A Church on a Synodal Journey: Pastoral challenges of the family
The love between a man and a woman stands as an image of the love of God. The call to family life is written into human nature. This vocation takes the form of a demanding voyage that is sometimes full of conflict—as is all of human life, after all. The vital force, the human energy contained within the life of families are incalculable: mutual support, accompaniment in personal development, sharing life’s joys and problems. The task of pastors is above all to hold up the attractive elements of family life. This experience, both fragile and complex—and for this all the more rich—directly puts people, and not ideas, into play.
This interplay, today more than ever, has become complex. Men and women now interpret themselves differently than in the past, using different categories. How to find the proper stance—that is, the Gospel stance—to face such challenges? To answer this question Pope Francis has begun a “synodal process,” which includes two separate Synods, one Extraordinary and one Ordinary. The first, dedicated to the topic of “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization,” ended on October 19 with a solemn Mass, concelebrated for the beatification of Paul VI. Over 70,000 people participated. The synod had begun on Sunday October 5 with a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In fact this third Extraordinary Assembly is an important step in a larger process that began back in November 2013, with the circulation of a “preparatory document.” This document included an extensive questionnaire for the individual faithful and local churches, as our magazine reported at the time.[i] This very nimble document, which substituted the Lineamenta, sought to engage the People of God in the process of the synod from the ground up.
This involvement of the individual faithful and the local churches set in motion a process that then spiraled into the Synod. The responses to the questionnaire were received by the end of January 2014. These were then developed into the text of the Instrumentum laboris, which set the agenda of the Extraordinary Assembly.[ii] We ought to note from the outset that neither the questions nor the responses took anything for granted. Neither did these questions seek to project an ideal image of the Christian family. The synodal process sought instead to open its eyes to the reality of the human couple, including some of its most problematic aspects like irregular marriages, polygamy and homosexual unions. The Extraordinary Assembly that took place in 2014 will be followed by an Ordinary Assembly, which will be held from October 4-25, 2015. The Ordinary Assembly’s topic will be “The Vocation and the Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World.”
An Open and Courageous 'Synodal Process'
In the Holy Father’s view, this open, “synodal process” must shape the church more and more.[iii] Pope Francis had already clearly announced this principle in the interview that he granted to Civiltà Cattolica—published on September 19, 2013—with these words: “We must walk together: the people, the bishops and the pope. 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.”[iv] The pontiff seeks to stamp the church with the “dynamic of synodality.”[v] As a side note, let us remember that the Synod of Bishops was instituted by Blessed Paul VI in 1965 in order to keep the experience of the Second Vatican Council fresh in the church’s memory. It is therefore not a coincidence that his beatification coincided with the conclusion of the Extraordinary Assembly.
The first thing that Francis requested of the synod participants was the freedom of speech and expression. This was necessary so that the synod could be effective, and so that it would have real value. In the pope’s opening remarks to the fathers during the first General Congregation of the Synod, Francis declared decisively: “Speak clearly. Let no one say say: ‘This can’t be said; he will think of me this way or that …’It is necessary to say everything that one feels with parrhesia. After the last Consistory (February 2014), in which there was discussion on the family, a Cardinal wrote to me saying: too bad that some Cardinals didn’t have the courage to say some things out of respect for the Pope, thinking, perhaps, that the Pope thought something different. This is not good; this is not Synodality, because it is necessary to say everything that one feels should be said in the Lord, without a merely human respect, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and welcome with an open heart what the brothers say. With these two attitudes one practices Synodality. And so I ask you, please, to observe these fraternal attitudes in the Lord: to speak with parrhesia and to listen with humility.”
Pope Francis has placed the peace of one’s conscience to say what one thinks on the precise foundation of his Petrine ministry. “The Synod always takes place cum Petro et sub Petro, and the presence of the Pope is a guarantee for all, as well as a guardian of the faith.”In this way “Peter” cannot be understood as the “bulwark”of speech and thought within the church, but on the contrary as the solid “rock”which makes expression possible—since it is the pope, and not others, who is the supreme guarantor and guardian of the faith. This synod was also the venue in which the pope several times clearly reaffirmed his understanding of the ministry of the Roman Pontiff. As Francis specified at the conclusion of the Synod: the pope’s ordinary authority—which is “supreme, full, immediate, and universal”—must not be understood as that of a “supreme Lord,” but instead as a “guarantor of the adhesion of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ, and to the Tradition of the Church.” The pope’s role as “guarantor”in this sense does not restrain speech, but rather unblocks and clears the way for a mature freedom of speech and the full expression of one’s own thought.
The pope asked for both freedom of speech and the humility of listening because he has determined to bring the church into a serious process of pastoral discernment. This process is founded on candor and thus it must not fear disagreements and conflicts. Yet with a final and important caution from the pope: the Synod is not and cannot become a series of erudite presentations; “the Synodal Assemblies are not needed in order to discuss nice or original ideas, or in order to determine who is more intelligent…they are needed in order to better cultivate and care for the vineyard of the Lord, for cooperating with His dream, with His project of love for His people.”[vi] Without wishing to contrast doctrine and pastoral practices, which are “genetically”bound to each other, the synod did not set out to simply repeat church doctrine. Instead, the synod sought to express a pastoral impulse towards the challenges of today. Francis conveyed this idea by proposing the image of the vineyard of the Lord during his homily at the opening Mass. This vineyard is the very People of God, and it is entrusted by the Lord to the gardeners—not so that they can take possession of it, but rather so that they work “generously, with true freedom and humble creativity.”
The 'Great Debate' and Discernment
The work of the synod began upon this strong foundation of trust. During the general debate in the synod hall, each synod father received four minutes for making comments. At the end of each day there was also a further hour dedicated to hearing open comments of three minutes each. In all, there were about 260 speeches given.
In order for the debate to be a true debate, the Holy Father nominated a number of different members to the synod. Some of these members had previously expressed their opinion on the topics under investigation in diverging and even opposite ways. Perhaps the media were not ready for such open-mindedness, for such a plurality of positions. Thus they simplified the debate by polarizing it around only a few figures. We must point out that this polarization never actually happened in the synod hall. Instead, the debate featured the expression of several differing positions, all enriched by both the international makeup of the assembly and by the heterogeneity of their pastoral experiences.
A seeking church, a truly “catholic” church, emerged during the synod. Beginning by asking questions about a specific topic, the church ultimately interrogated its own nature as well as the nature of its mission. The synod revealed different models of church,[vii] as well as the different cultural backgrounds, at times opposed to each other, of the fathers, who hailed from different countries and continents. In this sense we are able to affirm the presence of a “conciliar spirit”inside the synod hall. The calmness and the frankness of the dialogue, to be clear, did not generate a softened debate; on the contrary they made it possible to experience a genuine dynamic that can by no means be called “confusion,” but rather “freedom.” These are two terms, “confusion”and “freedom,” which must never be mixed up: otherwise, it is impossible to live courageously, with a truly adult maturity.
The synod was an event of high spiritual value. It witnessed moments of both consolation and desolation. The pope provided a lucid reading of all the events in his final remarks, after the vote on the final version of the Relatio Synodi.[viii] Citing the Spiritual Exercises (SE), he decisively declared that he would have been “very worried and saddened had there not been any of these temptations and animated debates, this ‘movement of Spirits,’ as Saint Ignatius called it (SE 6), if all had been in agreement, or tight-lipped in a false and quietist peace.” “Instead,” he continued, “I saw and I heard—with joy and gratitude—speeches and remarks full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness, of courage and of parrhesia.”
Therefore it was the pope himself who confirmed the appropriateness of the synodal method, in which total agreement—the product of quietistic tradeoffs that are moderate but also fake—cannot be expected. Within this authentic and realistic journey there were “moments of speedy racing, as if wanting to beat a certain time and to reach the endpoint as quickly as possible. There were also other moments of fatigue, as if to say ‘enough!’; there were also other moments of enthusiasm and passion,” the pope continued.
In this sense, we need to remember the climate of the so-called “Council of Jerusalem.”Even the Acts of the Apostles are not afraid to include the records of this “great debate” (Acts 15:7) between the apostles and the elders of the Church of Jerusalem. This debate actually follows another “controversy” in which “Paul and Barnabas dissented and debated animatedly” (Acts 15:2) about the question of circumcision, against the view of the other brothers who had arrived from Judea. Let us also recall that it is Paul who opposes Cephas “face to face” (Gal 2:11).
The Holy Father asked the synod fathers not to fear this face-to-face confrontation. The pope knows that it is in fact “the good of the Church, of families, and the suprema lex, the salus animarum (cfr. Can. 1752)” that guides the discussion of the entire synod. And this always occurs “without ever calling into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of Matrimony: indissolubility, unity, fidelity, and procreativity, the openness to life.” The pope’s remarks give the impression of a deeper unity beyond the conflicts: “United in our differences: there is no other Catholic way for uniting ourselves. This is the Catholic spirit, the Christian spirit: to unite in our differences. This is the way of Jesus!”[ix] Disagreements are not rifts; instead they are fissures through which grace passes more easily.”
The mood in the synod hall was therefore both frank and calm, both engaged and attentive. The pontiff himself was a model of how to listen: always present at the General Congregations (except Wednesday morning, due to a scheduling conflict with his papal audience), he heard all the speeches. In fact, Francis always arrived early to greet the synod fathers, even drinking coffee with them during the break. He never appeared worried or anxious, even though a few journalists tried to paint a picture of a “tense”pope. All of this generated a mood of exceptional brotherhood.
Transparency and Realism
The synodal process followed precise stages while also using an updated methodology. Fifteen general congregations, or working sessions, were held. Each general congregation usually lasted a half day. The schedule was organized around the prayers of terce, the angelus, and the adsumus. The debate was also enriched by the testimony of couples that spoke about their own experiences of married life.
The first Congregation was dedicated to hearing the report of the General Secretary of the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri. It also featured a reading of the Relatio ante disceptationem—the “Report Prior to Discussion”—presented by the General Relator, Cardinal Péter Erdő. Erdő drafted the report with the assistance of the Special Secretary, monsignor Bruno Forte, as provided for by the guidelines of the Ordo Synodi. The Relatio ante disceptationem was prepared thanks to the contribution of comments sent by the Fathers to the General Secretary of the Synod before it began. It became the solid and sure ground for resuming the debate at the Synod. Discussion spanned seven General Congregations, after which there followed another two, with the purpose of hearing the auditors and the fraternal delegates. Following that was the reading of the Relatio post disceptationem, also called the “Final Report,” which was again written by Cardinal Erdő, with the assistance of Monsignor Forte. This final report represented yet another step along the synodal journey. Its purpose was to collect the many pastoral challenges that emerged during the various presentations of the fathers, in order to bring the results of these discussions back to the synod hall. From there, these comments were then distributed to the “minor circles.” Each “minor circle” reread the text, made observations, and proposed amendments.
This conclusive final report of the synod debate is characterized by a very dynamic style. While not always linear, due to the convergence of the many different comments, the final report certainly gives voice to the challenges that emerged during the discussion. The reading of the report in the synod hall was followed by twenty seconds of decisive applause. The applause itself was followed by the approval of Cardinal Damasceno Assis, one of the president-delegates, who defined the report as “very extensive,” pointing out that it dealt with “all the points that were discussed during the General Congregations.”
As they read the report, many people felt that the synod looked at reality squarely in the face, calling it by name, even in its most problematic aspects. The report, therefore, embraced the concrete existence of people themselves, rather than speak abstractly about the family as it ought to be. Among the various points to emerge are several that deserve our attention: the positive appraisal of couples united by an exclusively civic commitment, the status of divorced and remarried couples as well as their admission to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, mixed-faith marriages, annulments, the status of homosexual persons, the challenge of falling birth rates, and the upbringing of children. It is not possible here to fully explore each of these individual questions, which will be articulated in the future.
In general we can say that the final reportincluded the recognition of the many positive elements that exist within both imperfect forms of family as well as within problematic circumstances. The synod talked about the importance of reaffirming the Gospel of the family, just as it talked about recognizing the positive aspects of imperfect situations. For example: today many young people—and the less-than-young—cohabit outside of a regularized marriage, but certainly they are able, if properly guided, to gradually discover the beauty and meaning of marriage. It is possible, with pastoral discernment, to start from the actual relationship itself, and from the goodness that is to be found within the existing relationship. The final reportshowed a church intent on using its own energies for the sowing of as much grain as possible, rather than for the uprooting of chaff. Though the text was still provisional, still to be scrutinized and corrected, it elicited in many people the joy of a language that was both “fresher” and more suited to the times. In others, the text provoked anxiety: they feared that church doctrine was being questioned and that the risks and dangers were not being adequately pointed out.
The Relatio post disceptationem was then handed over to be worked on by the Circuli minores (small groups), that is, the fathers gathered in small groups organized by language. These groups produced syntheses of their discussions, which were then shared with everyone in the synod hall. In this space of reflection, many proposals for amendments emerged. With acuity and meticulous precision, both clear convergences and equally sharp differences among the fathers came to light. This entire process required the publication of working papers (the Relatio and the relationes of the Circles) in order to secure the widest possible participation in the synod. It is very interesting to read these “unripe” documents, which however are the fruit of a profound debate, which was animated by the desire to work for the good of the church. This debate unfolded over seven separate sessions.
Within the lines of these documents we can discover different understandings of the relationship between the church with both history and the world—an idea deeply inspired by the Second Vatican Council. The synthesis produced by the Circulus Anglicus A (English Group A) affirmed that it is necessary to have the “courage to knock at forbidden doors” in order to find behind these doors the “the loving presence of God that helps us to live the challenges of today, not according to our conditions, but in a new and unimaginable way.” On the other hand, the synthesis of the Circulus Gallicus B (French Group B) completely rejected the principle of “gradualism” developed by the Second Vatican Council, since in their view gradualism could lead to the a priori legitimation of irregular situations.
It is also interesting to read the syntheses of the topics that were considered more controversial at the synod. For example, concerning homosexual persons we read that, without recognizing any equivalence between gay and heterosexual couples, the syntheses substantially confirm the positions of the Relatio post disceptationemon the stance of welcome and accompaniment (Circulus Gallicus A) (French Group A), which generates a commitment to stay close (Circulus Italicus A) (Italian Group A), capable even of denouncing unjust and violent discrimination (Circulus Gallicus B) (French Group B).
We should not pass over the fact that the publication of all of these different working papers was thought by some people to be dangerous, since they produced an image of a multifaceted church of different positions. But we have to consider this as an important step towards that convergence that the Holy Father hopes for—that coming together which is not the result of quietistic tradeoffs. All of the observations of the small groups were received by the commission that produced the final document, or Relatio Synodi (Synod Report), which took a day and a half to draft.
The 'Message' and the Synod Report
While the Small Groups were meeting, the Commission for the “Message” of the Synod to Families also gathered. It followed the same procedure of first reading the document in the synod hall and then collecting proposed amendments afterwards. The text had been reformulated, and thus the final General Congregations were dedicated to the approval of both the “Message” and the Relatio Synodi. This latter text stands as a good synthesis of the entire process up to the time of its compilation. The language and style of the Relatio Synodi are certainly more reserved with respect to the previous version, the Relatio post disceptationem. It is the result of a balance among positions that had been expressed in a more lively way in the disagreements among the previous texts. In this sense it is a text of compromise, less unbalanced concerning the challenges and both more rigorous and careful about holding together all the elements of the discussion. The tone and the general style is more like an “official document” than the previous version.
In its first part the document describes the condition of the family within its present context and then announces the Gospel of the family in the second part. The third part is specifically dedicated to pastoral challenges that must be faced. Among the challenges embraced by the text is the pastoral approach towards couples joined by civil matrimony or, mutatis mutandis, that simply live together (no. 25): “a new sensibility of today’s pastoral practices consists in receiving the positive elements that are present”in these relationships (no. 41). There was talk of “courageous pastoral choices” and of “new pastoral journeys”(no. 45). Every section obtained the required two-thirds majority (a minimum of 123 votes) except for three, considered by many to be among the “key points”: those sections on divorced and remarried couples (nos. 52-53) and the section on homosexual persons (no. 55).
We can say much about this decision. One observation is that, while failing to reach the necessary two-thirds majority required for approval, the sections in question easily surpassed an absolute majority. Regarding the section about homosexual persons we can state that the negative vote appeared to be the result of the convergence of two other positions: on the one hand, the position that is less inclined to the pastoral welcome of these persons, and on the other hand the position of the fathers that, by way of contrast, thought that a greater openness ought to be shown to homosexual persons. This latter position is along the lines of the views recorded in both the Relatio post disceptationem and in the small groups.
There is yet another discussion to be had. This concerns two other sections that brought up the issue of divorced and remarried couples receiving the sacraments. In reality, these sections did not raise this possibility as such but rather merely attempted to certify the fact that the issue of divorced and remarried couples receiving the sacraments was actually discussed at the Synod, while also referring to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The missed two-thirds majority of section 52[x] represents something of an anomaly, because it seems that 74 out of 183 Fathers wanted to deny including even the record of the debate, which had in fact been held. Still, this point of discussion was recognized and certified in the “Message,”which was approved by a wide majority (158 out of 174 votes). The “Message” offers us a clue of its theological foundation: “The vertex that gathers and sums up all of the threads of communion with God and with neighbors is the Sunday Eucharist, when with the entire Church the family sits at the table of the Lord. He gives himself to all of us, pilgrims in history journeying towards the goal of the final encounter when “Christ will be all in all” (Col. 3.11). For this reason, in the first stage of our synodal journey, we have reflected on the pastoral accompaniment and the admission to the sacraments of divorced and remarried persons.”
The second point that did not meet the required majority is section 53, which touches on “spiritual communion.”[xi] By itself, the text simply certifies the occurrence of the debate that actually took place in the Synod Hall, without taking a position and calling for further scrutiny. And yet it was rejected by 64 out of 183 fathers.[xii]
Pope Francis attended every phase of the voting. His decision regarding the Relatio Synodi was that of considering such a text as “the faithful and clear summary of all that was said and discussed in this Hall and in the Small Groups. For this reason this text was made public, not only in the parts that reached a quorum (as the rules of the Synod require), but in its entirety. Next to each point, by the decision of the Pontiff, the Relatio Synodi records the number of votes for and against by the Synod Fathers. In such a way Francis made the entire process transparent, leaving to the faithful the reading and judgment of the facts, even those facts that are most difficult to interpret.[xiii] The Relatio Synodi will be presented to the Bishops’Conferences as the Lineamenta (guidelines) for the next synod. Therefore, thanks to the decision of the Pontiff, all of the points debated still remain quaestiones disputandae, upon which the debates of the Synod itself shed light. The process therefore remains open, and it requires the involvement of the People of God for another entire year.
The Church: A Field Hospital and a Guiding Torch
At this point our journey opens out onto the year that separates us from the Ordinary Synod, which will be yet another step in the process of discernment. We can make a few observations about this process. We believe it is necessary that at the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod the church questions itself at all levels. The church should not just ask questions about this or that particular issue. It should also, because of these issues, also interrogate the ecclesiological model that it incarnates. This model allows us to understand the task of the church in the world as well as the church’s relationship to history.
What model of church does this pontificate ask us to consider? For a description of the model we turn to St. Ignatius. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius asks us to consider the gaze with which God views the world: “the three Divine Persons on their royal throne observe the entire face and surface of the Earth and all of its people in such blindness,” those people who “wound, kill, and go down to Hell.” (SE, 106, 108). Ignatius observes God as God sees the world as a battlefield full of the dead and wounded. Immediately after this vision, Ignatius’own gaze narrows. He beholds Mary’s room in Nazareth as well as the Divine Persons, who say: “Let us accomplish the redemption of the human race” (SE, 107).
When the pope speaks of the church as a “field hospital after a battle” he is referring to this image of St. Ignatius. He explains the role of the church in light of God’s gaze upon the world: “so many people that ask us to be close, that ask us for what they were asking of Jesus: closeness, nearness.”[xiv] It is the opposite image of a fortress under siege. The image of a church as a field hospital is not just a simple, pretty poetic metaphor; from this very image we can derive an understanding of both the church’s mission and the sacraments of salvation.[xv]
Where is the battlefield today? Here are a few challenges concerning the family: the decline in birthrates and the aging population have reversed the relationships between young and old persons; contraception enables the splitting of sexuality and procreation; assisted procreation divides the process of giving birth from being a parent; stepfamilies lead to new bonds and new parental roles that have complex relational geographies; de facto couples place the social institutionalization of their relationships into question; homosexual persons ask why they cannot live a life of stable affective relationships while remaining practicing believers. Yet in reality the real problem, the true mortal wound of humanity today is that people struggle ever more to go beyond themselves and to establish relationships of trust with others, even if they love the other person. It is this individualistic humanity that the church finds before itself. And the first concern of the church should not be to close doors, but rather to open them. The church must shine with the light that lives within itself, it must go out and encounter human beings who—even though they believe that they do not need to hear a message of salvation—often find themselves afraid and wounded by life.
How then can the church, as a field hospital, be present to the world? The Relatio post disceptationem (no. 23), the Relatio Synodi (no. 28), and the “Message” together provide an answer. They unanimously speak about the church as a “Guiding Torch” in relation to a church as a “Beacon.” The church, in fact, is a lumen—a light—because upon its face the church reflects the light of Christ, who is in turn the Lumen gentium (LG, 1). Yet this light can be understood in at least two different ways, which are not however mutually exclusive. The church can first be understood as a “beacon.” This beacon sheds light, but it is also statically fixed on solid foundations. Yet we can also understand the church as a “torch.” What is the difference between the beacon and the torch? The beacon stays put. It is visible, but it doesn’t move. The torch, instead, sheds its light on the way, as it walks amongst humanity. It illuminates those human beings that are closest, shining upon their hopes, but also their upon their sadnesses and fears (cfr. GS, no. 1). The church as guiding torch is called to accompany human persons along their journey, to be in contact with their actual experience. Instead of blinding humankind with an unbearable light, the church illuminates their journey step by step
In one of his well-known poems, Blessed Cardinal J.H. Newman wrote about a “kindly light.” We also find this image of light in the Encyclical Lumen fidei: “Faith is not a light that dissipates all of our shadows, but rather a light that guides our steps in the night; and this is enough for the journey” (n. 57). Therefore it is not adequate for the church to reflect the light of Christ onto human couples like a luminous yet static beacon. It must also be a torch. Indeed, were humanity to stray too far from the light of the church, this light—for all of its power—would become weak and even disappear. The light of Christ reflected in the church must not become the privilege of only a few elect who float enclosed within a safe harbor: this would be a “church clique”more than a church. The church, understood as a “torch,” is called to accompany the cultural and social processes related to the family—however ambiguous, difficult, and multifaceted they may be.
According to Pope Francis today more than ever we need “a church that is again capable of restoring citizenship to so many of its children that walk as if in exodus.”[xvi] Christian citizenship is above all the result of God’s mercy. If the church is truly a mother, it needs to respond to its children from its “guts of mercy”(Lk 1:78). Not only from its heart, but precisely from its “guts.” Thus “all are able to participate in some way in the life of the Church, all can be a part of the community, and even doors of the Sacraments should not be closed for any reason”(EG, no. 47). Many Fathers in fact asked themselves the following question: for the visceral mercy of God, can there in fact be a sacramental economy that considers some situations unredeemable, that permanently preclude access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Let us take one example. What can we do when we find a woman who, after a failed marriage and after years of rebuilding her life, with a new marriage and with children, repents of grave sins that she committed in the past (for example, an abortion which she had before her divorce) and wishes to sacramentally reconcile herself with God?
The Open Road
Many questions remain, and they require in-depth analysis. We are still only at the beginning. How should we move forward on the journey? Pope Francis has repeatedly insisted on the fact that, if we truly are on our way, the road will open step by step. We must proceed with the guidance of consolation. That is to say, we must proceed by our interior perception of the presence of God, rather than letting ourselves be guided by our fear or our anxieties.
Pastoral discernment is the correct path for thinking in terms of mercy and consolation. This discernment must be lived with prudence and audacity. It arrives as a result of what the Holy Father has called “open, uncompleted thought.”[xvii] This way of thinking always looks to the horizon of the journey and fixes its gaze on Christ, the Polestar. Pastoral discernment can also be applied to those challenges that Francis defined as “new challenges that are even at times difficult for us to comprehend.”[xviii]
Along this road there are also numerous temptations, which the pope pointed out at the end of the synod.[xix] These temptations are: the development of a hostile rigidity within the law, and within that all which we already know, a rigidity which prevents us from understanding that we still have more to learn; the temptation to adopt a feel-good mercy that wraps wounds without first healing and medicating them; the desire to transform stones into bread in order to end a long and difficult fast, but also to turn bread into stones to throw against sinners and the weak. There is also the temptation to come down from the cross, to bend to the spirit of the world, instead of purifying and bending the spirit of the world into the Spirit of God. Finally, there is the temptation to consider ourselves the proprietors and owners of the faith, or on the other hand, to ignore reality by using a language that says many things while actually saying nothing.
The light of the church’s journey—along which we certainly find many such temptations—must remain Christ the servant, who himself desires “a Church that is not afraid to eat with prostitutes and sinners.” The “Message” of the synod to all families confirmed this notion: “Christ wanted his Church to be a house whose doors are always open and welcoming, without excluding anybody.”The same idea was also boldly expressed by the Relatio Synodi in no. 11, which is perhaps the evangelical core of the document: “People need to be accepted in the concrete circumstances of life. We need to know how to support them in their searching and to encourage them in their hunger for God and their wish to feel fully part of the Church, also including those who have experienced failure or find themselves in a variety of situations. The Christian message always contains in itself the reality and the dynamic of mercy and truth which meet in Christ.”
[i] See G. Salvini, "Il prossimo Sinodo dei vescovi sulla famiglia," in Civiltà cattolica 2013 IV, pp. 487-494
[ii] See G. Salvini, "Verso l’Assemblea Straordinaria del Sinodo sulla famiglia," in Civiltà cattolica 2014 III, pp. 274-284.
[iii] See Evangelii gaudium (EG), sections 32, 244, and 246.
[iv] See Antonio Spadaro, "Intervista con Papa Francesco," in Civiltà cattolica 2013 III, 449-477, p. 466. See also Pope Francis, “My Door is Always Open. A Conversation with Antonio Spadaro,” Milan: Rizzoli, 2013, p. 65.
[v] Pope Francis, “Greeting to the Synod Fathers during the First General Congregation of the Third General Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” October 6, 2014
[vi] Pope Francis, “Homily for the Opening Mass of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family,” October 5, 2014.
[vii] See Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, New York: Doubleday, 1974.
[viii]Pope Francis, “Concluding Speech of the Third General Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” October 18, 2014.
[ix] Pope Francis, “Homily for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul,” June 29, 2013.
[x] The text of section 52 reads: “The synod fathers also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarriedaccess to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Some synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present regulations, because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the church as well as the teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage. Others expressed a more individualizedapproach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations towards children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop. The subject needs to be thoroughly examined, bearing in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances, given that “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1735).
[xi] The text of number 53 reads: “Some synod fathers maintained that divorced and remarried persons or those living together can have fruitful recourse to a spiritual communion. Others raised the question as to why, then, they cannot have access “sacramentally." As a result, the synod fathers requested that further theological study in the matter might point out the specifics of the two forms and their association with the theology of marriage.”
[xii] Perhaps fears prevailed on this point. Yet before these fears, it is necessary to remember the declaration of number 24 of the document Donum Veritatis, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question.”
[xiii] In fact, taking a close look at the results, we even find eleven votes against a quotation from Evangelii gaudium (EG), which touches on the loving and salvific mercy of God (no.24), twenty-seven votes against a paragraph about the fact that the loving mercy of God elevates one to conversion (no. 28), and twelve votes against the Centers for Listening which are designed to help in particular those who have unjustly suffered separation (no. 47).
[xiv] Pope Francis, “Audience for the Participants of the International Gathering ‘The Pastoral Project of Evangelii gaudium,” September 19, 2014.
[xv] We recall the words of Blessed Paul VI: “The richest symbolism, glittering with metaphors and analogies, suggests the Church wherever one of God’s thoughts on saving humanity flourishes: the Church is a ship, a boat, an army, a temple, the Church is the city of God; the Church is even like the moon, whose phases of waxing and waning reflect the alternating history of the Church that declines and rises again, that is never spent since fulget […] Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine, that is, the Church shines not with its own light, but with the light of Christ.”in Paul VI, Speeches and Milanese Writings, vol. II: 1964-1963, Brescia: Istituto Paolo VI, 1997, p. 2462 s.
[xvi] Pope Francis, “Meeting with the Brazilian Bishops,” July 27, 2013.
[xvii] Antonio Spadaro, “Intervista con Papa Francesco,” cited above, p. 455.
[xviii] Antonio Spadaro, "Svegliate il mondo! Colloquio di Papa Francesco con i Superiori Generali," in Civiltà cattolica 2014 I, p. 17.
[xix] Pope Francis, “Concluding Speech of the Third General Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” October 18, 2014.