by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris
This Friday afternoon, most of the Synod Fathers got a "merciful" break in the action even as the 10-member Commission chosen by Pope Francis to write the Final Document carried on full steam ahead.
For quite some time now, Pope Francis has made known his desire to reform the Roman Curia. On Thursday, October 22, he took another step in this direction by bringing under one umbrella the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the Pontifical Council for the Laity. It is worth mentioning that all three dicasteries (as Vatican departments are known) are post-Vatican II entities, which many have called to be subsumed into one body. It is likely that a few other dicasteries will experience the same "merger" phenomenon, so as to save money and personnel and to function with less duplication.
On Friday morning, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod, made known the final tally of the "modi" or proposals that came out of the more than half a dozen "circuli minores" (small language groups). The number of "modi" (1,555) is quite impressive and therefore makes all the more impressive the work of the Commission in evaluating and integrating them into the original working document known as the "Instrumentum Laboris."
Also on Friday, the Synod Fathers made 51 interventions by which they communicated their own proposed amendments to the first draft of the "Final Document" being prepared by the Commission. The Synod Fathers were pretty much unanimous not in terms of the content of their proposals (which were not made public), but as to their positive reaction concerning the first draft of the "Final Document." The bishops remarked that with respect to the "Instrumentum Laboris," the first draft is much better organized (less fragmented!) and articulated.
This is a good sign as the Commission is set to present a "Final Document" (Relatio Synodi) tomorrow, whose every paragraph will have been taken into full consideration and voted on, up or down, by each Synod Father. Cardinal Péter Erdö, General Relator of the Synod, will read the Commission's official Italian text to the entire Synod assembly. Fr. Lombardi noted that there will be simultaneous translations in several languages which will be carried out by translators who, though not necessarily trained theologians or experts in theological nuance, have a great deal of experience in dealing with synodal as well as other types of ecclesiastical documents.
There were three "presenters" at today's (penultimate!) Vatican Press "Briefing" on the Synod: Cardinal Peter Turkson (President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace); Cardinal Gérard LaCroix (Archbishop of Québec, Canada); and Bishop Lucas Van Looy, S.D.B. (Ghent, Belgium). One of the qualities of these bishops that stood out was their remarkable facility to engage the Press Corps as fellow polyglots. In terms of the substance of their presentations, one immediately could sense how upbeat and positive they were about their personal synodal experiences and likewise convinced that the work of the Synod would bear much fruit for both the universal and local Churches.
Bishop Looy went so far as to state that he thinks that the Synod may mark "the beginning of a New Church." What he precisely meant by that expression is unclear. Cardinal Turkson was more measured in his appraisal of the Synod, stating that it was "emblematic of the Church" in our times. Of the three, Cardinal Turkson had the most experience dealing with Synods, having attended five of them.
Cardinal LaCroix began the press conference with a brief reflection on how, as a result of participating in the present Synod, he came to a deeper understanding of the "catholicity" or "universality" of the Church not only by conversing with his fellow-bishops from all over the world but also by praying with them on a regular basis. All in all, LaCroix said, the Synod far surpassed his initial hopes and expectations. For Cardinal LaCroix, the Synod is not commensurate with its Final Document but transcends the written text to encompass the entire Synod experience with all its complexities. He noted how Pope Francis is well aware of the commonalities and differences of opinion that the Synod Fathers express and represent. Like the Pope, LaCroix considers this "diversity in unity" and "unity in diversity" as entirely normal, indeed a particularly wonderful expression of the Catholic Church's uniqueness/unicity.
Whatever the conflicts there may have been among the Synod Fathers, one thing clearly emerged as far Cardinal LaCroix was concerned, namely, the beauty of God's plan for marriage between one man and one woman. This is the "Good News" that the bishops are now called to share with their local churches.
Bishop Looy related how, when he left Belgium to come to Rome for the Synod he brought with him his ever-present pastoral concern for migrant and refugee families, now pouring through the flood gates of countries like Belgium and Italy due to the ongoing crisis caused by the incursions of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, the Synod experience helped Bishop Looy reflect on the story of the woman caught in adultery and the parable of the prodigal son as icons of the Gospel of Mercy and of the Synod of the Bishops on the Family. He also remarked about the importance of the Christian family as an instrument of evangelization tasked with helping young people, especially young couples, draw closer to God and the Church and remain faithful to the Christian ideals of marital fidelity and constancy in an increasingly secularized society. Very insightful were Bishop Looy's comments about the importance of educating individual consciences so that, in a certain sense, they will experience a "catechumenate of the conscience," assisting them in their full human and faith formation.
Cardinal Turkson capped off the press conference with a synthetic catechesis on marriage as a universal, sacred human institution which, for the Church, is likewise a solemn "sacrament" meant only for those who are already true "disciples of Christ." He explained that those who seek to marry in the Church should do so with the full realization of what the Sacrament of Marriage is all about from the Church's perspective and, further, acknowledge that they cannot possibly live out the marriage covenant relying on their own strength but must also trust in "the grace of God" and be fortified by "the [supernatural] life that comes from the presence of the Lord."
Nota Bene: The controversial topic of homosexuality did come up in the formal presentations of the press briefing. However, a French reporter, speaking in Italian, asked Cardinal Turkson a two-fold question: Will a [special] commission be formed to deal with the question of homosexuality in relation to the Church? Will another Synod be convoked to deal with this problem? Cardinal Turkson responded that he did not envision any Synod, let alone the present one, to be entirely focused on sexual matters. He confirmed that the topic of homosexuality was addressed at the Synod but did not elaborate in this regard.
Addressing the idea of homosexuality as a "taboo" topic, he recounted how when he was studying at the Catholic University of America in the 1970s, psychology books tended to refer to homosexuality as abnormal, something they no longer do. The Cardinal passed a tongue-in-cheek remark, saying that if we think homosexuality is such a "taboo" subject in Africa, we should go visit Russia and the Islamic countries of the Middle East! Therefore, Turkson concluded, it can be reasonably hoped that the nations of the African continent will eventually learn not to consider homosexuality as "taboo" and could move beyond the notion of "criminalizing" homosexual activity. To this, Cardinal LaCroix added that the Church is charged with bringing the "Gospel of Mercy" to help homosexual persons grow as societal persons and members of the Church.