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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 04, 2023
Participants in the opening session of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops follow Pope Francis on monitors in the Paul VI Hall at The Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

As I watched the procession at the opening of the Synod on Synodality start from the bronze doors of the apostolic palace this morning, Oct. 4, and weave its way through the crowd of 18,000 faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square to the altar in front of the basilica, my mind went back to the images of a similar procession for the opening of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. Those images connected that watershed moment in modern church history with today’s ecclesial event.

I was struck first by the differences in the processions. In 1962, the cross was carried at the front of the procession, as it was today, but then it was immediately followed by the council fathers: the bishops wearing miters, or crowns in the case of the Oriental rite prelates. Today, however, the “nonbishop” members of the synod—priests, nuns, lay men and women—processed immediately after the cross, followed by the cardinals—including the 20 new ones Francis had created on Sept. 30—and the bishops.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII came at the end of the procession, carried on the shoulders of laymen in the sedia-gestatoria  (a ceremonial throne). Today Pope Francis arrived in a wheelchair just as the cross leading the procession reached the altar. He then sat and watched as the synod members processed in.

Pope Francis did not attend Vatican II, but from the beginning of his pontificate, he set out with determination to continue its implementation.

Unlike his five immediate predecessors—John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and Benedict XVI—Pope Francis did not attend Vatican II (1962-65); but from the beginning of his pontificate, he set out with determination to continue its implementation. The synod is one of the fruits of that council, and with this two-session Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis is seeking to develop its potential for the renewal of the life of the church. Indeed, the presence of nonbishops, especially women and lay men in today’s procession, as full members of the synod is already a sign of the progress he has made.

Francis has repeatedly linked the synod to the Second Vatican Council. He did so again today in his inspiring and challenging homily, when he quoted from the speech of John XXIII at the opening of the council.

He quoted his predecessor in his homily after telling the 494 synod participants (365 of whom are full members with a vote): “Here [in the synod] we do not need a purely natural vision, made up of human strategies, political calculations, or ideological battles. We are not here to carry out a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation. No. We are here to walk together with the gaze of Jesus, who blesses the Father and welcomes those who are weary and oppressed.”

“The gaze of Jesus invites us to be a church that, with a glad heart, contemplates God’s action and discerns the present,” the pope said. “And which, amid the sometimes agitated waves of our time, does not lose heart, does not seek ideological loopholes, does not barricade itself behind preconceived notions, does not give in to convenient solutions, does not let the world dictate its agenda.”

This, Francis said, is the “spiritual wisdom of the church,” which John XXIII “summarized with serenity” when he told the council fathers: “It is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”

While Francis quoted John XXIII only once in his homily at the joy-filled Mass for the opening of the synod, which he concelebrated with the 20 new cardinals, nevertheless there is much in it that is reminiscent of his predecessor’s talk at the opening of Vatican II in which he famously said, “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.”

Francis, too, has to face “prophets of gloom” in regard to the synod, some of whom see it as a “Pandora’s box” that will unleash all kinds of disaster on the church. But like John XXIII, he trusts in “the Lord” and reminds them, and the synod members: “We belong to him and—let us remember—we exist only to bring him to the world…. We do not want earthly glory; we do not want to make ourselves attractive in the eyes of the world, but to reach out to it with the consolation of the Gospel, to bear witness to God’s infinite love, in a better way and to everyone.”

The pope reminded the synod’s participants, as well as its critics, that the primary task of the synod is “to refocus our gaze on God, to be a church that looks mercifully at humanity. A church that is united and fraternal, that listens and dialogues; a church that blesses and encourages, that helps those who seek the Lord, that lovingly stirs up the indifferent, that opens paths in order to draw people into the beauty of faith. A church that has God at its center and, therefore, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally. This is how Jesus wants the church, his bride, to be.”

He said Jesus calls us to be a church “which does not impose burdens, and which repeats to everyone: ‘Come, you who are weary and oppressed, come, you who have lost your way or feel far away, come, you who have closed the doors to hope: The church is here for you!’ The doors of the church are open to everyone, everyone, everyone!”

The pope told them, “In the face of the difficulties and challenges that lie ahead, the blessing and welcoming gaze of Jesus prevents us from falling into some dangerous temptations: of being a rigid church, which arms itself against the world and looks backward; of being a lukewarm church, which surrenders to the fashions of the world; of being a tired church, turned in on itself.”

The first Latin American pope chose to open the synod on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint whose name he took as pope, and the anniversary of the day in 1962 when John XXIII went to pray at the tomb of St. Francis for the success of the council.

Pope Francis encouraged the synod participants: “Let us walk together: humble, fervent and joyful. Let us walk in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, the saint of poverty and peace, the ‘fool of God’ who bore in his body the stigmata of Jesus and, in order to clothe himself with him, stripped himself of everything.”

He recalled that St. Bonaventure reported that while St. Francis was praying, the Crucified One said to him, “Go and repair my church.” The Argentine pope said, “The synod serves to remind us of this: our Mother, the church, is always in need of purification, of being ‘repaired,’ for we are a people made up of sinners, forgiven sinners, always in need of returning to the source that is Jesus and putting ourselves back on the paths of the Spirit to reach everyone with his Gospel.”

Pope Francis concluded his homily by addressing these incisive words to the synod participants: “And if God’s holy people with their shepherds from all over the world have expectations, hopes and even some fears about the synod we are beginning, let us continue to remember that it is not a political gathering but a convocation in the Spirit; not a polarized parliament but a place of grace and communion.”

He ended by reminding them yet again, as he has often done during his 10-year pontificate: “The Holy Spirit often shatters our expectations to create something new that surpasses our predictions and negativity. Let us open ourselves to him and call upon him, the protagonist, the Holy Spirit. And let us walk with him, in trust and with joy.”

In his speech to the council fathers on Oct. 11, 1962, John XXIII told how his decision to call that ecumenical council came from an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In his homily at Mass today, and again in his address to the synod in the afternoon, Pope Francis reminded participants that the main protagonist of this gathering is the same Holy Spirit. And, as he has said on several occasions, he sees this synod as the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, not Vatican III. Indeed, he told the Spanish review, Vida Nueva, “We are not yet mature for the Third Vatican Council.”

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