The Pope Preps the Synod

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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The Holy Father opened the Synod yesterday morning, but he has been giving hints for some time about how he views this event in the life of the Church, hints that came to fruition over the weekend.

On September 4, in one of his morning sermons at the chapel at St. Martha’s house, where he lives, Pope Francis said, “The privileged place for an encounter with Christ is our sins.” He turns our modern, neo-Pelagianism on its head: Grace is not a reward for our good efforts and deeds. A spotless life is not a place where Christ is fulfilled and encountered – because there are no spotless human lives, and to pretend that there are, this is the truest form of cheap grace. No, it is an the acknowledgment of ourselves as sinners that we encounter the saving Christ, not an abstract theological proposition, but Him who saves, who washes away our sins in His mercy.

On September 12, in another morning homily at the chapel at St. Martha’s House, the pope instructed the Church’s pastors that “we must not take pleasure in reprimanding others.” While I am sure his comments were of general import, one of the most disturbing aspects of arguments put forward to resist any change in the Church’s practice on its ministry to the family has been the way some of those so resisting seem to take delight in referring to second marriages as “adulterous.” The word “sadistic” would be too strong, but the delight taken by those who evidently believe the Church’s ministry consists of telling people with broken marriages “too bad” and “tough it out” has been evident. They had the answers and the people of God had the problems, and there was no point to listening to these problematic people.

On the 18th of September, in another morning homily, he returned to the theme that it is in our sins that we encounter Christ’s saving mercy. “This is not heresy!” the pope insisted. Commenting on the Gospel in which a sinful woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, the pope said, “The Pharisee in his own mind, judges both Jesus and the sinful woman, because if ‘he truly were a prophet he would know want kind of woman is touching him.’” The Holy Father noted that the Pharisee “is not a bad man,” he simply “cannot understand the woman's actions. He cannot understand the simple gesture: the simple gestures of the people. Perhaps this man had forgotten how to caress a baby, how to console a grandmother. In his theories, his thoughts, his life of government - because perhaps he was a councilor of the Pharisees - he had forgotten the simple gestures of life, the very first things that we all, as newborns, received from our parents.” So much of the advance commentary on the synod has wondered what a roomful of celibates could meaningfully say about the family, but here the pope turns the tables around and seems to be reminding the synod fathers of their need to learn from the simple gestures of the family. One of this pope’s great gifts is to take well known passages of Scripture and discern something that is so easy to miss, and that something is usually the heart of the matter.

Saturday evening, the Holy Father preached at a prayer vigil on the eve of the opening of the synod. It was one of his most poetic homilies to date. He began:

The evening falls on our assembly.

It is the hour in which one willingly returns home to the same meal, in the thick of affections, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters which warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which anticipates in the days of man the feast without end.

It is also the most weighty hour for he who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of broken dreams and plans: how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes was the wine of joy less plenty, therefore, the zest – and the wisdom – of life. For one another we make our prayer heard.

It is significant how – even in the individualistic culture which distorts and  renders connections fleeting – in each person born of a woman, there remains alive an essential need of stability, of an open door, of someone with whom to weave and to share the story of life, a history to which to belong.

The phrase “the good wine which anticipates in the days of man the feast without end” evidences the frame for the synod: The focus is not on the family per se but the family in the light of evangelization. This synod is no sociology seminar. His comments on loneliness and broken dreams and plans, ends with the hope “For one another we make our prayer heard,” there is solidarity with the broken-hearted in the name of Him who promised to be close to the broken-hearted. And, the final contrast between an individualistic culture and the “essential need” of stability, and an open door, and the need to belong to a history that is at once personal and eschatological. Without both the personal and the eschatological, we are mere beasts. We are children of God only in the light of the calling bestowed upon by the Master. This is wonderful stuff.

In speaking directly to the forthcoming synod, the pope says,

To search for that which today the Lord asks of His Church, we must lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the “scent” of the people today, so as to remain permeated with their joys and hopes, by their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility.

The possession of the “scent” is the basis of credibility for the synod fathers. Pastoral theology resumes its rightful place as the organizing principle of the Church’s life and praxis, bringing together the theological and canonical issues with which the synod will deal, not in an abstract way, but because the Lord is asking something of His Church “today.” The “how” of evangelization is rooted in the experience of the people of God, not only those who live in joy and hope but also those who live in sadness and distress. How different his way of speaking from some of the rigorist, canonical-speak we have heard from some others! And, of course, implied in this is the fact that there has been a want of credibility previously. Suffice it to say that Francis does not appear likely to throw Cardinal Kasper under the bus.

Finally there was this passage which stands out:

The secret lies in a gaze: and it is the third gift that we implore with our prayer. Because, if we truly intend to walk among contemporary challenges, the decisive condition is to maintain a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ – Lumen Gentium – to pause in contemplation and in adoration of His Face.

If we assume his way of thinking, of living and of relating, we will never tire of translating the Synodal work into guidelines and paths for the pastoral care of the person and of the family.

In fact, every time we return to the source of Christian experience, new paths and un-thought of possibilities open up. This is what the Gospel hints at: “Do whatever he tells you.”

The mention of “new paths and un-thought of possibilities” is, again, an indication that the pope has not convoked this synod in order to repeat old formulas. He seems to be channeling St. Pope John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council. (And several commentators noted that at Saturday evening’s prayer vigil, the moon was spectacular, recalling Good Pope John Discorso della Luna on the eve of that Council.) As John XXIII said in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia:

The salient point of this council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all.

For this a council was not necessary. But from the renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciences in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine which, however, should be studied and expounded through the methods of research and through the literary forms of modern thought. The substance of the ancient doctrine of the Deposit of Faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

Our still new pope, so resembling Good Pope John in the directness of his speech and the authenticity of his gestures, seems to be similarly reminding the synod fathers that the doctrines of the Church are not in question, but how they are applied is always in question because we human beings change, and our cultures change, and at different times, different aspects of our Christian faith take on greater or lesser significance. In our day, clearly, Pope Francis wishes to rekindle a sense of God’s mercy and a less act-centered understanding of our sinfulness. He wants a mature faith expression of our beliefs, not a ritualistic invocation of canon X and canon Y. And, he clearly wants the Council Fathers to be attentive to what the Holy Spirit is calling them to at this moment, not simply recalling the 16th century or even the 20th. This pope has been thinking, and thinking clearly, about this synod for some time, as the opening quotes above indicate. He may not wish to determine the direction of the debate, but he certainly does not want to curtail it either. And, importantly, his approach to the core doctrines of our faith, and his zeal to spread them throughout the Church, has the scent of freshness. In this pope, we see Catholicism as a new and dangerous thing.

By the time you read this, the Holy Father will have delivered his opening homily at Mass and we may also have the text of his opening address Monday morning. I am traveling and have a bunch of meetings Monday morning so I am writing this in advance. I hope to look at the homily and the address tomorrow. 

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