There is nothing to fear here
For the fourth time since 2008 I will spend a good part of October in an “upper room” at the Vatican, seated among the synod fathers (and several “mothers”) listening to people who love the Church and care about her future. Presiding over this important gathering is the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Vicar of Christ, Successor of St Peter or simply the Pope. Blessed Paul VI created the synod of bishops on September 15, 1965 – almost exactly 50 years ago – to give the world’s bishops a voice. He hoped that the body would serve as a sounding board and advise the pope on various aspects of the Church’s life.
From the beginning, synodal assemblies were consultative, not legislative. These international gatherings have never produced new dogma or overturned Church teachings. The majority of synods so far took place during the long pontificate of St John Paul II. The final documents of these meetings are called apostolic exhortations and clearly bear the mark of the reigning pontiff.
No one could deny that the synodal process and structure had grown tired with the passage of time, and there seemed little opportunity for evaluation or renewal. I can certainly attest to that based on my own experience in the Vatican Synod Hall. One of the most important contributions of Pope Francis and last October’s synod is the rediscovery of the synodal process.
Synods are not about taking a poll or voting in a democratic way on Church teaching and practice. But they embody a humble openness to the fact that the Lord is leading the pilgrim Church through the power of the Holy Spirit. And if the Church is to have a secure future, the honest, open and humble dialogue on the real issues facing God’s people is absolutely necessary.
Many say that last October’s synod was the first time since Blessed Paul VI established this organ of collegiality that the meeting has functioned as a proper synod and not as a staged gathering of pseudo-concord. But the synods of Pope Francis should not be evaluated in terms of winners and losers, with different sides competing, or as a question of human strategies in governing the Church. Those are the ways that the world operates. Rather, we need to understand that the Pope wants the Church to set out on a journey, seeking the will of God in the light of the Gospel and the light of faith, in order to find answers to the most vital questions that families are struggling with today.
Contrary to what you may have read in newspapers or on blogs – and even in this fine magazine – there was no fighting at the last synod. There were disagreements, naturally, because that is what happens when human beings gather. Those who are shocked to hear this should read the story of the Council of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles – and countless other stories of the early Church.
At the end of our two intense weeks together last year, in preparation for next month’s synod, Pope Francis spoke at length about his joy and satisfaction at the synod’s work. He told us to look deeply into our hearts to see how God had touched us during the gathering and how we might have been tempted away from the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If you have not read his masterful address on October 18, 2014, I strongly encourage you to do so (it’s available at vatican.va and is a very important text). In the address, given at the end of the 2014 synod, Pope Francis described the synodal experience as a journey:
Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners. And, as I have dared to tell you, as I told you from the beginning of the synod, it was necessary to live through all this with tranquillity, and with interior peace, so that the synod would take place cum Petro et sub Petro [with Peter and under Peter], and the presence of the Pope is the guarantee of it all.
Pope Francis made clear that there should be no cause for fear or confusion in the Church as a result of the synod.
As I prepare to enter the Synod Hall next week, and as the world awaits our deliberations, we must recall once again that the Barque of Peter is guided by the Lord and entrusted to a most able helmsman in Francis. We have absolutely no reason to fear and every reason to give thanks to God.
Fr Thomas Rosica CSB is CEO of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network. He will be the English language media attaché of next month’s synod. He also serves as English language assistant to the Holy See Press Office
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.