"Some seem to think that decentralisation and unity are incompatible. Clearly Pope Francis doesn't. The paradox, I think, is that 'a healthy decentralisation' could in fact strengthen the real unity of the Church."
Yesterday was supposed to be a free day for all but 10 of the Synod members – those chosen by the Pope to draft the final document. They were hard at it all day and (I imagine) into the night. They have a colossal job.
But a few others – myself among them – were also tied up, trying to finish our assessment of the 520 proposed amendments to Part III of the working document. My little group resumed work at 9am, with Cardinal Lacunza saying he couldn’t stay beyond 10.30. So we agreed that we would finish by then. As it turned out, we finished by 10.25, with His Eminence making a very speedy exit for a big man. For me, what was left of the day was largely absorbed by talking to journalists – four of them. This was a bit tougher than it should’ve been because my voice had turned decidedly hoarse. But I managed to croak away.
One of them asked me about the change of language which I’ve mentioned more than once during the Synod. The example I gave was ecumenism at the Second Vatican Council. The Council described Christians of others Churches and communities no longer as “heretics” and “schismatics” but as “separated brethren”, which is why at this Synod the ecumenical representatives are called “fraternal delegates”. The change of language came from a deeper consideration of the meaning of shared baptism. If they too were baptised into Christ, then in a real sense they were our brothers and sisters. Yet the communion wasn’t perfect, which is why they were called “separated”. The change of language indicated a new understanding of the relationship; and this not only changed the mood but also opened new doors and created new possibilities – like having fraternal delegates at Synods. And no core doctrine of the Church was violated.
We see a different kind of change, I said to the journalist, in the very delicate area of suicide. In his three-minute speech at the Synod, Bishop Hurley told the touching story of a man who was deeply alienated from the Church because clergy had refused a Catholic funeral to his son who had taken his own life. This was in line with a long practice that didn’t even allow those who’d committed suicide to be buried in consecrated ground. Without any big magisterial statement or public fanfare, the pastoral practice of the Church has changed, quietly but decidedly. Those who commit suicide are now treated like any other baptised person, and rightly so. This is because we’ve come to a better and more compassionate understanding of the mystery of suicide and the factors that may lead to it. Again, no core doctrine of the Church has been violated.
The journalists also keep asking: “what will be the fruits of this Synod?” Even at this late stage, it’s hard to say exactly. Certainly there’ll be no great overturning of Church teaching in key areas. But there’s likely to be a new creativity and commitment in the way we accompany married couples and families in all their diversity and at every step of their journey. There will also be an attempt to forge a new language – less negative, more in touch with reality, more comprehensible. In part, this will mean a more biblical language.
But we’ll know more about the short-term and long-term fruits of the Synod when we see the final document, keeping in mind that the only bishop at the Synod who has a deliberative vote is the Bishop of Rome. It’s up to the Pope to decide what exactly the fruits of the Synod will be, though others will help him make these decisions as they’ve been doing throughout the Synod.
For me personally, one real fruit of the Synod has been a deeper and richer understanding of synodality in the life of the Church. This was why the Pope’s speech last Saturday morning had such an impact on me. It focused a lot of things that had been floating around in my mind through the Synod. For me, the timing was perfect. Half-thoughts and intuitions were crystalised, as the Pope spoke of synodality as a permanent feature of the life of the whole Church rather than an occasional feature of episcopal life – and went on to set episcopal collegiality and the Petrine ministry within this context. This struck me as a deep and simple articulation of the vision of the Church found in the teaching of Vatican II, and it made sense to me for the Pope to say that this is where God is leading the Church as we launch into the third millennium.
This morning I read an interview with Jesuit historian Fr John O’Malley who’s been a key figure in my own preparation for the Synod and whose words I have echoed from time to time through these days. Fr O’Malley pointed out in the interview that where Pope Francis is leading the Synod and the Church is not really a new place. It’s a return to something older, though in a new key and a new context. Yet because the tradition of synodality has been disrupted (largely through the 19th and early 20th century) what’s happening now seems new.
The task of the Pope in such a situation will be to oversee what he calls “a healthy decentralisation” (yes, not all decentralisation is unhealthy) and then to ensure that this doesn’t disrupt the unity of the Church. Some seem to think that decentralisation and unity are incompatible. Clearly Pope Francis doesn’t. The paradox, I think, is that “a healthy decentralisation” could in fact strengthen the real unity of the Church. If anything has been clear at this Synod it’s that the Church is both local and universal. The challenge is to get the balance right; and the Bishop of Rome is the key figure in that process, as he himself knows.
It’s also come clearer to me in the Synod that, unless we’re genuinely in touch with reality, we’ll continue to speak and act in ways that don’t communicate and therefore have no hope of evangelising anyone. In my years of teaching, I found myself at times trying to communicate something I thought was crucial to a group of students who were giving me the glazed look: I wasn’t getting through. In such a situation, you don’t just keep saying the same thing in the same way in the hope that if you say it often and loud enough the penny will drop. It never drops; the glazed look simply gives way to sleep. You have to find another angle – new words and images that do communicate. And if you can, then you see the penny drop as the students “get it”. That’s where we are now with evangelisation, especially in the area of marriage and the family. A very small minority might be “getting it”, but the vast majority are not. That’s why we need new ways of communicating what we think, rightly, is crucial.
That will demand that we stay in touch with the messy reality of people’s lives – the facts on the ground, however unsettling or uncomfortable we may find them. As the Pope has said in Evangelii Gaudium: “The reality is greater than the idea”. One of the things about this Synod is that it’s brought to light real differences among the bishops on important issues. It’s no good denying the differences; we simply have to accept the fact and move on from there, together. Anything else would be what the prophet calls “plastering over the cracks in the walls of Jerusalem”. That’s why the Synod process itself has been an exercise in getting in touch with reality – in order to have a genuine basis on which to move forward. And that, I think, has been one of the Synod’s fruits.
Another thing now clear is that the work of the Synod won’t be finished by Saturday evening once we’ve voted on the final document and listened (as I think we will) to the concluding words of the Pope, which I expect to be as important as his speech last Saturday. The journey will continue, as it must. Earlier in the Synod I was a bit anxious about this, but it no longer troubles me. Nor, I think, does it trouble a Pope who has said that “time is greater than space”. These three weeks have only been one (important) step forward on the ongoing synodal journey. It has equipped us better for all that lies ahead. The Pope and those around him will have to chart the next phases of the Abrahamic journey; but so too will the whole Church, if what the Pope said last Saturday is right. I said in the press conference last Monday that it’s come clearer to me through these days that we need to give serious thought to a National Synod in Australia, and this is something which I’ll return to when the Australian bishops meet in plenary session in late November.
This afternoon we return to the Synod Hall not only to complete the voting for the Post-Synod Council but also to receive (he says breathlessly) the draft of the final document. This will be our homework tonight, so that tomorrow we can bring to the Hall our proposed amendments to the draft. Having been involved in each step leading to the final draft, I’m intrigued to see what the Commission comes up with. I’m also acutely conscious of what they must be going through right now. However, my work is done, so I’m heading out to lunch with an old Roman friend. As Pope Francis likes to say, “Buon pranzo! Buon appetito!”