms, expresses herself in communion, she cannot err: it is the beauty and the strength…of that supernatural sense of the faith which is bestowed by the Holy Spirit so that, together, we can all enter into the heart of the Gospel and learn to follow Jesus in our life. And this should never be seen as a source of confusion and discord.”
Pope Francis was given a standing ovation from the bishops that lasted almost five minutes.