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    The audible version of my new book, The Vatican Prophecies, is available in a 9-CD format from Blackstone. Here's a sample: 



  • Final synod document leaves door open for pastoral changes

    I suppose it’s inevitable that the end of the Synod on the Family brings a “who won?” moment, at least for reporters.

    The better question is probably “what really happened?” However one assesses the outcome, it helps to remember the objectives of this assembly and its limitations.

    -- First of all, Pope Francis wanted a brutally honest debate, and he got that in spades. True, at times this led to open disagreement and even some disagreeableness among the participants (duly noted by the pope in his stunning final speech), but that’s better than the non-engagement of previous synods.

    It’s not necessarily a bad thing for the pope – and for the Catholic faithful and the outside world – to see the fault lines evident in these discussions.

    -- It was also clear that the bishops agree on many fundamentals, including what Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn called “the great ‘yes’ to the family,” despite all the changes and challenges of the modern age. As Schonborn put it, the family’s nucleus remains a man and a woman in a faithful relationship that is open to life, but with recognition that modern families also assume other forms.

    -- The synod was not designed to resolve definitively the many pastoral uncertainties regarding the family. So it’s not surprising that it ended with more ambiguity than answers on certain controversial matters, including the emblematic issue of whether to allow Communion for the divorced and remarried. It must be said that the proposal by Cardinal Walter Kasper for a “penitential path” back to the sacraments for the divorced and remarried found no traction at this synod.

    However, the final report did leave the door open for a case-by-case approach to that question. It did so by adopting a suggestion made by German bishops, which cited Pope John Paul II’s 1981 document on marriage and the family, Familiaris Consortio, on the need for pastors to pay special attention to individual situations:

    Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

    Cardinal Schonborn referred to this point today and said, “This is not about black and white, or a simple yes or no, it’s about discerning.” The relevant paragraph of the synod document, which obtained the necessary 2/3 majority by the barest of margins, supported that possibility of individual accompaniment, which could look at culpability on a case-by-case basis, and theoretically open the way to Communion for some.

    -- The synod’s final document was distinctly more positive in tone and language than similar documents of previous eras. For example, on the particular point of couples living together outside of marriage, the document preserved the more open approach that was introduced at last year’s assembly. It said there were many reasons for cohabitation and for civil marriage, which should not simply be read as a rejection of sacramental marriage; instead, the church should look for the good elements in these relationships and build on them.

    -- The final document produced little new on the much-debated topics of birth control, homosexuality and sexuality in marriage. That will disappoint those who were hoping for a fresher look at these issues.

    -- There were signs that bishops are beginning to consider how the “healthy decentralization” envisioned by Pope Francis might function. That doesn’t mean simply throwing the hot-button issues to bishops’ conferences, which no one was proposing. But the synod heard a suggestion, for example, for ritual adaptation to accommodate the stages of traditional African marriage – with the African bishops guiding the discussion. After many years of Rome emphasizing the limits of inculturation, this seems to be a time for new exploration of diversity in the church. Pope Francis, in fact, highlighted this possibility in his final synod speech.

    -- This synod was more about process and less about results. Even the final document, with all its amendments and vote tallying, seemed less an ending than a phase in a much longer path – one that began with a global consultation with Catholics, and that will continue under the pope’s guidance.

    Brother Hervé Janson, a synod member, said at today’s press briefing: “As the pope said, the synod is a moment when the church must walk together, not just the bishops, but the people of God…. Everyone needs to listen to each other.”

    -- Relatedly, despite ridiculous assertions of a conspiracy to “rig” the synod, which some bishops initially seem to have believed, by the end of the assembly virtually everyone was praising the new methodology, which allowed for much freer discussion in small groups.

    -- There seemed to be keen recognition, at least by some, that a missing element in the synod’s debate was theological expertise. That’s a shortcoming that is not easily solved. Many participants appeared to approach the church’s teaching from an ideological point of view, with a defensive mentality about doctrine. Several of the questions under debate cried out for deeper reflection and less posturing, and I hope the pope finds a way to make that happen.

    -- There’s no doubt that the pope will keep the “mercy” theme front and center – perhaps in formal study commissions, in initiatives to mark the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy or even in future synods. But he is unlikely to make abrupt pastoral changes on his own. He knows that he needs bishops on board if his vision is going to progress past papal homilies, and begin to transform pastoral policies at the local leve

  • Closing synod, pope says church must practice mercy not condemnation

    Pope Francis closed the Synod on the Family with a ringing call for the church to practice mercy toward struggling and broken families, and to avoid using church doctrine as “stones to be hurled at others.”

    In a final address to the more than 300 synod participants, the pope also noted that the discussion during the three-week-long assembly was open but not always charitable. At times, he said, the synod had to rise above “conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints.”

    The pope’s address came shortly after a vote on a final document that backed away from some controversial pastoral proposals, but left the door open for further development of certain questions, including that of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

    It was a remarkable speech, one that left no doubt about Francis' priorities. Rather than touch on specific proposals, the pope gave a broader vision of what, in his view, the synod had highlighted.

    “The church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord,” he said.

    The synod, he said, was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the problems and uncertainties facing families today, but studying them carefully and fearlessly “without burying our heads in the sand.” He reaffirmed the church's teaching of marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman, calling the family the "fundamental basis of society and human life."

    The pope then said what the synod was about, emphasizing the listening and dialogue of bishops form diverse social and religious situations:

    "It was about showing the vitality of the Catholic Church, which is not afraid to stir dulled consciences or to soil her hands with lively and frank discussions about the family."

    "It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would 'indoctrinate' it in dead stones to be hurled at others."

    "It was also about laying bare the closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."

    The pope said the true defenders of doctrine "are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy."

    The pope emphasized that, apart from defined dogmas, it is difficult to make uniform policies for every church community on every continent, because of the diversity of pastoral situations. What is normal for a bishop on one continent can be “considered strange and almost scandalous” for a bishop from another, he said.

    At that point in his speech, the pope clearly pointed the way to greater appreciation and freedom for local innovation and adaptations, sometimes called inculturation of the faith, which he said “does not weaken true values” and their ability to transform cultures.

    The pope also spoke about the need to update the church’s language when it evangelizes, saying the beauty of Christianity is “at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible.” That was a key theme of the synod deliberations.

    He said the church is committed to defending the family against "all ideological and individualistic assaults." But he said that should be done without "demonizing others."


  • The collegiality paradox facing Pope Francis

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family has highlighted what I call the “paradox of collegiality” for Pope Francis.

    The pope clearly wants to share his governing authority with bishops, giving them a bigger voice in decision-making in Rome and more latitude in their home dioceses. He also wants them on board as he shifts the church’s missionary approach to a more “merciful” and invitational style, less focused on doctrinal rules.

    But the pope is working with a global episcopate largely put in place by his two predecessors, whose emphasis on doctrinal identity-building was very much reflected in their choice of bishops.

    In the Pope John Paul II era, I was told that candidates for bishop nominations were routinely vetted regarding their views on a series of hot-button pastoral and doctrinal issues, including such things as birth control, dissent from the Magisterium, priestly celibacy, women’s ordination and the role of laity, to name a few.

    It was a “litmus test” approach aimed at ensuring orthodoxy at the highest levels of the church. The Catholic Church is diverse, of course, and so are its bishops. But over a 35-year period, this policy made for a more conservative hierarchy.

    The Synod on the Family has shown what happens when such a cautious and doctrinally-focused episcopate encounters a pope’s agenda for change. Many of today’s bishops are afraid that “mercy” without doctrinal backbone is a very slippery slope, especially when it comes to issues like divorce, cohabitation, gay relationships and birth control.

    In a sense, I think the synod’s two sessions have been a place where these bishops can register reservations not only about specific pastoral proposals, but also about the entire “who am I to judge” approach of Pope Francis.

    Pope Francis has been appointing bishops since his election in 2013, of course, and his choices appear to reflect his pastoral outlook. So how long does it take before he can really “shape” the world’s episcopate?

    A long time.

    In his 31 months in office, Francis has appointed 456 bishops, according to the Vatican’s statistics office. That is about 9 percent of the total number of bishops, and about 13 percent of the active (non-retired) bishops in the world.

    Extrapolating those numbers, it will take the pope another seven or eight years before he will have named more than half the active bishops. I’m sure the pope realizes that, for quite some time, he will have to work with an episcopate that may at times act as a check on his innovative pastoral proposals.

    Papal nominations of cardinals are important for different reasons, including an eventual conclave that can preserve a pope’s legacy and carry it forward or shift directions.

    Pope Francis has already named 31 of the current 118 voting members (those under age 80) of the College of Cardinals, or 26 percent. However, because of an unusual age pattern in the college, it will likely take him another four or five years before he will have named a majority of the voting-age cardinals, i.e., more than 60 of the 120 voting-age cardinals allowed under current rules.

    For those reasons, a relatively long pontificate for Francis may be important not only in building consensus on immediate issues, but also in long-term effects. As one bishop recently remarked, when he wishes Pope Francis a long life of “100 years” in the traditional Roman toast, he really means it.

  • German bishops may point way forward as synod draws to close

                               German Cardinal Reinhard Marx

    It’s increasingly clear that the German bishops are leading the way forward from the Synod on the Family, with proposals worthy of reflection and development by Pope Francis.

    Unlike most of the synod’s 13 language groups, the German-speaking participants have approached their task with a fairly clear sense of mission: find a consensus, where possible, and indicate some potential new directions.

    With only three days to go in this second synod assembly, reading through many of the group reports might lead one to despair of any real agreement on the tougher questions being raised: Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, pastoral policies for cohabitating couples, language (less condemnatory vs. denunciation of sin), and outreach to homosexuals.

    The reports indicated a widespread split in positions on these questions – and not much more than that. From the outside, at least, it seems like this synod was a three-week round of infighting and restatement of positions, but with very little openness to reflection and change.

    The Germans, however, managed to deliver two reports that were remarkable in having the unanimous agreement of the entire group. That is significant, because it includes Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has strongly pushed for a way to welcome divorced and remarried Catholics back to the sacraments, and Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation and one of the strongest critics of that proposal.

    They apparently pulled this off not just by negotiating, but by some deeper theological reflection – something that appears to be lacking in other groups.

    Speaking at today’s Vatican press briefing, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich underlined the group’s unanimity and said the Germans were well aware that the eyes of other synod participants were on them. The thinking was that if the Germans, with their diverse views, could come together, “maybe it would be a good sign for the others,” he said.

    Marx told reporters that there was, of course, much fundamental agreement in their group, as well as in the synod hall and in society at large, about the value of marriage.

    “Most of the people agree with the center of the doctrine of the church: that one man and one woman will want to be together forever, they say yes and they mean yes, they found a family and they want children. That is the great majority of the people I know,” the cardinal said.

    “But they want to hear from the church, what will happen when we fail? Will you stay with us when we fail? And we have to say, yes, we will stay with you when you fail,” he said.

    In the case of Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly without an annulment, Cardinal Marx said the German group proposed a pastoral solution that could allow a return to the sacraments after a process in which pastors guide an individual toward a decision of conscience.

    This process of reflection in conscience, sometimes referred to as the “internal forum,” would be personal and private, but would follow certain criteria, perhaps under guidelines established by Rome, Marx said.

    An individual who had divorced and civilly remarried, for example, would be asked to reflect on his or her responsibilities to a first spouse and family, reconciliation with those who have been hurt, relationships with children and reputation in the church community.

    “Then you can find a way (to see) if and when it might be possible to make a full reconciliation,” he said. (It should be noted that debate over such use of the “internal forum,” for this and other difficult pastoral situations, has been simmering in the church for more than 40 years.)

    Cardinal Marx noted that the German group’s discussion of these issues went beyond just “stating an opinion.” Theologians like Saint Thomas Aquinas were often quoted. “And when Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Mueller and Cardinal (Cristophe) Schonborn are talking about Saint Thomas, that is very interesting!” he said.

    As for those who have warned that any move toward allowing divorced Catholics to receive Communion would represent an attack on church doctrine, Cardinal Marx said it was important to remember that doctrine exists on many levels, and that it develops over the centuries.

    “The doctrine of the church is not a closed shop, but a living tradition,” he said. This is clearly seen in the writings of different popes about marriage, or the development of doctrine in various church councils. “We don’t change the truth, but we find the greater truth,” he said.

    The German group report began with an unusual statement criticizing unnamed synod participants for language that was not in line with the spirit of the synod. Asked about this, Cardinal Marx said referred to statements reportedly made by Australian George Pell in an interview with a French newspaper, in which Cardinal Pell spoke of a synod battle between “Kasperians” and “Ratzingerians.”

    Marx said: “We thought that is not acceptable language and not useful for the synod to speak in this way.”

    Several of the other language groups reported mixed views on the issues listed above. Most of the reports fell into a “some said … while others said” category. On the question of Communion for divorced and remarried, more than one group asked for further reflection by a commission named by Pope Francis, which at this point seems a likely outcome.

    The impression left after reading through the reports is that synod participants will be glad to go home. In recent days, many of the participants have sounded like passengers on a white-knuckle flight that is preparing for a tricky landing – perhaps hoping that the pope is in the pilot’s seat.

  • Cardinal Napier has praise for synod process, Pope Francis' leadership

              Cardinal Wilfrid Napier

    South African Cardinal Wilfrid Napier has made himself a protagonist of the Synod on the Family, so his appearance at today’s Vatican press briefing stirred interest among reporters.

    Cardinal Napier’s “bottom line” judgment on this session of the synod: it’s been far more pastoral than prophetic. I don’t think he necessarily meant that in a good way.

    “When we look at the problems we’ve been studying during these three weeks, there are two possibilities. One is to look at it from the pastoral point of view, when you're trying to reach out to people and minister to them. The other one, which I would say has been de-emphasized during this time, and even during the synod last year, is the prophetic, where like John the Baptist you say: ‘You’ve got to repent, and these are the sins’ and you name them,” the cardinal said.

    “This has certainly been a very much more pastoral synod, looking at how can the church be a servant and minister to those people in difficult situations. There’s been a lot of emphasis on using language that doesn’t offend – politically correct language, if you like. I’m not sure that’s the best way to be prophetic. It’s certainly a way of trying to be more pastoral.”

    As for the modified synod process, which had come under fire from several conservative bishops, Cardinal Napier said he was satisfied that diverse points of view had been fairly heard. Napier was reportedly one of 13 cardinals who signed a letter to Pope Francis at the start of the synod, questioning whether the new procedures were aimed at reaching foregone conclusions that would weaken church teaching.

    But with the synod drawing to a close, Napier told reporters that the new process was “very helpful,” because it gave participants more discussion time in small groups. In general, he said, African bishops are coming out of the synod with a “sense of optimism” and appreciation for “the witness of Pope Francis and the way he is leading the church.”

    Like several other bishops at the synod, Napier said there was a deep need for better preparation for marriage among Catholic laity. Having listened to reports, especially in Western countries, about the many marriages ending in divorce, Napier said African bishops “don't want the same thing to happen to us.”

    Marriage preparation, however, should not merely be a course that lasts a few weeks or months, but a longer process that looks at how marriage should be discerned as a “vocation,” on a par with the priesthood or religious life, he said.

    On the issue of cohabitation, however, Napier argued that more leniency should be granted couples in Africa, for whom, he said, living together before marriage is often more a “step” in the marriage process than a rejection of matrimony or a trial marriage. “Cohabitation in our case is pro-marriage, not against marriage,” he said.

    “In regard to the traditional African marriage custom, first of all it’s not a marriage between two individuals but between two families. So there’s a whole process of negotiation,” he said.

    When a dowry is established by the bride’s family, the cardinal said, often it may take a young man a very long time, perhaps years, to raise the money to cover it. “In the meantime, the families could agree that at a certain point they would start living together as husband and wife, even though the marriage is not yet concluded,” he said.

    The cardinal said the term “cohabitation” doesn't really fit that African experience. In the West, he said, couples may also live together for economic or other reasons, but it’s not the same. He added that it was up to African bishops to make sure that “that particular custom does get incorporated into the sacrament of matrimony.”

    That, of course, would be a major change. The same issue was discussed at the African synod, held at the Vatican in 1994, and there’s been no significant action on it since. But Napier said he thought that “with Pope Francis’ lead,” African bishops will have a new impetus for studying the issue.

    It sounds to me like Cardinal Napier is eager to explore the opening toward more local decision-making that Pope Francis raised during his speech last weekend, when he spoke of a more "synodal" and collegial exercise of authority in the church.

    According to the U.S. bishops, almost half the couples who come in for marriage preparation courses in local parishes are cohabitating. The rates of cohabitation across Africa are generally much lower, but studies indicate they are increasing in some countries, both as a prelude to marriage and an alternative to marriage.

    Cardinal Napier said a separate and dramatic problem for African families is the high number of single-parent families and  “child-headed households,” in families where HIV-AIDS has left both parents dead.


  • Synod's lack of consensus may still leave doors open for Pope Francis

           Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge

    It’s apparent from today’s Vatican briefing that the Synod of Bishops on the Family is not going to resolve many of the hotly debated issues taken up in the course of the two sessions last year and this year.

    The synod participants told reporters that it was unrealistic to think the assembly could reach a consensus on questions like divorced and remarried Catholics, or proposed changes in language on moral issues.

    That effectively means that the follow-up will largely be left to Pope Francis, who can proceed in specific directions and at his own pace. The synod will not give the pope a mandate on the tougher questions, but it will give him an idea of where the world’s episcopate stands on his “mercy” agenda of pastoral outreach.

    I expect the language of the synod’s final document to reflect the disagreements, but also to leave the doors open for development – and I don’t expect Pope Francis to shy away from that task, especially during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

    Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane summed up the situation today when asked about where the synod was going on three issues: Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, cohabitation and homosexuality.

    “The indications are that there will be no substantial change on church teaching on those three issues that you first mentioned. I have no crystal ball, but on the basis of the discussions we had in the small group this morning and on Friday afternoon, there is no groundswell of support for the change of church teaching.,” Coleridge said. “But my hope is that we will move toward, without actually accomplishing at this synod, a genuinely new pastoral approach. At the heart of this I think there has to be a whole new language.”

    There may be no change in church teaching, but more and more, the synod seems to be focusing on case-by-case treatment of some pastoral situations. Frequently, the role of the individual conscience comes into play. That’s also a perennial area of debate, of course, and a word from the pope on this subject might be helpful. Instead of giving the church another summing-up document on the family in the wake of the synod, perhaps Pope Francis should consider issuing a magisterial document on the relationship between the judgment of conscience, the church’s teaching authority and pastoral realities.

    As the synod entered its final week, there were some other interesting developments:

    -- Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of 10 papally appointed members of a commission that will write the synod’s final document, was sharply critical of bishops who have suggested the assembly has somehow been manipulated.

    In an interview with America magazine, Wuerl was asked about cardinals and bishops who have expressed anxiety over the synod’s process. Others have warned about the direction of the debate on issues including Communion for divorced Catholics.

    Here is a key part of Cardinal Wuerl’s interview:

    Cardinal Wuerl: Now there are some bishops whose position is that we shouldn’t be discussing any of this anyway. They were the ones at the last synod that were giving interviews, and denouncing and claiming there were intrigues and manipulation. That, I think, falls on them. I don’t see it with a foundation in reality. I just think that these are people who have their own position and they just want to articulate that, and they have taken to saying that somehow the Holy Father and the synod structure are trying to manipulate all of the bishops. I just find that does not correspond to what I see, to what I experience, and what I’ve experienced over the years in dealing with synods.

    Q: How do you interpret these people who seem to imply that the pope is somehow manipulating the synod? It seems almost like a vote of no-confidence in Pope Francis.

    Cardinal Wuerl: I don’t know what would bring people to say the things that they are saying because we are all hearing the pope, and the pope is saying nothing that contradicts the teaching of the church. He’s encouraging us to be open, to be merciful, to be kind, to be compassionate, but he keeps saying that you cannot change the teaching of the church.

    I wonder if some of these people who are speaking, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes half-way implying, then backing off and then twisting around, I wonder if it is really that they find they just don’t like this pope. I wonder if that isn’t part of it.

    -- Meanwhile, German Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who had been one of the strongest voices against a proposals to allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion, appeared to indicate a measure of openness to that possibility in “extreme individual cases.”

    According to Vatican Radio, the cardinal reportedly spoke in an interview with a German magazine, and cited the 1981 papal document Familiaris Consortio, which said divorced and remarried Catholics could not receive Communion but also referred to possible exceptions in the “realm of conscience.”

    “It is possible to think further in this direction,” Cardinal Mueller said.

    Familiaris Consortio said in part:

    Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

    -- Cardinal Walter Kasper, who last year outlined a possible “penitential path” to reception of the sacraments by divorced Catholics, said he still hoped that a majority at this synod would approve such an approach. He spoke in an interview published today by the Italian church agency SIR:

    "I hope in an opening, in a majority in favor of Communion for divorced, with a process of integration in parishes and in the life of the church. We see many families in irregular situations, but they too are children of God. They too need the bread of life, because the Eucharist is not for the ‘excellent’ but for sinners, and we are all sinners: we say this every time at the consecration. It’s probable that for a final document a little more time is needed, but I hope that the pope may say something already at the end of the (synod’s) work, after having received all the reports."

  • Papal adviser: At stake in synod is relationship between church and world

             Father Antonio Spadaro addresses the Synod of Bishops

    The Synod of Bishops on the Family marks a dramatic and delicate moment, in which “the relationship between the church and the world is at stake.”

    So says a close papal adviser, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, in an interview today with Vatican Radio. Father Spadaro is director of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica and was a papal appointee to the synod.

    Spadaro described the synod’s three-week session as a lively and effective debate over problems, language and ways of approaching family issues that vary in different parts of the world. Because the synod really does represent global diversity, sometimes there are tensions and conflicts, he said.

    “Therefore this is a very delicate moment, in which one understands that the relationship between the church and the world is at stake. This truly is at stake in this synod: to see how the church should live in relation with the reality of today, which has great challenges and great changes, but which, I repeat, is very different in the diverse places of the earth,” he said.

    Spadaro returned to a theme raised by Pope Francis the previous day, that the church and the synod must begin by listening to its people.

    “One cannot enlighten reality without first having heard it,” Spadaro said. “The human being is not an element extraneous to the Gospel. The Gospel is not an abstract doctrine that strikes people from the outside like a stone. It must be incarnated in lived lives, in experiences. Sometimes (this process) can be adversarial and sometimes peaceful.”

    Spadaro said the theme of mercy that Pope Francis has emphasized throughout his pontificate and the synod will continue in a follow-up phase during the Holy Year of Mercy that begins Dec. 8.

    “And it won't end there. It needs to be understood that we are experiencing an ecclesial process of great dimensions. For this reason, it shouldn't surprise people that there are moments of fatigue, impasse, difficulties and tensions. But there is also the joy of constructing history together,” he said.

    Father Spadaro was reminded that some synod bishops are uneasy with the emphasis on mercy, and say people also need to rediscover a sense of sin.

    “The Gospel proclamation, that the Lord has died for us, has died for me, is not the proclamation of sin,” Spadaro said. “The proclamation of the Gospel is that of mercy: in the light of the mercy of the Lord’s forgiveness, I understand my sin, I comprehend my sin.”

    “If there is no perception of a merciful God, the sense of sin is merely a sense of guilt, which is often useless,” he said.

    Spadaro said truth and mercy are never in contradiction in the Gospel, and so any attempt to place doctrine and pastoral practices at odds makes no sense.

    “The doctrine of the Gospel is mercy. That is to say, the teaching of the Lord is the teaching of mercy. Everything else follows from this,” he said.

  • Pope says synod is a 'listening' event; as guarantor of unity, pope has last word

    In the middle of one of the most contentious synods in modern times, Pope Francis laid out a vision of a church that is “synodal” bottom to top – listening first to the people of God and last to the pope as the supreme guarantor of unity.

    The pope’s speech at the Vatican marking the 50th anniversary of the Synod of Bishops came after talks by several other church leaders. The most significant was that of Austrian Cardinal Christophe Schonborn, who said synod participants need to go beyond theological debate and above all be attentive to how God is acting in the church and in the world.

    The pope’s address received a standing ovation from some 300 bishops and others who were attending the October Synod on the Family. His key points are here:

    -- A synodal church is a listening church. Listening begins with the “people of God,” who as a whole cannot err in matters of belief. That’s why the Synod on the Family was preceded by a worldwide consultation with local Catholic churches.

    “The ‘sensus fidei’ (sense of the faith) makes it impossible to rigidly separate between the ‘teaching church’ and the ‘learning church,’ because even the flock has a ‘nose’ for discerning the new roads the Lord is opening for the church,” the pope said.

    -- The synod itself should be a time of “mutual listening” between the people of God, the bishops and the pope. But the pope’s role is unique.

    “The synodal path culminates in listening to the bishop of Rome, who is called to pronounce as ‘pastor and teacher of all Christians,’ not on the basis of his personal convictions but as the supreme witness of the faith of the whole church, the guarantor of the church’s obedience to and conformity to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the church,” he said.

    -- In a synodal church, the hierarchy is, in a sense, flipped over like an inverted pyramid: those with the “highest” positions are at the bottom, in service to the rest. That means being in touch with the everyday problems of the people.

    The pope said the church has only partially understood how regional and national bishops’ conferences should function in this synodal understanding of the church. But he said it’s clear that a “healthy decentralization is needed,” because the pope cannot substitute for local bishops in dealing with all local problems.

    -- The role of the pope and the concept of papal primacy still need to be fully developed.

    “The pope does not stand alone above the church, but inside it as a baptized person among the baptized, and inside the episcopal college as a bishop among bishops, called at the same time, as the successor of the Apostle Peter, to guide the church of Rome which presides in love over all the churches,” he said.

    In his speech, Cardinal Schonborn evoked the Council of Jerusalem as a model for modern-day synods, recalling that the debate at that early church encounter was also heated and at times bitter. That council decreed that Gentile Christians did not have to observe the Mosaic law of the Jews, laying the foundation for the church’s wider missionary expansion.

    Theological debate was important at Jerusalem, Cardinal Schonborn said, but in the end, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, those kinds of arguments were not decisive. Instead, it was St. Peter who took the floor and said his missionary experience told him that God was calling Gentiles to the faith, and that the bishops should not be “putting God to the test” by placing an unreasonable burden on them.

    Schonborn said that lesson – that listening to people’s experience is more important than abstract theorizing – should be remembered in modern synods.

    He added that, just as in the time of the early church, synods today should have the church’s missionary dynamism as the priority. Bishops should favor direct witness of human experience, realizing that their task is not to win a theological debate but to “discern the will of God.”


    Here is a provisional English translation of the pope's address today. (Note: This text does not contain the 32 footnotes in the original.)

    Pope Francis’ Address at Commemorative Ceremony for the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops

    October 17, 2015

    Paul VI Audience Hall – Vatican City

    [Working translation prepared by Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB,

    English language media attaché, Holy See Press Office]

    Your Beatitudes, Eminences, Excellencies, Brothers and Sisters,

    As the XIV Ordinary General Assembly is underway, it is a joy for me to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops and to praise and honor the Lord for the Synod of Bishops. From the Second Vatican Council up to the current Synod on the Family, we have gradually learned of the necessity and beauty of “walking together.”

    On this happy occasion I would like to extend a cordial greeting to His Eminence Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops along with the Undersecretary, His Excellency Archbishop Fabio Fabene, the Officials, the Consultors and other collaborators in the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. Together with them, I greet and thank the Synod Fathers and other participants in this Synod gathered here this morning in this hall.

    At this time we also want to remember those who, over the course of the last 50 years, have worked in the service of the Synod, starting from the successive General Secretaries: Cardinals Władysław Rubin, Jozef Tomko, Jan Pieter Schotte and Archbishop Nikola Eterovic. I take this opportunity to express my deepest, heartfelt gratitude to those – both living and deceased – who made such generous and competent contributions to the activities of the Synod of Bishops.

    From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome I intended to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to keep alive the image of the Ecumenical Council and to reflect the conciliar spirit and method. The same Pontiff desired that the synodal organism "over time would be greatly improved." Twenty years later, St. John Paul II would echo those sentiments when he stated that "perhaps this tool can be further improved. Perhaps the collegial pastoral responsibility can find even find a fuller expression in the Synod.” Finally, in 2006, Benedict XVI approved some changes to the Ordo Synodi Episcoporum, especially in light of the provisions of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, promulgated in meantime.

    We must continue on this path. The world in which we live and that we are called to love and serve even with its contradictions, demands from the Church the strengthening of synergies in all areas of her mission. And it is precisely on this way of synodality where we find the pathway that God expects from the Church of the third millennium.

    In a certain sense, what the Lord asks of us is already contained in the word "synod." Walking together – Laity, Pastors, the Bishop of Rome – is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice. After reiterating that People of God is comprised of all the baptized who are called to "be a spiritual edifice and a holy priesthood," the Second Vatican Council proclaims that "the whole body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief and manifests this reality in the supernatural sense of faith of the whole people, when 'from the bishops to the last of the lay faithful' show thier total agreement in matters of faith and morals."

    In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium I stressed that "the people of God is holy because this anointing makes [the people] infallible "in matters of belief”, adding that "each baptized person, no matter what their function is in the Church and whatever educational level of faith, is an active subject of evangelization and it would be inappropriate to think of a framework of evangelization carried out by qualified actors in which the rest of the faithful People were only recepients of their actions. The sensus fidei prevents rigid separation between “Ecclesia” (Church) and the Church teaching, and learning (Ecclesia docens discens), since even the Flock has an "instinct" to discern the new ways that the Lord is revealing to the Church.

    It was this conviction that guided me when I desired that God's people would be consulted in the preparation of the two-phased synod on the family. Certainly, a consultation like this would never be able to hear the entire sensus fidei (sense of the faith). But how would we ever be able to speak about the family without engaging families, listening to their joys and their hopes, their sorrows and their anguish? Through the answers to the two questionnaires sent to the particular Churches, we had the opportunity to at least hear some of the people on those issues that closely affect them and about which they have much to say.

    A synodal church is a listening church, knowing that listening "is more than feeling.” It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, the Bishop of Rome: we are one in listening to others; and all are listening to the Holy Spirit, the "Spirit of truth" (Jn 14:17), to know what the Spirit "is saying to the Churches" (Rev 2:7).

    The Synod of Bishops is the convergence point of this dynamic of listening conducted at all levels of church life. The synodal process starts by listening to the people, who “even participate in the prophetic office of Christ", according to a principle dear to the Church of the first millennium: "Quod omnes tangit ab omnibus tractari debet" [what concerns all needs to be debated by all]. The path of the Synod continues by listening to the pastors. Through the Synod Fathers, the bishops act as true stewards, interpreters and witnesses of the faith of the whole Church, who must be able to carefully distinguish from that which flows from frequently changing public opinion.

    On the eve of the Synod of last year I stated: "First of all, let us ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of listeining for the Synod Fathers, so that with the Spirit, we might be able to hear the cry of the people and listen to the people until we breathe the will to which God calls us.”

    Finally, the synodal process culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, who is called upon to pronounce as "pastor and teacher of all Christians," not based on his personal convictions but as a supreme witness of “totius fides Ecclesiae” (the whole faith of the Church), of the guarantor of obedience and the conformity of the Church to the will of God, to the Gospel of Christ and to the Tradition of the Church.

    The fact that the Synod always act, cum Petro et sub Petro - therefore not only cum Petro, but also sub Petro – this is not a restriction of freedom, but a guarantee of unity. In fact the Pope, by the will of the Lord, is "the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops as much as of the multitude of the faithful." To this is connected the concept of “ierarchica communio” (hierarchical communio) used by Vatican II: the Bishops being united with the Bishop of Rome by the bond of episcopal communion (cum Petro) and at the same time hierarchically subjected to him as head of the college (sub Petro).

    As a constitutive dimension of the Church, synodality gives us the more appropriate interpretive framework to understand the hierarchical ministry. If we understand as St. John Chrysostom did, that “church and synod are synonymous,” since the Church means nothing other than the common journey of the Flock of God along the paths of history towards the encounter of Christ Lord, then we understand that within the Church, no one can be raised up higher than the others. On the contrary, in the Church, it is necessary that each person be “lowered " in order to serve his or her brothers and sisters along the way.

    Jesus founded the Church by placing at its head the Apostolic College, in which the apostle Peter is the "rock" (cfr. Mt 16:18), the one who will confirm his brothers in the faith (cfr. Lk 22: 32). But in this church, as in an inverted pyramid, the summit is located below the base. For those who exercise this authority are called "ministers" because, according to the original meaning of the word, they are the least of all. It is in serving the people of God that each Bishop becomes for that portion of the flock entrusted to him, vicarius Christi, (vicar of that Jesus who at the Last Supper stooped to wash the feet of the Apostles (cfr. Jn 13: 1-15 ). And in a similar manner, the Successor of Peter is none other than the servus servorum Dei (Servant of the servants of God).

    Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of the service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their leaders oppress them. It shall not be so among you: but whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave" (Mt 20:25-27). “It shall not be so among you:” in this expression we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.

    In a Synodal Church, the Synod of Bishops is only the most obvious manifestation of a dynamism of communion that inspires all ecclesial decisions. The first level of exercize of synodality is realized in the particolar (local) Churches. After having recalled the noble institution of the diocesan Synod, in which priests and laity are called to collaborate with the Bishop for the good of the whole ecclesial community, the Code of Canon Law devotes ample space to those that are usually called “bodies of communion” in the local Church: the Council of Priests, the College of Consultors, the Chapter of Canons and the Pastoral Council. Only to the extent that these organizations are connected with those on the ground, and begin with the people and their everyday problems, can a Synodal Church begin to take shape: even when they may proceed with fatigue, they must be understood as occasions of listening and sharing.

    The second level is that of Ecclesiastical Provinces and Regions, of Particular (local Councils) and in a special way, Episcopal Conferences. We must reflect on realizing even more through these bodies – the intermediary aspects of collegiality – perhaps by integrating and updating some aspects of early church order. The hope of the Council that such bodies would help increase the spirit of episcopal collegiality has not yet been fully realized. As I have said, “In a Church Synod it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace the local Episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that lie ahead in their territories. In this sense, I feel the need to proceed in a healthy "decentralization."

    The last level is that of the universal Church. Here the Synod of Bishops, representing the Catholic episcopate, becomes an expression of episcopal collegiality inside a church that is synodal. It manifests the affective collegiality, which may well become in some circumstances "effective," joining the Bishops among themselves and with the Pope in the solicitude for the People God.

    The commitment to build a Synodal Church to which all are called – each with his or her role entrusted to them by the Lord is loaded with ecumenical implications. For this reason, talking recently to a delegation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, I reiterated the conviction that "careful consideration of how to articulate in the Church's life the principle of collegiality and the service of the one who presides offers a significant contribution to the progress of relations between our Churches."

    I am convinced that in a synodal Church, the exercise of the Petrine primacy will receive greater light. The Pope is not, by himself, above the Church; but inside it as one baptized among the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as Bishop among Bishops; as one called at the same time as Successor of Peter – to lead the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches.

    While I reiterate the need and urgency to think of " a conversion of the papacy,” I gladly repeat the words of my predecessor Pope John Paul II: "As Bishop of Rome I know well [...] that the full and visible communion of all the communities in which, by virtue of God's faithfulness, his Spirit dwells, is the ardent desire of Christ. I am convinced that you have in this regard a special responsibility, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made ​​of me to find a form of exercise of the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”

    Our gaze extends also to humanity. A synodal church is like a banner lifted up among the nations (cfr. Is 11:12) in a world that even though invites participation, solidarity and transparency in public administration – often hands over the destiny of entire populations into the greedy hands of restricted groups of the powerful. As a Church that “walks together" with men and women, sharing the hardships of history, let us cultivate the dream that the rediscovery of the inviolable dignity of peoples and the exercize of authority, even now will be able to help civil society to be founded on justice and fraternity, generating a more beautiful and worthy world for mankind and for the generations that will come after us.


  • Synod hears call to re-examine teachings on sexuality, birth control

    The question of birth control, sometimes described as the "elephant in the room" at the Synod of Bishops on the Family, was the focus of a bluntly worded talk by a lay auditor at the Vatican assembly.

    The auditor, Sharron Cole from New Zealand, told the synod that the teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae has been largely ignored by Catholic couples. This has led to a "paralyzed" pastoral situation that requires a fresh discussion -- not by clergy alone, who have shown inadequate understanding of sexuality and psychology in the way they have dealt with clerical sexual abuse, she said.

    "The time is now for this synod to propose that the Church re-examine its teaching on marriage and sexuality, and its understanding of responsible parenthood, in a dialogue of laity and bishops together," Cole said.

    Cole was one of few people to talk at the synod about Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that declared it immoral for married couples to use artificial birth control. The encyclical allowed for natural methods of spacing births, and Cole said that as a former board member of a natural family planning organization, she found that this method worked for motivated couples.

    But for many couples, she added, the natural method is not practicable. The teaching that artificial contraception is intrinsically wrong has provoked "massive dissent," she noted, with Catholics essentially making their own decision in conscience.

    "The response of the Church to this unsatisfactory situation has been for better catechesis or to ignore the dissent. This 'paralyzed status quo' cannot continue," Cole said.

    "The matter must be discussed afresh but lay people will not be content to leave it to clergy alone. Too many in authority responded to clergy sexual abuse in a way which demonstrated that they lacked the expertise in sexuality and psychology to make good decisions, with the result they became complicit in perpetuating enormous harm, harm done to lay people," she said.

    "It will take not more catechesis but rather listening with deep empathy to restore the credibility of the Church in matters of sexual ethics," she said.

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