New process for Synod of Bishops aims at allowing more dialogue

Vatican City

The Vatican has outlined the process for this month’s highly anticipated global meeting of Catholic bishops on family life issues, saying they have put together a “new methodology” for the gathering in order to facilitate more dialogue and discussion between the prelates.

The Vatican is also saying that the process will be more transparent and open to media coverage than in the past. While individual texts of bishops’ remarks during the Oct. 4-25 event will not be made public, prelates will be made available for interviews and there will daily briefings on the discussions.

Outlining the new process at a press briefing Friday, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri explained that this year’s Synod of Bishops would essentially be composed of three mini-Synods.

Where in the past the Synod saw weeks of open discussion among the hundreds of bishops before they broke into small discussion groups separated by language, this year the Synod will be broken into three parts.

Each week will begin with open discussion on a theme and conclude with small group discussions on that theme. The bishops will repeat the cycle for the three weeks of the Synod.

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The small discussion groups will present written observations, to be made public, at the end of each week. At the end of the entire synod, the bishops will vote on a final document summarizing all their discussions, also to be made public.

The Synod, which is bringing some 318 people to Rome for its discussions this month, has attracted wide interest for its expected focus on a number of pressing issues facing families -- including some controversial matters like contraception, same-sex marriage, and divorce and remarriage.

Pope Francis has called two such meetings for 2014 and 2015. This year’s event has been given the theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the contemporary world.”

Baldisseri, who heads the Vatican’s office for the synod and has been leading the organization of the October event, said Friday they had decided not to make public the individual texts of bishops because “the synod must be a protected space" where bishops “may have the liberty to speak with parrhesia.”

But the cardinal said the texts of the 13 small discussion groups would be made public as they were released three times during the three weeks of the bishops’ meetings.

Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said Friday that the Vatican press office is also setting up an interview space for journalists to meet synod bishops on the sidelines of the meeting. Lombardi also said the press office would even pass notes to individual prelates on behalf of journalists seeking interviews.

Briefings are to be held each day during the synod’s discussions at 1:00 PM in Rome. Those briefings will often include members of the discussions, Lombardi and Baldisseri said.

Baldisseri also announced Friday the ten members of the drafting committee for the synod’s final document, expected to be voted on and given to Francis during the last day of the meeting.

Those members:

  • Cardinal Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and the Synod’s relator general;
  • Baldisseri himself;
  • Archbishop Bruno Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto, Italy;
  • Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, India;
  • Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington;
  • Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington, New Zealand;
  • Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina;
  • Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan, Bishop of Mouila, Gabon;
  • Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Bishop of Albano, Italy;
  • Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, head of the global Jesuit order.

The Synod will open Sunday during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica celebrated by Francis. Discussions will begin Monday morning, with an expected opening intervention by the pope.

Baldisseri said Friday it was not sure when the pontiff might speak during the event, but that it was up to Francis decide when to make comments.

The Synod bishops will have open discussion Monday and Tuesday morning before breaking into small groups that afternoon. Open discussions will continue on Friday before breaking again into small groups on Oct. 12.

Baldisseri said the 13 small groups would include at least five languages: German, English, Spanish, Italian, and French.

The cardinal said he did not know whether Francis would decide to write an apostolic exhortation based on the Synod’s final document, but said the Synod bishops would give the pope “a document, not a list of propositions.”

In an interesting announcement, Baldisseri also said the ten members of the drafting committee for the final document would also be charged with guarding against manipulation of the discussions by any group of individuals.

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.

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

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