Cardinal Nichols: Synod to be frank, but going 'gently and sensitively'

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster leaves a meeting of cardinals with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican in February. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster leaves a meeting of cardinals with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican in February. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Discussions inside the global meeting of Catholic bishops on issues of family life are going to be "open and frank" with a focus on the lived realities of people today, one of the cardinals attending the closed-door event said Saturday.

"In the end, what we're talking about always are people's lives," said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who is the archbishop of Westminster and is attending the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops as the president of the bishops' conference of England and Wales.

"We have to be dealing with these things sensitively, pastorally -- and giving ourselves the space to accompany individuals, real people, in their actual situation," he said.

Nichols, who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis last February, was speaking Saturday in an NCR interview on the eve of the Synod's opening. The synod, called by Francis last year, is the first of two global meetings called by the pope for 2014 and 2015.

Both meetings are to focus on the church's family pastoral practices and have raised expectations that some of those practices might change, particularly regarding how the church regards the divorced and remarried.

In his interview, the cardinal focused on the role of mercy in the church, saying mercy "is like the oxygen that we need to breathe."

"You don't get far, and you certainly don't get far up a hill, without a good supply of oxygen," he said.

Nichols also said the pope has set up the synods in a way that the bishops can be "clear about our teaching, but open and non-judgmental about people."

The cardinal addressed the recent public debates between cardinals on the possible issues of the synod -- seen in separate interviews and writings in recent days from cardinals like Walter Kasper, Raymond Burke, and George Pell -- saying those debates are appropriate.

"I think it's a proper contribution as long as the tones are right," he said. "And I don't think Pope Francis would expect us not to say what our preoccupations are. I think he would expect us to do that."

Nichols spoke to NCR in Rome at the Venerable English College, a seminary founded in 1579 for the formation of priests from England and Wales. Following is the full interview.

NCR: For you, what's different about this synod?

Nichols: Well, I don't know yet. We haven't started. I've been to synods in the past, so I'm kind of familiar with the routine. My impression is that the discussion might be more thematic and that would be helpful because in the past contributors have been able to speak about any aspect of the whole scope of the synod, but if we deal with these things thematically I think that would help day-by-day.

And I think Pope Francis has certainly set up some good expectations. What I remember is his homily at the canonization of the two popes, when he said this synod is under the patronage now of St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II. And of John XXIII he said he is the guido guidator, the guide who is always open to the Holy Spirit. So he's saying to us, "Be open."

And then he said there's John Paul II, who he described as the pope of the family, to whose teaching we have to be faithful. So he sets it up in a way that is asking us to be clear about our teaching, but open and non-judgmental about people. And I think that's the kind of tone that I would expect would infiltrate now through the synod.

I read something you had written that the pope was looking for a 'lived sense of mercy,' but at the same time that means a walk of forgiveness and contrition. What does that mean for Catholics culturally? In the U.S. we come from a very polarized situation, where some Catholics won't even talk to one another.

I would put it like this: That I think what this pope is telling us to develop is, if you like, a culture of mercy. Mercy, I would say, is like the oxygen that we need to breathe. Conversion and forgiveness, reconciliation, is the pathway that we have to walk. That's the action. But you don't get far, and you certainly don't get far up a hill, without a good supply of oxygen.

So mercy is the oxygen, mercy is the air we have to learn to breathe. What does that mean in practice? I think St. Ignatius had a principle that you always attribute to another person the best possible motives. And I think that's a practical expression of a mind that is formed first by compassion and mercy -- that you withdraw, you withhold the human desire to categorize and condemn.

And that you always approach a conversation, a dialogue, always wanting to give the benefits of the doubt, the best possible motive to the actions and words of the person with whom you're in dialogue.

When I was growing up as a boy we understood that in a way the most popular description of the church was that it was a church of sinners and that kind of gave space for people. You were always welcome in a Catholic church. And figures like the Curé d'Ars who would sit at the back of the church and constantly be aware of his own shortcomings and his need for the mercy of God.

When you start from those positions then I think your arms are more wide open.

Coming back to the synod, the pope and Cardinal Baldisseri have said it's a walkway, it's a synodal path.

I think that's the meaning of the word synod.

But obviously in the past few days we've seen a lot of focus on certain pastoral issues like the focus on the divorced and remarried. And we've seen that cardinals themselves have been very open about their positions -- Cardinal Burke has contributed to a book, as has Cardinal Pell. How do you see that as a cardinal? Is that helpful to you?

I think if the tones are right, yes. These are matters that really do have to be studied. And that people draw strong conclusions from their particular branch of study, whether it's a canonical branch or a historical branch, I think that's perfectly proper.

I think it's a proper contribution as long as the tones are right. And I don't think Pope Francis would expect us not to say what our preoccupations are. I think he would expect us to do that. But it has to be done with that openness that he attributes so rightly to John XXIII.

These issues like the church's response to those who have been divorced and who have entered second unions, it's a long-standing issue. It was prominent in the synod of 1980. I've been on ad limina visits, for example, hosted by Cardinal Ratzinger when he was in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; we've talked about these things.

We've shared a pain of the dilemma that we're facing -- which is on the one hand the clear mercy of God shown in Jesus and on the other hand his teaching about the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage. There's lots of things to really examine in depth and that is in some part what I'm looking forward to.

Do you expect the discussions inside the synod hall to be open and frank like that?

Yeah. Yeah, I do -- and that they're measured. Because in the end what we're talking about always are people's lives. And I think if we go back over and over again to the title of the synod, the title of the synod is "The pastoral care of the family."

Family is important and therefore, for me, children should be at the forefront. Pastoral care is important. And I like I think a phrase Pope Francis used recently that "pastoral care is the motherly work of the church." And therefore, a mother doesn't think of her children as a category. She doesn't think of a block of children. She sees each one by name, she sees each one and knows the differences between them. And, therefore, in pastoral care discernment is crucial.

And that's what we saw in 1982 -- those crucial paragraphs in Familiaris Consortio, that talk about the role of the priest who is the pastor needing to discern well between the different situations of people. And that's the tones that I expect.

I hope that we will not be talking about the divorced and remarried as a category. We have to be dealing with these things sensitively, pastorally -- and giving ourselves the space to accompany individuals, real people, in their actual situation.

Is that where you see the role of the married people who will give testimony?

Yes, it's true. And you know individual testimonies are very important and it will help to keep the synod rooted. Pope Francis, again, always says the real is more important than the space, than occupying territory. You don't occupy territory; you want to deal with the reality of people's lives as far as possible. And to have those witnesses, direct personal witnesses, are very important.

Priests spend their lives dealing with the reality of peoples' lives so it's not as if we're strangers to the reality of family life. We've all grown up in a family and priests constantly are trying to respond to the families that appear in front of them. So these are the aspects of the life of the church we want to deepen, strengthen, and reinvigorate.

Obviously, you're going to have discussions inside the synod hall. And there's going to have to be a point of finding consensus, of finding what you are going to put in the document, of what you're going to say. How do you think to work towards that on the hand, and then to balance the expectations of those when you come out of the synod hall and they're asking what happened?

A musical analogy for this synod is that it's just a first movement. And most concertos have at least three movements. Sometimes they are four. So this is just a first movement. And the second movement will be the period in between the two synods and second movements are often quite delicate and quiet. And that's where, I think, that really attentive listening has to go on.

The next synod, next October, is the third movement, which has often got the strongest musical themes in it. And then there will be a finale, which will be the work of Pope Francis. We should give ourselves time and appreciate the organic development that will take place and not think that in two weeks time something is all settled. No.  

But do you find something about the way Pope Francis is having this synod as being a new direction in terms of how the church discusses together, or how the church handles together?

Well, I think what is obviously very important about the synod is that it's theme touches everybody's life. There's nobody on this planet who isn't a member of a family. So it touches everybody's life and that is partly why it's of such interest and such sensitivity.

And secondly, I think, the pope is setting a tone and we have to respond to that. To my mind, it's a tone that on the one hand wants to be sure that we're not judgmental about people and yet on the other hand is also very clear about the issues that we face. Because he does both: He's very clear about the issues and he's very reserved about ever expressing judgment.

I think the parable in St. Matthew's Gospel, I think it's chapter 13, about the wheat and the tares, for me, is the key scripture meditation for this synod. That parable teaches us not to want to uproot what we might initially think of us as weeds. Not to do that. That's the Lord's job.

And St. Augustine has a wonderful commentary on that passage where he says, of course, "Within the fields of the church, the weeds can become wheat and the wheat can become weeds."

So, we go very gently and sensitively.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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