THE PEOPLE OF GOD WON
Why was the synod of the family and married life so successful? And why do I think it was successful in the first place? The synod process envisioned by the bishops attending the Second Vatican Council foresaw, as did Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, a church so large throughout the world and yet so close due to advances in communication that the one chosen to lead the Church would need guidance from time to time from those chosen to lead the local churches. Cultures often clash, languages often divide, custom often prevails in a polyglot mosaic which is the Church today. Peter needs to hear from the equivalent of today’s Paul, or today’s James, Andrew, Jude, etc. who lead the local churches. Except for the strictest of doctrines which form the core of who we are as Catholics and have been clearly defined as such, necessity has always been the mother of invention and the universal Church has often too slowly accommodated itself to the needs of the outliers.
Since the first Synod following the Council, these opportunities for collegiality have been manipulated, not by Popes particularly, except perhaps through disengagement, but by those charged with organizing them. I have already written that many of those serving closest to St. John Paul II believed they served him best by sheltering him from the truth which was often seen as shaking belief. “Please don’t upset the Holy Father” was a curial mantra for thirty years. So past Synods were carefully crafted to control the end-product, limit discussion in assembly, and, I am afraid and ashamed to say it, stifle genuine discussion among the leaders of the Churches.
Not this time, however! Pope Francis came to listen last year and this year. He wanted to hear the truth of the lived experience of the local churches which are his also by divine commission. He even said, don’t hold back for fear of upsetting me if you are yourself upset. He gave me, a local bishop of a mid-size U.S. diocese, the encouragement and opportunity to poll my people on their thoughts on the very hot-button questions which were at the core of the most animated and watched topics of the two synods. My people spoke, 9000 of you, in English and Spanish, and you confirmed what I already knew as a pastor how you felt about divorce and remarriage, marriage itself, co-habitation, lesbian and gays in the life of the Church and the Church in their lives. We were told not to publish the results but I had already promised as you were completing the surveys that I would share the results with you, long before the prohibition came. I did share the result and I have heard nothing from the Secretariat for the Synod either castigating me or complaining that I jumped the gun. I guarantee you I would have heard, quickly and strongly, from a less open process in the past.
So some of the discussion was messy. Most of us knew that would be the case before the Synod began but then life is often messy, the Church itself can be messy. Our Pope sat and listened to opposing viewpoints without flinching. He wanted to hear the hurts and hopes of the local churches as best as they could be expressed by their representatives. Most good pastors listen. I attempt to when it comes to my Presbyteral Council, my Diocesan Finance Council and my Diocesan Pastoral Council. They don’t hold back and I don’t hold their truthfulness and belief against them. Most of the time, they are right, as I have learned.
So the assembled Synod participants presented to the Pope their best thoughts on messy topics. Intelligently and fittingly, they left the sorting out, cleaning up, and eventually promulgating the fruits of their labor to him, to Peter. Wisely, they left ambiguity where some thought there needed to be certainty. He loved that! Did he not tell them a year ago that they have nothing to fear for Peter is listening, learning, and leading the Church? But he is not going it alone. Nor is he solely reliant upon those in the Curia though he knows the very talented ones who share his vision for the Church of the future. The synod’s work product is his now, and that is precisely what he wished for in calling this extraordinary approach to critical issues in the world today.
Pope Francis is merciful. We should expect that from the pope of mercy. As he admitted in his closing speech to the Synod, he heard some hurtful things coming from the minds and mouths of some, though, in “church-speak” not directly aimed personally at himself. He won’t punish, penalize, or push them out. Truth arises best from a diversity of opinion. Some people are scared of change. I am scared of not changing. Fifty more years of feel-good, manipulated and managed synods would definitely produce a Church more out-of-touch with reality. Even doctrine evolves, don’t let anyone tell you it hasn’t and doesn’t. The core remains intact more often than not but the application has changed over the centuries. So does language change, even if we regress in our public prayer. You won’t hear this Pope and I hope you never hear me speak of people living in second, non-sacramental marriages as “adulterers”. People of genuine mercy watch their language, always. Our language in dealing with people on the margins will change as a result of this Synod.
Finally, there is the near-reality that there will be no going back from the amazing progress made in the last two and a half years. Church leadership at all levels will continue to morph into more of a mirror image of Francis. Future popes will no longer come from the Roman Curia but rather, like Francis, will more likely come from farthest corners of the globe and how they lead will reflect in large part on their experience of living with Peter and under Peter. I noticed how quiet and reflective the synod members were this year chosen by the Pope from the Curia, save one and it is better having that one arguing inside the “tent” rather than outside it. The bishops of the world definitely won because Peter is leading us into a more discerning and reflective Church, free of fear, and interested mainly in being agents of mercy. The people of God won!