Pope Francis leads prayer in the synod hall at the Synod of Bishops on the Family. CNS photo

This Synod is about the Holy Spirit

By 
  • October 9, 2015

The Synod on the Family is not about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, or how to reach out to gay Catholics, or even celibacy of priests. It’s about the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis reminded 318 delegates as they began closed door discussions on family issues.

At the opening session of the Synod Oct. 5 in the Vatican, Francis asked delegates to be faithful to Church teaching and called the synod hall “a protected space where the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit.” He asked delegates to not “reduce the horizons of our work” by fixating on the issue of divorce and communion.

He reinforced that message in unplanned remarks the following morning when the Pope told the 279 bishops, archbishops and cardinals with the power of the vote and another 39 non-voting delegates, that Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage “has not been touched or put into question,” said a Vatican spokesman.

At the start of the second Synod on family issues in the span of a year, the Pope lectured and preached not only about the Church’s stake in married and family life but about the nature of synods.

The Synod “is not a parliament where participants will negotiate or lobby,” he said in his opening remarks. A Synod should be a place of courage where Church leaders, remaining faithful to doctrine, speak with zeal, wisdom and frankness, Francis said. It should also be a place where delegates listen to others in humility and without judgment, silencing their own preferences to hear “the soft voice of God.”

By encouraging a collegial approach, Pope Francis is moving towards recapturing the lost tradition of synodality in the Latin Church by urging parresia — the Greek term for open, frank, courageous and truthful speech — said Ukrainian Catholic scholar Fr. Andriy Chirovsky.

But that’s not the full tradition, he said.

“What is closer to the Eastern rite would be if the Synod actually has legislative authority, which they don’t,” he said.

Open debate and conflicting opinions among cardinals and bishops can be disconcerting, but those fears are misplaced, in Chirovky’s opinion.

“If you take a look at the early ecumenical councils, there was some very contentious stuff going on,” said the Saint Paul University scholar from Ottawa. “It wasn’t always nice.”

The critical question will be how much control is exercised by Vatican insiders, especially the Vatican department called the Synod of Bishops under Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, said Chirovsky. Pope Francis was elected with a mandate to reform the Vatican bureaucracy, but it’s unclear whether bureaucrats retain a controlling hand at this Synod.

“Boy, if ever there was a time when confidence in the bureaucracy of the Church has been at an all-time low, I think it’s now,” he said.

From the Eastern Church’s point of view, sidestepping the bureaucracy is best done by giving the Synod legislative power. But from a Jesuit point of view, it’s not so much about legislating as it is about encouraging sincere consultation and discernment, said former Jesuit provincial superior for English Canada Fr. Bill Ryan. As a Jesuit, the Pope regards the Synod as a process of discernment with and in the Church. Full and thorough consultation is not trivial or merely a prelude to a decision for Jesuits, said Ryan. Consultation and discernment are part of any decision.

“A provincial has a lot of power. He can make decisions on his own and they can stand,” said Ryan. “But basically, that’s not our way. Our way is the discernment process, which is a combination of prayer and reflection.”

Making sure that all the facts and all points of view get a thorough airing are essential to the process, Ryan said.

“It’s done in an atmosphere of thinking and prayer, so it’s not a power struggle,” he said.

Ryan was in Rome for synods in 1971 and 1987 and saw the process become increasingly controlled by Vatican officials.

“From the point of view of Jesuits, I think a lot of bishops wouldn’t feel they were somehow a part of it,” he said.

“What we try to do as Jesuits is first to try to get all the information we can and then we discern it in groups — preferably in smaller groups so everybody feels they’ve got something to say.”

In his opening remarks, Pope Francis urged courage, humility and prayer.

“The only method of the Synod is to open up to the Holy Spirit with apostolic courage, with evangelical humility and trusting prayer to Him to guide us, enlighten us and make us put before our eyes not our personal opinions but faith in God, fidelity to the magisterium and the good of the Church,” he said.

(With files from CNS)

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