on the synods of yesterday and today | Francois X. Maier

OJuly 29, La Civilta Cattolica published an interview with Pope Francis that deserves careful reading. The words of the Holy Father which I noted with particular interest imply synodality and dialogue:

In 2001, I was rapporteur for the synod of bishops. . . I remember that the opinions were collected and transmitted to the general secretariat. Then I gathered the material and prepared it for voting. The secretary of the synod came to me, read the material and told me to remove this or that detail. There were things he didn’t consider appropriate and he censored them. In short, there was a pre-selection of material. There was little understanding of what a synod is. . .

It seems fundamental to me to repeat, as I often do, that the synod is not a political meeting or a commission for parliamentary decisions. It is the expression of the Church whose protagonist is the Holy Spirit. If there is no Holy Spirit, there is no synod. There can be democracy, parliament, debate, but there is no “synod”. If you want to read the best theology book on the synod, then reread the Acts of the Apostles. There you can clearly see that the protagonist is the Holy Spirit. . .

Above all, it is important that the dialogue be prolonged. Dialogue is never superfluous between media professionals and certainly also with the bishops. Exchange, confrontation and dialogue are fundamental for communication.

Now it happens that I endowed, on the spot in Rome, a bishop delegated to three different synods. In 2015 and 2018, I also helped nearly a dozen other English-speaking delegate bishops from three different continents. Their experience did not quite match the hopeful remarks offered by the Holy Father above. Consider the words (found here) of then-Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who himself served a term on the Permanent Council of the Synod of Bishops:

The first synod I attended, in 1997, was on the Americas. I was one of the delegates directly appointed by Pope John Paul II. It was a great experience, my first real international participation in the service of the universal Church. It was there that I then met Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. He was an impressive man and he made good contributions to the discussion. We sat close together because we had been appointed archbishops at about the same time. The Synod led me to seek a much closer relationship with the Churches in Mexico and Latin America, and Latino Catholics in the United States.

The other two synods – in 2015 on the family and in 2018 on young people and faith – were very different. I was a delegate from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and had a lot more experience, so I probably felt the political dynamics of a synod more clearly.

I was very disappointed by what I saw as manipulation of synods and their agendas by elements inside and outside the Church. Instead of being an opportunity for an honest exchange of ideas, the two synods were dominated by efforts to rethink the leadership of the Church. Synods should be places where people speak freely and are willing to listen to others. But both were exercises in power rather than efforts to honestly come to a common position by hearing and being inspired by the Holy Spirit. None of these synods encouraged or gratified me. In fact, I was deeply outraged by the political maneuverings that took place in both. The one on the family was a very important synod with very strong tensions. The one on young people lacked important voices and seemed to miss many opportunities to say anything of importance or to deal with the real problems of the Church in our time.

While we’re at it, it’s worth coming back to “The Case of the Thirteen Cardinals”. For those with rusty memories, 13 cardinals penned a private letter to Pope Francis during the 2015 synod expressing concern over the manipulative tone of the proceedings. The letter was fraternal, respectful, and entirely consistent with their job description as close advisers to the Holy Father. It was never meant to be public, but was leaked by unknown sources to discredit the cardinals and undermine their concerns.

But the cardinals were not alone. At the same Synod in 2015, the then Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, wrote a similar private letter, filial and respectful in tone – and I know this first hand, as he showed me the final text shortly before delivering it – with the same serious concerns. Tartaglia handed it personally to the Holy Father, who accepted it with irritation, dressed him roughly for writing it, and then walked away. Tartaglia, an affable and faithful man, returns upset and deeply shaken. In practice, the “dialogue” turned out to be brief.

The atmosphere of the 2018 synod was not significantly different. The question of “synodality” has arrived Ex nihilo on the agenda towards the end of the work; a surprise that had nothing to do with the theme of the synod on faith and young people.

Hagiographers of the current pontificate may find my comments here unfair, or worse. If so, their flackness does the Holy Father no service. The virtues of mutual fidelity and mutual obedience in a marriage – qualities I know well after 52 years with a wedding ring –never excluding candor and, if necessary, some sobering reviews. It is exactly the same in ecclesial life. Along with the Holy Father’s wise suggestion to read the Acts of the Apostles, we might also take a helpful look at Galatians 2:11-14. Love is not always sweet. Francis has repeatedly called for honesty, openness and dialogue in the Church. I admire his words and I hope he means them. This column is an example of what these words actually imply and mean. I pray every day for Pope Francis and also, albeit a little more reluctantly, for those around him. But love, true love, requires truth. It has little use for servility or unwarranted praise.

The synodal process in which the Church has engaged, if done well, honestly and without the “hermeneutics of rupture” that has plagued Catholic life since Vatican II, can lead to a renewal of the Christian faith . Given recent history, this will not be easy. But we urgently need this renewal.

May God grant the Holy Father the wisdom and skills to make this happen.

Francis X. Maier is Senior Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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Image by Alfredo Borba under Creative Commons license. Cropped image.

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