Addressing the first working session of the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis reminded the bishops and other participants that this assembly “is not a parliament” where one negotiates, bargains or compromises to reach consensus or agreement, much less is it “a talk shop.”
On the contrary, Francis said, it is “a protected space where the church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit,” and its “only method” is that of “opening oneself to the Holy Spirit, with apostolic courage, evangelical humility and trusting prayer so that it is he who guides us, enlightens us and makes us put before the eyes [of all at the synod] not our personal positions, but the faith in God, fidelity to the magisterium, the good of the church and the salvation of souls.”
There were 258 synod fathers present in the hall (out of the 270 with a right to vote) when the pope spoke. He did so after the assembly sang the “Veni Creator”—the church’s hymn invoking the assistance of the Holy Spirit, and recited morning prayers.
He explained that “the synod is not a ‘conference’ or ‘talk shop,’ nor is it a parliament or senate, where agreement is reached.” Instead, “it is the church that walks together to read the reality with the eyes of faith and the heart of God.” It is the church “that interrogates itself about its fidelity to the deposit of faith which, as such, does not represent a museum to be looked at, or even just to be safeguarded.” He reminded all present that the deposit of faith “is a living source at which the church quenches its thirst so as to [be able to] quench the thirst and illuminate the deposit of life.”
Francis explained that “the synod moves in the heart of the church and within the Holy People of God of which we are part, in the quality of pastors or rather servants.”
As he had done in 2014, so too this morning, Francis sought to get participants to enter the three-week discussion with open minds and to speak courageously from the heart.
He described the synod as “a protected space where the church experiences that action of the Holy Spirit” who “speaks through the tongue of all the persons that allow themselves to be guided by the God who always surprises.” He reminded them that this is the God who “reveals to little ones what he hides from the wise and intelligent”; he is the God “who has created the law and the Sabbath for man and not vice-versa” and “leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the lost one.”
Aware that some have come to this assembly already very rigid in their positions as they have made abundantly clear in publications, articles and interviews, Francis urged all the synod fathers to allow themselves to be guided “by the God who is always greater that our logic and calculations.”
Pope Francis told them that the synod “can be a space for the action of the Holy Spirit only if the participants clothe themselves again with apostolic courage, evangelical humility and trustful prayer.” He spelled out what these three attitudes entail.
“Apostolic courage,” he said, “will not allow us to be afraid neither in front of the seductions of the world, that tend to quench the light of truth in the heart of men substituting it with small and temporary lights, nor in front of the hardening of some hearts that—despite good intentions—distance people from God.”
For its part, he said, “evangelical humility” is an attitude that “knows how to empty oneself of one’s own convictions and prejudices” and “to listen to the brother bishops” and “fill oneself with God.” This “humility” does not lead one “to point the finger against others to judge them” rather it moves one “to extend the hand to the other to get them on their feet without ever feeling superior to them.”
“Trusting prayer,” he said, “is the action of the heart which opens to God, that quiets all our humors and [enables us] to listen to the sweet voice of God that speaks in silence.”
He told the synod fathers that “without listening to God all our words will only be ‘words’ that do not satisfy and do not serve. Without letting ourselves be guided by the Spirit all our decisions will only be ‘decorations’ that instead of lifting-up the Gospel only cover and hide it!”
After the pope’s introductory address, the secretary general of the synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, gave a long talk in which, among other things, he confirmed that there are 270 fathers (with a right to vote) at the synod: 42 are ex-officio members (including 15 patriarchs, major archbishops or metropolitans of the Oriental Catholic Churches, while 25 are heads of Vatican offices), 183 have been elected by the bishops conferences in the different countries and 45 are papal nominees. There are 74 cardinals among them.
Earlier, he told the media that of the 270 synod fathers: 54 are from Africa, 64 from America (North and South), 36 from Asia, 107 from Europe and 9 from Oceania.
Each synod father will be allowed to make a three-minute intervention to the plenary assembly. Most of the work will be done in 13 language groups: four English, three Spanish, three French, two Italian, one German.
Each day, there will also be a one-hour long ‘free session,’ where participants can speak to a topic of their choosing related to the synod.
The morning session concluded after the relator of the synod, Cardinal Peter Erdo, summarized the themes that are to be discussed in this first week, which consist of Part I of the synod’s working document (the "Instrumentum Laboris"), and a married couple gave their testimony.
English text of the synod’s working document can be found here.