Time for bishops to imitate Francis on consulting priests and laity

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

by Thomas Reese

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The most remarkable event at the synod on the family occurred at the very beginning, when Pope Francis encouraged bishops to speak frankly, even if they disagreed with him. Now that the synod process has moved to local bishops' conferences and dioceses, will the bishops imitate Francis and encourage open discussion in their dioceses?

Imagine a bishop getting up in front of his priests' council or his diocesan pastoral council and using the words of Pope Francis:

I give you my cordial welcome to this meeting and my heartfelt thanks for your solicitous and qualified presence and assistance. ... I also thank you, dear ... priests, men and women religious, laymen and laywomen for your presence and for your participation, which enriches the works and the spirit of collegiality and synodality for the good of the church and of families! 

Then, slightly modifying the pope's words, the bishop could continue:

You bring the voice of the parishes, gathered at the level of our local diocese. You will carry this voice in synodality. It is a great responsibility: to bring the realities and the problems of the parishes, to help them walk on that path that is the Gospel of the family. 

A basic general condition is this: to speak clearly. No one must say: "This can't be said; he will think of me this way or that ... " You have to say everything that you feel with parrhesia, a Greek word meaning to speak candidly or boldly, and without fear.

After the last consistory (in February), in which there was talk of the family, a cardinal wrote to the pope saying: Too bad that some cardinals didn't have the courage to say some things out of respect for the pope's feelings, thinking, perhaps, that the pope thought something different. "This is not good," said the pope. "This is not synodality."

In imitation of the Holy Father, I say to you, it is necessary to say everything that in the Lord one feels should be said, without human respect, without fear. And, at the same time, one must listen with humility and receive with an open heart what the brothers and sisters say. Synodality will be exercised with these two attitudes.

Therefore, I ask you, please, for these attitudes of brothers and sisters in the Lord: to speak with parrhesia and to listen with humility.

Pope Francis was able to say these words to the bishops gathered in Rome because he trusted in the Spirit to guide the church through a consultative process. Do the bishops have the same faith and courage? Can they sit quietly and attentively listen to the voices of their priests and people?

The synodal process is not over. It now moves from Rome to the local level as the church continues discussing issues facing the family in preparation for the October 2015 synod.

The synod that ended on Oct. 19 prepared a relatio, or working paper, for discussion throughout the church, which, sadly, has not yet been translated. It is not the final word, but a document meant to stimulate discussion in local churches.

This document acknowledges by listing the votes that the bishop did not reach consensus on some topics, like the treatment of gays and the readmission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. The bishops need to hear what their priests and people think about these issues.

The bishops also need to hear about issues that are not treated in the working paper. Certainly, some bishops from developing countries thought the relatio focused on First World problems while giving theirs short shrift. Was there enough attention given to the social and economic factors that undermine family life?

Before discussing the relatio, the bishops, priests, and people should also read the pope's final address to the synod. Here, he talks about what he saw and heard at the synod and what we might expect as the synodal process continues on the local level.

Francis experienced the synod as a journey. "Like every journey there were moments of running fast," he said. There were "moments of fatigue, as if wanting to say 'enough' " and "other moments of enthusiasm and ardour."

There were moments of consolation while listening to the testimonies of families sharing "the beauty and the joy of their married life." But there were also moments of desolation and temptation.

Chief among the temptations was "a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit)," he said. One is tempted to close oneself "within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve." He noted that "from the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealots, of the scrupulous, of the earnest, and of the so-called -- today -- 'traditionalists' and also of the intellectuals."

But he also saw the temptation of "the 'do-gooders,' of the fearful, and also of the so-called 'progressives and liberals.' " Here the temptation is "to a destructive tendency to goodness [it. buonismo], that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots."

What does he mean by binding wounds without first treating them? This would be like the doctor who bandages a battered woman without being concerned about how she got beat up. It would also be the priest who says, "Sure, you can get married again," without any examination of what caused the first breakup and divorce. Both the doctor and the priest never listened to the person's story or helped make sure the wound does not happen again.

When we gather on the parish or diocesan level, we will each have to examine our conscience and acknowledge the temptations to which we are most susceptible. And yet, Pope Francis says that "the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us." In fact, "personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace."

Instead, he heard "with joy and appreciation -- speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parrhesia."

He felt "that what was set before our eyes was the good of the church, of families, and the 'supreme law,' the 'good of souls' (cf. Can. 1752)." And this was done "without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life (cf. Cann. 1055, 1056; and Gaudium et Spes, 48)."

Can the experience of the synod on the family in Rome be repeated in local dioceses or even in parishes? That is the question that will be asked during the year leading up to the next synod. A lot will depend on whether bishops and clergy have the faith and courage to imitate Francis.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is treesesj@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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