The synod has just begun but there are already early signs that many aspects of church teaching and praxis are coming under scrutiny, with demands for change, including a change in the language it uses.
Seventy synod fathers spoke in the first 24 hours, raising many issues including the need for the church to change its language in certain areas and to show greater respect for people than is at present the case. “Our language needs to change,” several participants said.
Some called on the church to stop using such expressions as “living in sin” when referring to couples who are in what it considers ‘irregular unions,’ and to avoid the expression “intrinsically disordered” when referring to homosexuality, and not to say people have “a contraceptive mentality,” Father Thomas Rosica, Chief Executive of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic TV channel Canada, told reporters at a press briefing in the Vatican, Oct. 7.
Rosica, who is present at all the sessions, reported that some of the synod fathers had observed that “marriage is seen as being filtered in harsh language through the church” and asserted that “this does not help bring people to Christ.”
He did not reveal which synod fathers had called for these changes because the current rules do not allow any such attribution.
Ron and Mavis Pirola from Australia, one of the 13 married couples attending the two-week gathering, also spoke about church language but from another perspective. Married for 55 years, they told the synod on the first day, “Our faith in Jesus was important to us. We went to Mass together and looked to the church for guidance. Occasionally we looked at church documents but they seemed to be from another planet with difficult language and not terribly relevant to our experiences.”
The Australian couple’s damning comment on the language of church documents actually echoed what had been reported from several countries in responses to the questionnaire that preceded this synod.
Pope Francis too has intervened on the question of language, though at an entirely different level. Breaking again with past praxis, he has abolished Latin as the language of the synod and replaced it with Italian, the language mainly spoken in the Vatican and understood by a great many of the synod fathers. Cardinal Peter Erdo, the Relator at the synod, revealed this with a great sense of relief; the pope’s decision had saved him the painful task of having to read his hour-long keynote addresses in the language of Cicero and Virgil.
The question of language was only one of the 11 or more topics raised by the synod fathers during the first 24 hours.
In their briefing Fathers Rosica (for English), Federico Lombardi (for Italian) and Manuel Dorantes (Spanish) listed at least 10 other themes that have emerged so far in the early interventions including: the synod—everyone is pleased that the pope has called this synod on the family, and also that he held a pre-synod global survey; respect for “the law of graduality” in Christian life; hope—how can the church convey a message of hope about marriage and family life to the modern world?; pastoral practices—examples of these in local churches regarding preparing for marriage and supporting the family.
They also listed the following topics: the family as the basic cell of society and of the Church; marriage is multifaceted today—different kinds of family situations exist, inter-religious marriages, marriage supported by local customs and traditions, polygamy, the difficult and often dramatic situations of families in the Middle East (including persecution) and in the Balkans, the impact of immigration and poverty on families; exegetical questions regarding the interpretations of certain texts in the Gospels and in St Paul’s writings; and the missionary role of the Christian family; the need for a biblical vision of the family.
England’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols told the press briefing on Oct. 7 that many ideas have surfaced but it is too early to have an overall picture. He recalled that Pope Francis had said, “We have to be patient and let the picture emerge gradually.”
He expressed happiness that the synod is structured much better than in the past; from the beginning it has got participants to focus on specific themes. “This is extremely helpful,” he stated.
Moreover, he said, “there’s a very lovely spirit in the synod hall, and a lightness of atmosphere which enables people to speak from pastoral and personal experience more than from academic studies. Bishops speak as priests, and there is a sense of opening and walking together,” he said. He hailed this as a very good start.