Sitting; listening intently, focussing on the speaker whilst coping with simultaneous translation in the ear. This is what I have observed Pope Francis doing these past three and a half days (except Wednesday morning when he held his General Audience in a packed St Peter’s Square).
I too, along with all the synod fathers, lay and fraternal guests have been seeking to do the same.
The mornings begin with Terce; my very poor, very old Latin is helping me a little here. The rhythm of the chanted psalms speaks even whilst understanding only a few words. Then we are into around an hour of 4 minute interventions before coffee and a further hour and a half after. Speakers are mainly highly disciplined with their 4 minutes; few use less; some cut short, a few overrun and if too long the microphones are simply cut. The Pope is formally in the chair with Cardinal Baldiserri as General Secretary overseeing proceedings. Each day has a managing chair; there are 3 rotating day by day. Each ‘congregation’ is considering a specific chapter or two of the Instrumentum Laboris (pre synod document which is a digest of all the response from around the world). Mainly speakers do stick to this. Apparently this is a new way of handling matters, and makes complete sense. It must help everyone developing a sense of opinion rather than anyone speaking to any part of the IL at any time.
As an outsider looking in there is something of a difference between the interventions from archbishops and cardinals representing their country and those who are permanently based in the Vatican. Far more stories are told from within countries; the pain of tough pastoral situations and of whole nations comes across. The realities of extreme poverty, war and violence, migration, domestic violence and being a minority under pressure are never far away. We are constantly brought back to the harsh realities ordinary Catholics ( and Christians more generally) face. There is an honesty about the reality of diverse family life in every nation.
There is passion in speeches. There are clear areas of disagreement, generally carefully stated but quite specifically so on occasions. There is deep wrestling going on with how the truth is maintained and upheld whilst offering mercy, compassion and care. A range of ideas are around, largely already cited in the IL. Most frequently noted are the questions of Christian formation, marriage preparation (from childhood onwards), the questions arising from cohabitation, divorce and same sex relationships. The questions of the annulment of marriages (and the procedures) and of the eucharist for some divorcees etc. are on very many minds. Quite where this synod will be, on any of these matters, by its end it is not possible to tell. (This I am told is also something new).
We break for lunch and siesta (or catching up with emails etc) and return for a further two and a half hours at 4.30. Another hour and a half of prepared interventions then one hour of shorter three minute interventions responding to matters raised during the day. Here the clearest debating takes place.
Another new aspect is the opening speeches from lay people who have a special engagement in aspects of marriage and family life. Most of these have been brilliant. Conversation with these participants is very stimulating too. It highlights for me the importance of lay voices not just sharing stories but offering guidance, insight and direction. I am unclear at present how deeply they are being listened to; next week will tell us more in this regard. But it has challenged me afresh on lay voices in my own church and diocese.
Finally I have to note Pope Francis relaxed style; he is in and around the Hall before sessions start; he mingles and meets people over coffee. I found myself walking down the stairs after yesterday evening just in front of him. He is Pope but he is of the people. His humility shines through. There may be much on which we differ but he inspires me to follow Jesus more closely and that is surely what Christian leadership is about.