'Blogging' Archbishop Mark Coleridge: Pope wants to make synodality 'a permanent feature' of the church’s life
“Pope Francis is a fascinating combination of a man in a hurry and a man who takes his time,” Archbishop Mark Coleridge told me in this interview for America.
At the synod he said he was deeply impressed not only by the pope’s inner peace and tranquility but also by his determination to make synodality become “a permanent feature of the life of the whole church and not just an occasional feature of episcopal life.” He considers this and the way Francis sees “episcopal collegiality within the synodality of the whole church” as of utmost importance, and believes this can have major implications for the church in the coming years.
He rejects a doctrinal approach that’s not connected with the real lives of people, but is convinced there’s much room for “pastoral creativity” in this field.
He insists that the church “has got to use language that people understand,” but today she often uses “words and images” that has led to a point “where at best we’re regarded as irrelevant in Western cultures, at worst, and in some segments, we would be regarded as almost demonic.”
Born in Melbourne 1948, after ordination Coleridge, a polyglot, studied in Rome and Jerusalem and gained a doctorate in scripture. John Paul II called him to work in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State in 1997, and four years later appointed him as auxiliary bishop of Melbourne. In 2006, Benedict XVI appointed him as archbishop of the Canberra and Goulburn archdiocese, and in 2012 named him Metropolitan Archbishop of Brisbane.
Coleridge became one of the celebrities among media at the October synod for his informative and entertaining daily blogs, written in an incisive, humorous way that offered invaluable insights into the happenings at the synod, both hilarious and serious. But not everyone appreciated what he wrote and some reacted negatively in the social media.
Esteemed by many synod fathers, they elected him to the post-synod council as one of the three representatives for Asia and Oceania, but since the synod rules only allow one person to be elected from each country, he was eliminated because another Australian, Cardinal Pell, was elected before him.
I spoke with him on October 21, three days before the synod concluded its work by voting its approval of every paragraph of the final document. If you would like to know what the blogging archbishop of Brisbane thought of the grand finale, then click here.
The following is an edited version of the interview.
A week before the end of the synod, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod of bishops, Pope Francis spoke about synodality and declared that it is “the way of the church in the third millennium.” How did you interpret that?
The pope doesn’t want to give the impression of there being an end to this synodal journey. In that extraordinary speech on Oct. 17 he made very clear that he sees synodality as a permanent feature of the life of the whole church and not just an occasional feature of episcopal life. That is significant, as is the way he spoke about episcopal collegiality within the synodality of the whole church. I think the implications of all that are very significant indeed.
I don’t think the pope just wants an apostolic exhortation that gives the impression that this synodal journey is now over. He’s interested in generating a permanent synodality for the whole church, and that’s something much more.
The task of the new synodal council may be to chart the next phase of this synodal journey. Some are a little anxious that this synod might end up with far less than we had expected or hoped for, others worry about what it might result in, but I don’t think any of this bothers the pope. I think he means it when he said in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that “time is more important than space.” We might have to give more time to these issues.
He also said in that same programmatic document that “reality is superior to ideas.”
That’s right and it’s been a crucial element in this synod. At times, listening to certain voices in the synod it’s as if people are talking about some noosphere (the sphere of human thought) where it’s all true and beautiful, and somehow it’s coherent in itself. But when you listen to it, you wonder where does it touchdown in the soil of reality, I mean the real human lives that they are talking about. And that’s what happens when you begin talking doctrine in a way that is self-contained and attached. There’s been a bit of that, and one of the things I found myself thinking and occasionally saying in the small group is that we have to remember that the purpose of this synod is pastoral and therefore any part of the process that’s genuine has to deal with the facts on the ground, not the facts as we might wish them to be, in other words, the reality of people’s lives.
At first some wanted to talk about responsible parenthood, which is an important issue obviously, and to say that we must discover anew the rich teaching of “Humanae Vitae”—which is absolutely true and is a magnificent vision of Christian marriage. But, in saying that and in attempting to discover it anew we have keep in mind the sheer unpleasant fact that the vast majority of the Catholic faithful have not accepted or received the teaching of “Humanae Vitae.”
I don’t think it’s one or the other, and I do agree that we have to discover anew the treasures of “Humanae Vitae” but do that in the real world where we know the fact, the massive fact, is that the crucial elements of this teaching have not been received by most people.
In this context, I think it very significant that the pope in his Oct. 17 address spoke about “the teaching church” (ecclesia docens) and “the learning church” (ecclesia discens) and he reminded the synod fathers that “the learning church” also have a sense of the faith, and has something to say.
I think this whole thing of the teaching church and the learning church is very important, and Francis is saying that the relationship has to be re-visited, and it’s true.
It’s not just one way.
It’s not just one way and any pastor knows this; anyone who’s taught—and I have for years taught scripture—knows there’s a mutuality in that exchange too; it’s not one way traffic. Similarly if you’re a pastor, there’s a profound mutuality in it all. So what the pope is articulating is simply what happens on the ground.
I just fear a kind of doctrinal approach where it takes off into the noosphere (the world of thought), where it’s not touching down in what I would regard as being genuinely pastoral. It was that that prompted Pope Francis to say quite early on in this synodal journey that he didn’t just want the synod process to keep enunciating doctrine in the same way, particularly if that way wasn’t communicating.
I’ve said a number of things in interviews and blogposts during this synod in this regard that have provoked some strong reactions from certain quarters even though I’ve been quite clear in saying that I do not favor major changes in the major teachings of the church.
In actual fact, I believe that there’s an enormous scope beyond that for what I call pastoral creativity, and some of it at least is at the point of language. But the impression you get from some voices both within the synod and outside is that if you touch the slightest jot or tittle not only of what we teach but the way in which we teach it, and what we do on the basis of that teaching, you unravel the whole edifice.
Pope Francis touched on this in the interview with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, Sept 2013, “A Big Heart Open to God,” and in his programmatic document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Nov. 2013.
Exactly! Indeed, at the synod I’ve been quite surprised at how powerful that sense of things is, and what it does is it creates an anxiety that borders on paranoia.
And the other thing I have to say—and I speak here from a Western context—it’s not as if we’re standing guard over a triumph. If what we were doing and the way we were communicating was brilliantly successful then you could understand wanting to stand guard over that success, but again reality suggests that crucial elements of what we’re doing and saying not only are not successful, they’re patent failures.
Again from my teaching experience, I know that if I’m there in front of a class and I’m trying to communicate something important to this class and I’m simply not getting through and I get the glazed look, then I know that if I just keep saying the same thing, in the same way, thinking that if I say it often enough they’ll get it. They don’t, they just go to sleep. I’ve got to find another set of words, or another image, another way into them, to communicate. The same is true for the church in its communication.
So a lot of what I’ve said publicly has been precisely that pedagogical point, that the words and images we often use has led to a point where at best we’re regarded as irrelevant in Western cultures, at worst, and in some segments, we would be regarded as almost demonic. Now we mightn’t like that, and we might say it’s not true and it’s unjust, but we have to face reality: we’ve got to use language that people understand.
You made this point the other day at the press briefing in response to a question about the use of the expression “intrinsically disordered” in relation to homosexuals.
I know what the language of “intrinsically disordered” means, and if you come from a certain type of philosophical, theological and biblical background then it’s quite profound and incisive, but the fact is that to most people it is complicating the situation,
Many also consider it offensive.
Yes, it’s offensive. And however wonderful and true it might be, I think that as teachers we have to say that is counter-communication. We therefore have to find another way of saying something similar in a way that can not only be comprehended by people but one that can actually lead them a step along the way.
As I said, I can understand the defensiveness of some of the defenders. I know that we have to defend the truth, and the bishop has to safeguard the deposit of faith, I know all that, but I also know that we also have to communicate, and if we are serious about evangelization we have to communicate the truth that we treasure. Now if we are not communicating it—and I think in crucial points we are patently not—then we have to simply ask, how do we do it?
Pope Francis likes starting processes, but processes do not give immediate results or produce instant solutions. Would you agree that the synod is a case in point?
I think that’s absolutely right and this synod journey for me has been a journey into a deeper understanding of what the pope’s on about. Just talking to people at the synod and seeing him there, there’s no hint that he’s anxious about anything. And that communicates itself to us, though we mightn’t be as angelically patient as he. He’s a fascinating combination of a man in a hurry and a man who takes his time.
Watching the synod unfold and hearing the different and sometimes totally opposing views being expressed, it reminds me of Noah’s ark, there seems to be everything in it.
It is like Noah’s ark, exactly, and to cast the synod in terms of two camps is totally misleading. I must say however that one of the things that have irritated me through the synod are these occasional apocalyptic readings of reality. As I get older I become less and less apocalyptic and, in biblical terms, I become more sapiential. Some of those who are more anxious at the synod favor an apocalyptic reading of reality, and I simply don’t share that.
It’s clear that there are a minority both inside and outside the synod that share this apocalyptic view of the synod. One bishop in his speech (which has been published) claimed that the smoke of Satan had entered the 2014 synod and was also wafting its way through this synod too. What do you say to this?
I just think it is so profoundly mistaken and can lead to nothing but the kind of smoke of Satan about which Cardinal Schonborn spoke subsequently. He said that smoke comes when there is a partisan spirit abroad, where the world is seen in terms of light and darkness, good and bad, truth and error with no ground in between the two extremes. When a partisan spirit takes hold of the synod that’s when the smoke of Satan enters the hall.
I should emphasize, however that, while this apocalyptic view of the world was not dominant, it was an element that was perhaps more extreme than I had expected.
At the same time, many synod fathers told me that they were so very impressed by the fact that throughout all the sessions, and the various moments of turbulence, Pope Francis was always so tranquil, so much at peace.
That’s true. When I watched him visit the United States I was struck by his extraordinary sense of calm under the glare of publicity; everyone is looking at him, everyone is photographing him, but it doesn’t faze him in any way. As Cardinal Pell once said to me, “He’s a man who is very comfortable in his own skin.”
That’s the impression Francis gives in the synod too when he enters the hall. In the past, with others popes, it was ceremonial when they entered the synod, or courtly, but with Bergoglio it’s not like that at all. He just saunters in carrying his own bag or folder like any other bishop. He arrives early and stands at the podium and shakes everybody’s hand and speaks with people, and at the break he joins us, get his drink and then just walks up and talks with us. It’s another way in which he subverts the papal court.
I don’t have to tell you about what it’s like here, but I have worked here for some years and the two things that fascinate me about Francis are when he says the pope is not a monarch and the pope is not an oracle. I think both are providential.
History underlined the ways in which popes became monarchical, and there was a papal court—there are still traces of it, it’s hard to shake off something that has such deep roots, it takes time to shake all that off. The pope became an oracle, Pius XII pronounced on everything. John Paul II generated an air of omniscience too, but this pope does not. And that’s where he assumes this modesty and humility, not just about himself but about the synod too. He says don’t expect too much of the synod, or at least don’t expect too much in a short space of time.
He said the synod is a journey. Is that how you have experienced it?
Yes, it is a journey and my own experience of this has been a journey into what synodality actually means. When reporters asked me what moment of the synod I found the most electric or illuminating, I said to them—and I meant it—it was that speech which he gave on Oct. 17 for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synod of bishops. He spoke at the end of this talkfest, and it was all the more striking because nobody was expecting anything like this. But when he began speaking then suddenly everyone was sitting up and listening to what he was saying because it was nothing less than programmatic.
So for me, looking back on the days that I have been here, it’s been a personal journey into a deeper understanding of synodality, and not just about what the pope means by it but also about what the Spirit is saying to the church at this time.
And perhaps what is true of me personally might also be true of the synod generally, namely that Francis did intend that speech to be an interpretative key to the whole synod process and the timing of it was extremely well judged, coming at the end of the two weeks.
In actual fact the synod happens at many different levels and that’s where one-dimensional accounts of it just don’t work. They turn it into a political caucus or an apocalyptic struggle which in the end is hopelessly one-dimensional.
As the synod showed, the church is universal but it is not monolithic. You see some of these oppositions that are set up are not real, the local and universal always existed in complex and profound mutuality, and that’s the reality of the Catholic Church. Anyone who thinks the church is monolithic is not speaking about the Catholic Church.
So I think we’re at a point where we have to renegotiate what we mean by such things as “the teaching” and “the learning church,” we have to renegotiate or revisit what we mean by “the local” and “the universal.” And we have to accept that some of our long held and useful distinctions just don’t communicate anymore and so, for example, to speak about “public truth” and “private mercy” doesn’t work, and the distinction between “the sin” and “the sinner” doesn’t work for people anymore.
This of course is where Pope Francis is very strong, he’s prepared to discard what just doesn’t work anymore when it comes to communicating the Gospel message.
The pope is a realist and thank God that he is prepared to say that somethings are just not working, the emperor has no clothes, don’t inhabit an illusory world—the world of make-believe—where you are saying that things are, when you are really saying that that is what you would like them to be.
We’ve just got to accept that some things are working but somethings are not, and there’s a lot of denial. I just don’t think that if we are serious about evangelization—which is in large part about communication—that we can do anything else but blow the whistle on that kind of denial or the fantasy it contains. And I think that is one of the most powerful and refreshing things about Pope Francis.