A healing Synod?

St Peter's Basilica and a man are reflected in a puddle along Via della Conciliazione (Getty Images)

As the youth synod draws to a close this week, it appears that some of the wounds from the synods of 2014 and 2015 on the family have been healed. Those highly divisive synods caused a widespread diminution of trust in the synod process. Trust destroyed is difficult to fully restore, but accounts from the synod participants indicate that it may have been recovered to some degree.

This synod on youth has been remarked by voices across the board as being a more joyful and more lively experience than in the past. This is usually attributed to the presence of some three dozen youth “auditors” in the hall alongside the bishops. Their enthusiasm – expressed in applause and cheering that would disturb prelates who snoozed through the interminable speeches in years previous – has been a decisive factor.

But there is more to it than that. Synods have been generally rather scripted affairs, often with disputed points obscured rather than aired in open discussion. Pope Francis changed that with his twin synods of the family, encouraging “parrhesia” – frank speech without fear or favour. Yet at the same time there was significant protest against the “manipulation” of the family synod, with its managers attempting to steer it towards changing the Church’s sacramental discipline on divorced Catholics living in invalid marriages. Eventually, led by a revolt by some of the most senior cardinals, the synod did not endorse that proposal. In the event, Pope Francis moved towards it anyway in Amoris Laetitia, albeit with careful enough ambiguity to make plausible an orthodox reading of the text itself, if not its intent.

It was the conclusion of the family synod though that rubbed salt in the wounds of conflict. On October 24, 2015, Pope Francis gave one of the signature addresses of his pontificate as the synod concluded. These were not off-the-cuff remarks, but came from a carefully prepared text, distributed to the media in multiple languages. And with some of the most senior bishops in the Church before him, he characterised those who disagreed with changing the teaching of St John Paul’s Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor as seeking to throw rocks at the suffering.

“[The synod] was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family,” Pope Francis said. “It was about trying to view and interpret realities, today’s realities, through God’s eyes, so as to kindle the flame of faith and enlighten people’s hearts in times marked by discouragement, social, economic and moral crisis, and growing pessimism.

“It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would ‘indoctrinate’ it in dead stones to be hurled at others. It was also about laying open the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families.”

The “dead stones” speech, characterising those who defended the Eucharistic and sacramental doctrine of the Gospels as being like the crowd eager to stone the woman caught in adultery, was a defining moment. The synod managers led a laudatory ovation for Pope Francis, but as all stood many did so with gritted teeth and wounded hearts.

Divisions were not created ex nihilo that day, but they were deepened and hardened. Trust in the synod process was eroded, as was trust that the Holy Father himself was sincere when he invited all to speak without fear.

Hence suspicions were high in some quarters that Synod 2018 might be a repeat performance, though less contentious given that the synod participants, after three more years of papal appointments around the Church, would be more congenial to Pope Francis. When less than a month before the synod began the Holy Father abolished the old rules for the synod, replacing them with new regulations that left the most important matters to the discretion of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the synod secretariat, there was great nervousness that another rigged synod was underway.

Last week, though, the synod managers announced that a vote on each paragraph of the final document would be held. The Orwellian-sounding “commission for information” – a new body erected by the new rules, turned out to be more forthright in presenting what was said than last time. And, to be sure, the lack of any interim report means that there was no official mid-term summary to generate agitation.

So far, so good. But the key work lies in the synod’s final days, when the draft final report is presented, the exact language analysed, and the votes taken. But if it concludes as it began, the synod on youth will have repaired some of the frayed relations among the elders of the Church.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of