Vatican: Synod will be 'original and innovative,' but with limited public information

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Days before the opening of a global meeting of bishops to address family life -- an event that could be the signal moment of Pope Francis' papacy -- the Vatican stressed the "original and innovative" nature of the meeting but faced tough questions about the pervasive opacity surrounding the event.

Briefing reporters Friday, the prelate who has mainly organized the meeting said it is being convened "to deal with a particularly urgent topic, with adequate direction to this moment, for the good of all the church."

"Pope Francis has indicated with three verbs -- 'walk,' 'build,' and 'confess' -- a line of pastoral action ... that has as its purpose to help the bishops to walk ... in a church always more open and missionary for the ways of the world," said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the Vatican's office for the Synod of Bishops.

Yet, speaking alongside Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, Baldisseri said information about the upcoming Oct. 5-19 meeting would be limited, with no release of the bishops' texts or summaries of those texts, or even the names of those who are speaking.

Those limits led to several frank questions from reporters about how people will know what is going on. In one example, Catholic News Service reporter Cindy Wooden asked: "If there is to be honesty in this process, [the limiting of information] is the opposite, no?"

Baldisseri replied that he wanted to ensure freedom of discussion among the bishops and that many may be speaking off the cuff and without texts.

"This may not be something they wrote 15 days ago, but at the moment they say it," he said.

Instead of providing texts or summaries of the discussions during the synod, the Vatican will host daily briefings with Lombardi, who will be present during the synod meetings and is expected to brief reporters in Italian on general themes discussed each day. He will be assisted by three priests and one woman who will summarize his remarks in English, Spanish, French, and German.

Lombardi said Friday he would strive in his briefings to "underline the interventions that have happened in the morning" and to give "an effective feeling of what has happened in the room in the diverse languages with the diverse fathers."

During his remarks, Baldisseri mostly reviewed the synod process, giving an overview of how the discussions over the next days might unfold.

"By now, it has emerged that the will of the pope is to undertake an innovative and original synodal path," he said.

Baldisseri said the preparation has included "the voice of all the People of God: bishops, priests, deacons, persons of consecrated life and faithful laity," referring to a questionnaire sent out by his offices to dioceses around the world in preparation for the event.

"We are all aware that fraternal communion grows in freedom, for this enriches the debate and they can identify the pastoral choices most adapted to today's context," he said. "In fact, it is important to express clearly and with courage."

Pressed during the briefing about whether the bishops would address the question of giving Communion to divorced and remarried people who have not gotten or cannot get annulments, Baldisseri said: "I can't say what the conclusion will be."

"The conclusion comes at the end of the synod," he said.

Baldisseri also said Francis would be present "all the time" during the synod and "is free to intervene when there is an opportunity."

"The pope wants everybody to have a say in this conversation on the family," the cardinal said. "This is something truly new."

After the synod's opening Sunday, the bishops' work will start Monday morning with opening addresses from the prelates leading the event.

Monday afternoon through Thursday evening, the bishops will then open each of their meetings with an announcement of the theme for that session, followed by an intervention by a married couple on the theme.

The married couple, Baldisseri said Friday, "will offer to the synod fathers their testimony of family life, contributing to make known and enrich the comparison on pastoral action."

The bishops will then start their work for the session. Discussions begin Monday afternoon on the theme of "God's design on marriage and family." They will continue Tuesday morning on the theme of "The Gospel of the family and natural law," with each morning and afternoon of the following days covering separate themes.

After one week of their meetings, the bishops are to create a draft of a working document for the synod that will then be worked on during the second week of meetings to result in a final document for the synod, to be delivered to the pope.

The synod will close Oct. 19 with another Mass celebrated by the pope, where he will beatify his predecessor Paul VI.

The beatification of Paul, Baldisseri said, "constitutes an important sign of collegiality because this great pontiff of the 20th century not only guided the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, but also instituted the Synod of Bishops."

Like many other questions, what publication, if any, there will be of the final synod document is unknown. Baldisseri said it would likely be published at "an opportune time."

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

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