The new discussion procedure based on the Instrumentum Laboris at the ongoing Synod of Bishops was a "huge step forward," Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, moderator of the German language group told Vatican Radio's Jesuit Fr. Bernd Hagenkord, who is attending the synod as an observer.
"At former Episcopal Synods, we would listen to statements read out one after the other and in no way connected for up to three weeks," Schönborn said. "Today we are proceeding according to the Instrumentum Laboris and spend a whole week discussing for each section. At least half the time is spent in the language groups, the so-called circuli minores, which means far more intensive participation, far greater concentration on each topic, a far more effective way of working and thus far greater satisfaction. The feeling of frustration that I experienced at former synods has -- as far as I could see -- completely disappeared this time."
The German language group includes German Cardinal Walter Kasper; German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith; German Cardinal Reinhard Marx; Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch; Pontifical Council of Promoting Christian Unity president; and Schönborn as moderator.
What impressed Schönborn most was that, for the first time, more and more bishops spoke about their own family experiences.
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"That was not customary up to now," he said. "You didn't talk about personal matters. You spoke objectively about church teaching, what should be done and what had to be done. But this time bishops spoke of their own family experiences -- experiences of migration, of their experiences of conflict, separation and divorce but also of the great faith of some family members. Talking about experiences and not theorizing made the exchange far more alive and vibrant."
The discussions in the German language group have been surprisingly calm in the first week, Schönborn said.
"When the media saw the names of the five cardinals in my group, they fully expected that the sparks would fly and that there would be violent arguments, but that was not the case," Schönborn said. This could be because the first week was concerned "with taking a look at the reality in which we live and there is certainly a lot of agreement on that."
More opposition could be expected in the second and third week as the delegates would be dealing with the church's teaching and its pastoral application, Schönborn said.
Schönborn said the two losers at the synod would be those who insisted on "all-or-nothing" and those who were in favor of "everything goes."
"Jesus compared himself to a doctor and doctors don't first of all ask 'Is the situation in your family in order?' but 'What is wrong?' And that was what pastors were called to do. They must first of all look and attend to people's needs and not begin by standing in judgement -- but of course they must never lose sight of what people dream of, namely a successful family," Schönborn said.
While Schönborn and German Cardinal Reinhard Marx have played down speculation that there was a danger of serious discord and even schism on the first day of the synod Oct. 3, six days later Schönborn warned against that very same danger.
Certain bishops were trying to form groups on the model of political parties, he warned. Splitting up into such groups would only "nourish the logic of separation," he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on Oct. 9.
Already during the first week, delegates' contributions to the debate on the situation of the family had "differed to such a great extent" that it was quite clear that the way forward would prove "painstakingly arduous," he said. "If all one's attention concentrates on a single aspect, there is the danger that one will not see other aspects."
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]