@notWWJDjswgc: The Biggest Takeaway from Vatican's Extraordinary Synod on the Family that Everyone Seems to have Missed

Over a year ago, much hyped, secretly loathed by some and publicly lauded by many Pope Francis called for an “Extraordinary Synod” – only the third since the establishment of the modern synod half a century ago – in order “to deal with matters which require a speedy solution and which demand immediate attention for the good of the entire Church.”


Wait a minute.


Let’s read the opening of that paragraph again:

Over a year ago called for an Extraordinary Synod… to deal with matters that require immediate attention and speedy solution.


With that opening juxtaposition – quoting the US Conference of Bishops’ synopsis of what Canon Law says makes a synod “Extraordinary” – we should realize that we’re not reporting on an institution with common conceptions of time. However, there is no government standing that can boast 2,000 years of history and a credible view to the eternal, and so perhaps the Catholic Church can be forgiven if it sees a year of anticipation as immediate, and a planned subsequent year of reflective deliberation as speedy.


But in an era when the (ongoing) story of hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children flooding our borders to escape the violence endemic to a drug trade fueled by our nation’s unprecedented demand for such damaging, illicit fare disappears from the headlines in a couple of weeks, how are we to expect modern media to handle a two year long news gathering horizon?


(And don’t think the parallel drawn in the preceding paragraph was a total non sequitur; remember, this synod was about family, with a further focus – often overlooked by the press – on the welfare of children, who are unfortunately all too apparent in the scenario above: as the migrants, as the perpetrators of violence against them, and, much closer to home, as the American users of illegal drugs that inadvertently foster that situation. Therefore, the substantive relationship between these two stories may be elliptical, but it is strong – something the oft labeled out of touch Catholic bishops are much more aware of than a perusal of their coverage in the popular press would suggest. File it away, but think of this paragraph again when you come to this blog post’s conclusion).


So how did the press cover the “Vatican’s Wild and Crazy Synod on the Family” (to quote one headline from David Gibson of the Religion News Service)?


Well, here’s a single paragraph synopsis composed just by stringing the sequential October 5th to October 20th headlines of one major national news outlet:

Vatican synod tests the Pope’s vision of a more merciful church: in “season of mercy”, will Vatican rethink communion for divorcees? Vatican report [also] expresses more tolerance for gays, unmarried couples – American Catholics have mixed response. Vatican bishops [subsequently] scrap opening to gays, divorced members, [and] fail to agree on same-sex unions – Catholic synod highlights divisions, sets stage for future battles.


Hmm. A divided church, an embattled pope, tolerance and mercy in retreat: not a flattering picture.


But is that the real story?


At the synod’s conclusion, Pope Francis thanked the press for its hard work – not common praise from prior popes – and, ostensibly, also for the press’ hand in helping him make the synod perhaps the most transparent proceeding of any papacy.  As Francis’ fellow Jesuit, Rev. James Martin SJ, wrote for America: The National Catholic Review: “And all this is good … dialogue [is] now a part of the church, at the very highest levels.”


Institutions – and institutional leaders – don’t usually like airing their divisions; is there something we’re missing here?


According to another of Francis’ fellow Jesuits writing in the Huffington Post, yes; he asserts that it’s likely we’ve missed the entire point: “if you’re overly energized by the synod, if this is for you an ecclesial soap-opera, or if you have used the word ‘revolution’ in the context of describing this whole process, please, I beg you, relax. You likely haven’t really understood.”


Indeed, without disputing the facts behind the headlines above, Francis seems to have drawn from those facts an entirely different, more peaceable conclusion:

“I can happily say that – with a spirit of collegiality and of synodality – we have truly lived the experience of “Synod,” a path of solidarity, a “journey together.”


What is it that Pope Francis sees from that 2,000-year perspective looking toward the eternal that enables him to say this, and that we miss amidst the immediacy of the headlines and their need to speedily reduce dialogue to conflict?


Well, I don’t know – if I did, I’d probably be somewhere other than writing this blog right now – but if I were to hazard a guess, it can probably be found in one of the few facets of the synod that were not reported on: the substantive portion of the Pope’s closing address. In fact, in all my reading, only Father Martin paraphrased it in his article for America, and Sylvia Poggioli vaguely alluded to it in her reporting for National Public Radio, but most other popular news sources ignored it entirely. Here is the meat, the flesh on the bones of Pope Francis’ concluding statements, which engendered unanimous and sustained applause – a standing ovation – from all of the allegedly divided bishops:

And since it [the synod] is a journey of human beings, with the consolations there were also moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations, of which a few possibilities could be mentioned:

  • One, a temptation to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word, (the letter) and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises, (the spirit); within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve. From the time of Christ, it is the temptation of the zealous, of the scrupulous, of the solicitous and of the so-called – today – “traditionalists” and also of the intellectuals.
  • The temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the “do-gooders,” of the fearful, and also of the so-called “progressives and liberals.”
  • The temptation to transform stones into bread to break the long, heavy, and painful fast (cf. Lk 4:1-4); and also to transform the bread into a stone and cast it against the sinners, the weak, and the sick (cf Jn 8:7), that is, to transform it into unbearable burdens (Lk 11:46).
  • The temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.
  • The temptation to neglect the “depositum fidei” [the deposit of faith], not thinking of themselves as guardians but as owners or masters [of it]; or, on the other hand, the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing! They call them “byzantinisms,” I think, these things…

Dear brothers and sisters, the temptations must not frighten or disconcert us, or even discourage us, because no disciple is greater than his master; so if Jesus Himself was tempted – and even called Beelzebul (cf. Mt 12:24) – His disciples should not expect better treatment. Personally I would be very worried and saddened if it were not for these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage: and of parrhesia.


Hmm, an ancient and even archaic word – parrhesia – being used to capture what we mistakenly believe to be a uniquely modern concept: bold openness and freedom in speech.


Only a 2,000-year perspective with a view to the eternal could have come up with that one.


And in that word – and in his words outlining what he sees as the true temptations at this synod – it is clear that Pope Francis is not trying to dictate or even discern what the historical Jesus would do in all these debates – for that we can never know – but to test our own attitudes and actions to see if they are compatible with the one thing we do know: Jesus’ embrace of the cross.


What actions and attitudes can we embrace and still remain on the cross?


In that, as important as this synod and its subject may be – even to be called “Extraordinary” – we realize that even more important and extraordinary is Pope Francis’ showing us – and not just the Catholic, or even Christian, us, but all the watching world – what it means to be The Christ.


Francis’ success or failure at that is what will be remembered long after this synod has faded from the headlines – and our success or failure at that will have far more of an impact on families than anything a synod might put into writing.


Perhaps that is the point we missed, and that the oft criticized bishops got – and applauded.



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