Michael Sean Winters last week wrote in-depth and scholarly pieces on the October Synod of Bishops on the family. Anybody interested in learning everything that can be known in preparation for the synod needs to read these blog posts. At this point, he has completed four balanced treatments of considerable length (part one; part two; part three; part four).
I want to simply focus on what seems to me to be a critical moment for the church. In my mind, what happens at this synod is likely to determine the future of the church for many decades to come. With inertia being such a powerful force and too many members of the hierarchy only too happy to see the church stand still, there is danger that the synod will be a fruitless effort and will fail to move the church forward in any perceptible way.
One bright spot is that the forces in favor of meaningful change are not standing still. The head of the bishops' conference in Italy and an ally of Pope Francis is making clear that the church needs to be more caring, understanding, and less punitive.
Bishop Nunzio Galantino addresses directly couples in "irregular matrimonial situations." At a national conference, he stated clearly, "The burden of exclusion from the sacraments is an unjustified price to pay, in addition to de facto discrimination."
Galantino has expressed other controversial views, as well. He has spoken, for example, of the need to welcome gays and the need to consider a change in mandatory celibacy for priests.
It is crunch time. Either the church will reach out to meet its people where they are, or it will remain entrenched in itself and in internal squabbles, as Pope Francis warned us in Evangelii Gaudium.
A couple of quotes from Pope Francis should suffice to make clear where he stands as the synod prepares to open: "A missionary heart ... never closes itself off, never retreats into its own security, never opts for rigidity and defensiveness."
"More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: 'Give them something to eat.' "
The entire Christian experience has been one of growth and change. Those who insist that nothing can be changed simply reflect a lack of understanding of the past, beginning with the New Testament. Each evangelist developed his own theology and presented the Jesus story in his own way, and we are the richer for that. Even the truth that Jesus was God and an understanding of what that meant only developed in the church over time.
Although it is true that no definitive answers will come out of the October session of the synod, it is still critically important. October will set the tone of whether the bishops are inclined to move forward or to stand still. It will take a supreme effort by Pope Francis and his allies to move this lumbering giant of the church. It will also take the work of the Holy Spirit.