The Synod Opens

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 Extraordinary Synod on the Family at Mass in St. Peter’s on Sunday. We have grown accustomed to the Holy Father delivering powerful, precise, challenging homilies. These words could not be lost on the assembled synod fathers:

The temptation of greed is always present. We likewise find it in the great prophecy of Ezekiel on the shepherds (cf. Ch. 34), on which St Augustine remarked in his celebrated discourse which we recently took up in the Liturgy of the Hours. A greed of money and of power. And to sate this greed the evil shepherds load on the shoulders of the people insupportable burdens that they themselves don't lift a finger to move (Mt 23:4).

Surely, the “evil shepherds [who] load on the shoulders of the people insupportable burdens” was merely a historical, biblical reference. Ya think?

Later in his sermon the pope said:

We are all sinners, eh?, and for us too there can be the temptation of "seizing upon" the vineyard, born of the greed that's never lacking in us humans. The dream of God always clashes with the hypocrisy of some among his servants. We can "frustrate" the dream of God if we don't let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the wisdom that is apart from science, to work generously with true freedom and humble creativity. 

Brothers of the Synod, to care for and guard well the vineyard, we need for our hearts and minds to be guarded in Christ Jesus, from whom comes "peace from God which is beyond all understanding" (Phil 4:7). So will our thoughts and our projects be conformed to the dream of God: to form a holy people that belongs to him and produces the fruits of the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt 21:43).

Again, key phrases, incisive phrases, jump off the text. “Born of the greed that’s never lacking in us humans.” The “us” is the key word in that sentence. There was a time in living memory when a pope used “us” to refer to himself, the remnant of the royal “we” that pontiffs adopted and maintained, long after the Papal States had drifted into the mists of history. But, Pope Francis uses “us” in a radically different way, to identify himself with the mass of sinners which is humankind. The artful way he deployed the quote from the second reading, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, certainly had a bearing on the synod’s proceedings: God’s peace surpasses our human constructs and human arguments and it is that peace which the synod must guard. 

And, as if in response to the back and forth between some of the synod fathers, essays and interviews with dueling arguments, the pope could not be more blunt. The synod is not a disputation with a prize going to the most articulate. “The Synodal assemblies don't serve to discuss beautiful or original ideas, or to see who's the most intelligent one... They serve to care for and maintain better the Lord's vineyard, to cooperate in his dream, in his project of love for his people.” The problem with much of the discussion and debate in advance of the synod was simply this: It left little room for the Holy Spirit to enlighten the minds and enliven the hearts of the synod fathers.

I had been told to expect a barn burner from the Holy Father at the opening session of the synod Monday morning. I awoke in my hotel room in South Bend, threw in my contacts and rushed to the computer. I read his opening talk and it surely did not seem like a barn burner. Maybe it was my bad Italian. Later in the day, when I found an English translation, the opening talk still did not seem like a barn burner. He barely mentioned the topics the synod will address! Had I been wrongly tipped off?

Then it hit me. This talk was revolutionary precisely because the Holy Father did not speak to the issues the synod was to discuss: He did not pre-empt nor pre-judge the discussion. Instead, he spoke to how he wanted this body to function as a decision-making body appropriate to the Church (h/t to Vatican Insider for the translation):

“One general and basic condition is this: speak out. Nobody should say: 'I can't say this or they will think this of me...,' Francis said. “We must all say what you feel with parresia (unabashedly). After the last Consistory (February 2014), when the family issue was discussed, one cardinal wrote to me saying: it is a pity some cardinals didn’t have the courage to say certain things out of respect fort he Pope, believing that the Pope may have thought differently. This is not good; this is not what synodality is about, because we must say everything we feel we need to say, in the spirit of the Lord, without pusillanimity and without fear. At the same time, we must listen humbly and embrace with an open heart what our brothers tell us. These two attitudes express synodality. This is why I ask you please to adopt these two fraternal attitudes, in the name of the Lord: to “feel with parresia” and “listen humbly”. Do this calmly and peacefully, because the Synod always takes place cum Petro et sub Petro and the Pope’s presence is a guarantee for everyone and protects the faith. Dear brothers, let us all work together to ensure a solid spirit of synodality.”

This was, in its way, as revolutionary – and more so – than if he had simply said, “Let’s streamline the annulment process, eh?” The comments were reinforced by the images from the first day of the synod. The Holy Father got there early and he did not sit in the center chair immediately, but mingled with the other synod fathers, shaking hands, embracing old friends. Yes, the discussion – and the decisions – will and must be undertaken like everything in the Church cum Petro et sub Petro, but the emphasis was on the cum not on the sub. If that is not revolutionary, nothing is revolutionary.

The other clear emphasis from the pope’s many comments the last few days involves the rest of us who are not in the aula. He has asked us to pray for the synod, to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Let us not be wanting in this most important contribution. We should pray for our American delegates, Cardinal Wuerl, Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Kurtz. We should pray for all the synod fathers. We should pray for the married couples to whom they will listen. And, of course, we should pray for the Holy Father himself who just radiates the message he speaks so consistently, only a blind or very obstinate man would not take heart and hope at the sight.


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