Article for the Catholic Herald published 24/10/14
Nervous, excited and intrigued were the words I used about my anticipation at taking part in the extraordinary synod on the pastoral challenges of the family in Rome.
Well, the nerves went quickly on the first morning of the congregations. Five of my fellow fraternal delegates were also staying at Domus Internationalis Paulus VI. Our link man from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity made us welcome, and then so too did the delegates. The welcome only grew as the two weeks went on. Conversations broadened and deepened. Excellent hospitality was given in many ways. Even the nervousness at meeting Pope Francis quickly went, seeing him chatting and laughing before the sessions started, and joining everyone at coffee. So on day two I introduced myself and the ubiquitous photos were done. It is unbelievable how many photos were taken, and bought, during the fortnight.
The first week was spent listening to the “interventions”, all no more than four minutes long. Each session we systematically worked through the relatio ante disceptationem. Many areas of family life and the pressures faced were talked about from so many perspectives. The delegates listened very respectfully to one another. We heard many moving stories from every part of the globe of the struggles families are facing. Regular themes were poverty, migration and family breakdown. Bishops spoke with passion and compassion. So too did the lay people who began each session. They too came from across the globe and without exception spoke powerfully of their varied ministries to families facing different crises. I returned home with a deep admiration for the lay work being done, and that by many religious (who were strangely, and sadly, almost unrepresented). Now, it is sometimes being the outsider that helps one see things differently. As the week went by I could not help but notice the passion and compassion of the local bishops calling for more thoughtful and open pastoral care for all in need, whatever their marital status or sexual orientation. They were not asking to change the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, but they were seeking fresh ways of accompanying people in their need. The Rome-based cardinals seemed more concerned to ensure that the doctrine is maintained. There seemed a lack of awareness of what it is really like in the parishes in remote villages and mega-cities. It is, of course, not as simple as that, but it was an overall impression – one shared by all the fraternal delegates and, I have to say, accepted by all the members of my small group when I shared it with them.
Throughout, the Pope sat listening intently, clearly taking it all in. By the end of the week the whole document had been debated and it was time to move into small groups. On Monday of week two the relatio post disceptationem caused quite a stir when it was read, and more so when it was released. It was immediately clear that a significant number had some serious reservations about parts of it.
The small groups worked well: again deep, respectful listening, but more chance for some debate. Revised wordings were proposed, worked on and voted on. Mine was extremely well chaired by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and brilliantly summarised by Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town. It was a happy group in which all of us were included and every comment valued.
When all 10 groups gathered again and listened to the reports it was clear that the final document would be quite different from that on the Monday. The danger was that it would become more a defence of teaching than proposing ways of responding to the recognised pastoral needs and concerns. In fact, it retained more of Monday’s proposals than some had thought, even if in a more nuanced way.
Come Friday, the closing message was received extremely warmly and was accepted in a very lightly revised form on the Saturday morning, almost overwhelmingly. We then came to the final report, or relatio synodi, which we voted on on Saturday afternoon. The deep concentration as voting was done electronically paragraph by paragraph was impressive. Once over the first technical hitch, it went very smoothly. When a paragraph did not get its necessary two thirds agreement there was no reaction at all. Simply, the next paragraph was taken.
At the close, it was made clear that the Pope had already decided that the whole thing would be published with the voting numbers. He wanted everyone to know what had been rejected (though receiving a majority), as well as accepted. It points the way to where further debate will happen this coming year (and, no doubt, beyond).
But then the stand-out 15 minutes happened. The Pope addressed everyone on the various temptations that existed in Jesus’s day and that we all faced today. He was quietly making it clear that in some way everyone in the synod had given into one or other temptation: too much concern with getting it right; too much concern with letting anything go; too much concern with being served, rather than serving. It was masterly: one of those homilies that will read well anywhere, but for those who had been present over the previous two weeks it was deeply poignant.
I went nervous, excited and intrigued. I return with the same three emotions, but for different reasons. I am nervous for newfound friends as they return to their ministries and have to work on this further ahead of next year’s ordinary synod. I am excited because I heard so much good stuff happening around the world, serving families where they need to be served. The potential for sharing the Good News is as great as ever. I am intrigued as to what will emerge in a year’s time.
I am also excited and intrigued by how the whole experience has shaped my own discipleship. Only time will really tell. But of two things I am sure: I am deeply grateful to God and the Church for allowing me to be a part of this extraordinary event; and I am humbled by the wonderful example of Pope Francis, a quite remarkable man of God.