The Synod of Bishops on the Family, which gathered Catholic bishops and other participants from around the world to discuss issues related to the family, has just concluded. Here are five important things that the Synod, which met in two sessions over the last two years, accomplished:
1. Opened up the conversation. The Synod of Bishops in its current form was created by Pope Paul VI in 1965. Since then, however, some synod meetings have seemed rather scripted. By their own admission, some bishops refrained from saying anything that might contradict the status quo, or possibly offend the Pope.
But at the beginning of this two-year process, Pope Francis encouraged all participants to speak freely: "Let no one say, 'This cannot be said.'" And they did speak freely. Conversation was open, lively, and sometimes contentious. That’s all to the good. We shouldn’t be afraid of discussion or even debate. The Holy Spirit thrives on openness.
2. Restored the Synod to its proper place. As a result of this openness, something wonderful happened. The Synod of Bishops finally assumed it proper place in the post-Vatican II church. Pope Francis helped to move the church towards “synodality.” In that style of governance, the pope makes the final decisions, but the laity and clergy, under the leadership of the bishops, debate important matters and reach decisions regarding them, in order to help the pope. That’s a big step forward. It reminds us that the church is not only a teaching church, but a listening church.
3. Discussed issues related to the family. The Synod on the Family did not change church doctrine. But it fostered open discussions on many topics regarding families around the world. Much attention in the West centered on two issues: first, the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics; and second, the pastoral care of LGBT Catholics. On the first issue, the synod didn’t change doctrine, but it highlighted the use of the “internal forum,” a traditional practice that involves understanding church teaching, meeting with a priest, praying over an issue and consulting your conscience before you make a decision. Again, not a change in teaching, but an encouragement of a possible avenue for reconciliation, and a gesture of welcome to divorced and remarried Catholics.
On LGBT issues, again the synod changed no doctrine, but it reminded Catholics of the need to respect the human dignity of LBGT people and, also, to have special care for families with LGBT members. That may not sound like much of a change, but it challenges Catholics in countries where respect and care for LGBT people are not as common.
4. Reminded us to discern and accompany. Two words in the Synod’s final document appeared several times: discernment and accompaniment. Discernment is the practice of making a decisions in a prayerful way, which takes into consideration not only the Gospels and church teaching, but also the way that God works through all of us, individually. We reflect on what insights and impulses may be coming from God, and which may not be. In discernment, we use both our heads and our hearts. The synod reminded us of the need for discernment, especially when it comes to complex matters regarding family life.
It also reminded us that we needed to accompany people. Not simply to repeat church teaching to them, or to scold them; but to get to know them, to be with them, to listen to them. To accompany them.
5. Let the pope speak to the church. The synod participants spoke frequently. They spoke to one another. They spoke at the daily press briefings. They even tweeted and blogged about their experiences. But there was someone else who spoke: Pope Francis. In his closing talk, for example, he reminded the bishops never to close themselves off from anyone, and that those who truly follow church teaching are not those focused on the letter of the law, but the spirit. People matter more than ideas, he said. He’s warning us against legalism, as Jesus did.
But Pope Francis will have another chance to talk to the church. Because the synod asked the pope to write his own document about the family. At some point, then, we’ll see what the pope has to say. He may simply sum up what the synod says, or maybe go farther. Who knows? Only the Holy Spirit. So keep praying!