Back in May the Pope lamented that many observers – and “even Church people” – had misunderstood why he had called a synod on the family. They saw it as the “synod on Communion for the remarried” and wasted precious energy on a “can we” or “can’t we” discussion.
In truth, Francis bore some responsibility for this. He had, after all, invited Cardinal Walter Kasper to give a scene-setting speech on the synod to the world’s cardinals in February. The address was wide-ranging and contained profound insights. But its most striking proposition was that some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion after a period of penance.
By giving Cardinal Kasper a privileged platform to call for this radical innovation Francis was, at least implicitly, encouraging a “can we” or “can’t we” debate on the topic. And that is what we got for eight solid months.
Now, at last, we have a new and overarching vision for the synod. It emerged in the Pope’s homily at the opening Mass on Sunday. In it, Francis located the family synod on the largest canvas imaginable: the story of God’s relationship with his faithful people. Using imagery from Isaiah and the Gospel, he compared the Church to a vineyard. Leaders are called to nurture the grapes, but too often their “greed and pride” result in a poor yield.
“Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss the beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent,” Francis said. “They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realise his dream, his loving plan for his people.”
So the synod has a far more challenging task than debating the merits of the so-called “Kasper theorem”. It must find new ways for caring for families worldwide. For they are no mere social construct, but rather “an integral part of [God’s] loving plan for humanity”.
This quest requires neither the uncritical embrace of current western mores nor a wholesale rejection of them. Instead, it demands deep reflection on God’s loving plan and a willingness to pursue it, rather than our own partial visions, at this moment in history.