An Opening For Mercy?

‘Today is a time of mercy!” This was the parting message Pope Francis gave to the 270 synod fathers from some 120 countries at the closing Mass for the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family in St Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 25.

He has made this same declaration several times since his election as pope on March 13, 2013, but it took on special significance on this Sunday, the day after the synod approved by a two-thirds majority a final document centered on the theme of mercy.

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While reaffirming traditional church doctrine on marriage and the family, as expected, the synod significantly closed no doors, despite a strong push to do so. Instead it cleared the way for Pope Francis to respond to the synod’s unanswered questions in a future magisterial text.

The approval of this document has greatly strengthened the hand of Pope Francis in his effort to build a church whose “first duty,” as he said in his speech after the vote, “is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.”

He said this synod experience “made us better realize that the true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulas, but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.”

The approved text is “a document of consensus,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria told the press in a briefing at the Vatican before the synod voted. That is already an achievement, given the hard discussions during the three-week assembly.

The most heated discussion in the synod revolved around one theme: the controversial question of whether Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried could under certain circumstances receive Communion. A number of synod fathers sought to exclude this possibility completely from the text, but in the end they failed. 

“Discernment” is the key word to understand the synod’s approach to this question, Cardinal Schönborn told the press. He said the synod gives “great attention” to their situation, which is so diversified that “there is no black and white answer, no simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’” as some insisted; instead “it’s necessary to discern in each case.”

In his closing speech to the synod, Pope Francis hit hard at those who sought to hinder his efforts to get the church to reach out in a merciful and tender way to wounded families. He began by saying what the synod was not. “It was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family,” nor was it about “finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family.”

Instead, it was about seeing the difficulties and uncertainties facing families “in the light of faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand.” The synod was “about listening to and making heard the voices of the families” and their pastors.

During the past three weeks, he said, “different opinions” were freely expressed at the synod but “at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways.” In any case, he said, all that happened during the synod “certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue” and offered the world “a vivid image of a church which does not simply ‘rubberstamp,’ but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts.”

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