A synod of mercy
On the fifth day, last Friday, of the General Congregation of the Synod of the Family currently going on in the Vatican, the synod fathers divided themselves into 13 discussion groups by language with around 20 members each, one small group is in German, four in English, three in Spanish, two in Italian and three in French. The real work has now begun. The discussion groups will tackle three parts of the instrumentum laboris or working paper which built up on the final report of last October’s extraordinary synod, as well as the suggestions and opinions from other Church entities.
This year’s synod is divided into three parts, with each week dedicated to one of the three sections of the instrumentum laboris. The first week of the meeting was spent on discussing the document’s first section, titled “Listening to the challenges of the family.” Thereafter, discussion will focus on the second part, titled “Discernment of the family vocation,” before culminating with the third, “The mission of the family today.” In the end, a 10-member global commission nominated by Pope Francis will draft the final synod report.
Discussions and interventions are not open to the public but periodic briefings are given by designated official spokespersons who appraise the world of the goings on during the synod. The summary below comes from those briefings.
As the working paper was rolled out, it was reported that several bishops voiced their concern about the text being overly negative, unclear, and possibly inaccurate in its translations. One concerned synod participant observed that while various elements of the document were admirable, he found much of the text flawed or inadequate. Another from the English speaking group said that the document also fell short “especially in its theology, clarity, trust in the power of grace, its use of scripture and its tendency to see the world through overwhelmingly Western eyes.” Those from the English speaking circle also noted that the language was problematic, and expressed concern that “the English translation may not be faithful to the official Italian text.”
In the most recent briefing, Fr. Thomas Rosica, the English-language assistant to the Holy See press office, told journalists Oct. 10 that the question is not “whether we’re here to change doctrine, but to make sure pastoral care takes account of real, actual, concrete situations of what each person is doing.” He read aloud portions of the brief interventions given by unnamed participants of the general congregation. One synod father said: “mercy toward sinners is not a form of weakness nor an abandonment of Church teaching;” and yet another participant said that “unless we acknowledge openly people’s situations, we will not be able to address those situations clearly,” adding that “we have to learn to speak the truth in love in many situations, because in many situations people are completely powerless over what has befallen them.” One other emphasized that viewing the Church’s doctrine on marriage in the light of mercy requires both “attention to the pastoral dimension and the application of the Church’s teaching.”
Another spokesman, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankar Archeparchy of Trivandrum, responded to a question from a French journalist on whether an in-depth examination of doctrine would take place during the synod, by saying that the synod “in fact is destined to be a pastoral one.”
There was also some confusion about the final outcome of the synod: Would there be a document issued by the synod fathers, or are they there mainly to provide advice to Pope Francis who will issue an apostolic letter to the faithful? Our very own Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, as reported by National Catholic Reporter, defended the process of the synod, pointing out “a new method of discussion was being tried at this synod, and that ‘definitely it has caused … a bit of confusion.’” And our good cardinal, being what he is, an eternally hopeful person, he added, laughing: “But it’s good to be confused once in a while. If things are always clear, then we might not be in real life anymore.”
While other topics were brought up such as the indissolubility of marriage, the role of parents in educating their children, the importance of prayer and a missionary spirit within families, the importance of children, and a longer marriage preparation process, the common thread of the discussions centered around the topic of mercy which, while greatly needed, is something that cannot be separated from the truth, emphasizing the long-held Church belief that mercy is inextricably intertwined with doctrine.
Last week, as the first week of the synod closed, Pope Francis offered one of the congregation’s daily moments of prayer for peace, with mention of the Middle East. He appealed to the international community to put immediate interests aside, and find solutions for the escalating conflict in that region. Practicing the mercy that is the unifying thread of the summit, Pope Francis “said that “we are painfully struck and we follow with great concern what is happening in Syria, in Iraq, in Jerusalem and the West Bank,” where violence has escalated, claiming innocent lives and fueling “a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions.” He asked for prayers: “Let us unite, therefore, in an intense and confident prayer to the Lord, a prayer that intends to be an expression of solidarity at once with [our] brother Patriarchs and Bishops from those regions, who are present here, as well as with their priests and faithful, and to everyone who lives there.”