Pope Francis has called on the hundreds of prelates gathered for his second worldwide meeting of Catholic bishops on family issues to remain open in their deliberations to the call of the Holy Spirit, repeating his frequent assertion that God is a God of surprises.
Yet, within minutes of the pope’s call, one of the cardinals leading the meeting seemed to say there could be no surprise in one of its most anticipated discussions -- indicating no foreseeable movement on the church’s stance towards couples who are civilly divorced and remarried.
The back-and-forth took place at the first open session of the Synod of Bishops, a highly anticipated meeting that has brought some 318 people to Rome -- mainly male prelates -- for discussions Oct. 4-25.
Francis opened the event Monday at one of the three-week gathering’s only public sessions by calling on the gathered prelates to work in their deliberations with “apostolic courage, evangelical humility, and trust-filled prayer.”
The Synod, the pope said, is not a parliament or a senate, but an “ecclesial expression” of a church “that walks together to read reality with eyes of faith and the heart of God.”
“It is the Church that questions itself on its fidelity to the deposit of the faith, so that it does not represent a museum to be looked at or only to be safeguarded, but a living spring from which the church drinks to quench thirst and illuminate the deposit of life,” the pontiff said of the Synod.
“The Synod is also a protected space where the Church goes through the action of the Holy Spirit,” said Francis.
“In the Synod, the Spirit speaks through the language of all people who allow themselves to be guided by God who always surprises, by God who reveals to the little ones that which he has hidden from the wise and intelligent,” he said.
“By God who created the law and the Sabbath for people and not vice versa, by God who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one missing sheep, by God who is always greater than our logic and our calculations,” he continued.
Calling on the prelates to exercise evangelical humility and trust-filled prayer, the pope said the first quality means “emptying oneself of one’s own convictions and prejudices in order to listen to our brother bishops and fill ourselves with God.”
Such humility, he said, “leads us not to point a finger in judgment of others, but to extend a hand to help them up again without ever feeling superior to them.”
Trust-filled prayer, Francis said, is “the action of the heart when it is open to God, when it keeps quiet our own moods to listen to the soft voice of God who speaks in silence.”
“Without listening to God, all of our words will be just words that don’t quench or satisfy,” the pontiff told the assembled gathering. “Without leaving ourselves to be guided by the Spirit all our decisions will be just decorations that instead of exalting the Gospel cover and hide it.”
Francis spoke to the Synod Monday in short remarks after a morning prayer service.
Following the pontiff, the meeting was addressed by two Cardinals: Lorenzo Baldisseri, the head of the Vatican’s office for the synod; and Péter Erdő, the archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest who is serving as the synod’s general relator.
Erdő, who is responsible for guiding the Synod’s discussions, dedicated his lengthy remarks to giving an overview of its working document, known as an Instrumentum Laboris.
The cardinal spent a page-and-a-half of his 13-page text addressing expected considerations of Catholics who have been divorced and remarried without first obtaining annulments.
Last year’s Synod is known to have discussed several proposals for changing the church’s pastoral practice towards such persons, who are currently prohibited from receiving Communion in the church. One option often referred to was a “penitential path” that might see such persons work with priests and confessors on an individual basis.
Erdő said a “merciful pastoral accompaniment is due” to such persons, but that it cannot leave in doubt “the truth of indissolubility of marriage, taught by Jesus Christ himself.”
“The mercy of God offers the sinner forgiveness, but requires conversion,” said the cardinal.
“It is not the failing of the first marriage but the living in a second relationship that impedes access to the Eucharist.”
Referencing Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, Erdő said “integration of divorced and remarried persons in the life of the ecclesial community can be realized in various ways, apart from admission to the Eucharist.”
“In the search for pastoral solutions for the difficulties of certain civilly divorced and remarried persons, it is presently held that the fidelity to the indissolubility of marriage cannot be joined to the practical recognizing of the goodness of concrete situations that stand opposed and are therefore incompatible,” said the cardinal.
“Indeed, between true and false, between good and evil, there is not a graduality,” he continued. “Even if some forms of living together bring in themselves certain positive aspects, this does not mean that they can be presented as good things.”
Erdő said however that there should be a distinguishing of the “objective truth of the moral good and the subjective responsibility of the individual person."
The cardinal also spoke of the church’s ministry to gay and lesbian persons, addressing the topic of persons with “homosexual tendencies.”
“It is reiterated that every persons should be respected in their dignity, independent of their sexual tendency,” he said. “It is desirable that pastoral programs might set aside a particular attention to the families in which persons with homosexual tendencies live.”
The Synod of Bishops is to continue its deliberations in open session the rest of Monday and through Tuesday morning, before breaking into small discussion groups by language. At the moment, no other sessions of the gathering, other than Monday morning’s, are expected to be made public.
Each of the 13 small groups -- broken up by language into English, French, Italian, Spanish/Portuguese, and German circles -- are expected to release notes of their discussions towards the end of the week. The Vatican is also hosting daily briefings on the meeting each afternoon in Rome.
At Monday’s briefing, three of the prelates taking part in the Synod’s discussions widely sought to downplay the possibility of changes in church doctrine occurring through its deliberations.
French Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, a delegate president of the Synod, said bluntly during the briefing that if someone had come to Rome looking “for a spectacular change in the Church's doctrine you will be disappointed."
Responding to a question from NCR about whether his address Monday morning meant the Synod bishops were closed to the possibility of offering some sort of “penitential path” for divorced and remarried couples, Erdő said many bishops had taken the time between the 2014 and 2015 synods to study practices by Eastern Orthodox churches on the matter.
The period between the synods, the cardinal said, “was a time of deepening” of thought on the matter.
A total of 279 male priests and prelates have been appointed by Francis as voting members of the synod, mostly after being elected by the various bishops’ conferences around the world. Eight members are coming from the U.S., with four elected by the U.S. bishops’ conference and four personally appointed by the pope.
There will also be a number of auditors taking part in the discussions, who are allowed to attend and participate in the discussions but not to vote on any final document or issues. Among those auditors are 17 individuals and 17 married couples. Thirteen of the individual auditors are women, including three religious sisters.
Baldisseri, the head of the Vatican synod office, said during his remarks at Monday’s session that the presence of the small group of women in the sessions helps the bishops look at family with the "tender, attentive, and compassionate" way of women.