ROME, October 3rd, 2018 — The XV Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened in Rome on Wednesday. In one sense, that’s about all the news there is to give: the real working sessions will begin Thursday morning, and the first orders of business will be housekeeping matters like the election of officers and the explanation of rules and procedures.
At least, that’s what one would expect, who has been through a few of these things.
This reporter has been through a few of these things, the first being the XI Ordinary Assembly on the Eucharist, source and summit of the life and mission of the Church. To be perfectly frank, that is a very distant, very foggy recollection, not unresembling the half-salvaged detritus of a childhood memory.
One recalls the contours of all of them — there were speeches and they were boring, there were tweaks to the rules and mechanics of voting and though we talked them to death in the shop there was no real end to any of them discernible, and there were reports and drafts and propositions and votes and final documents and exhortations — but none of it really mattered. Synod Assemblies, especially the “ordinary” ones, were at bottom an opportunity for out-of-town bishops to enjoy the restaurants on the Borgo Pio and for the Pope and Vatican officials to hear the out-of-towners talk.
There’s nothing wrong with either of those things, but they are what they are.
One could count on Benedict to write a post-Synodal exhortation of sound theological depth and some significant eloquence, but there was not much in the way of governance to be done through the body or its consultations. One of the things the group of us that got together fairly regularly to talk shop would say to each other, was that we’d like to see the Pope actually ask the Synod to discuss something of practical importance, and maybe do something with the body.
There’s an old saying: be careful what you wish for.
It is far too early to say what this Synod Assembly will bring, let alone what will be its result. Its practical effects are much guessed at in many circles, but the truth is there is no crystal ball. In his opening remarks at the afternoon session, Pope Francis spoke of the need to construct a genuine dialogue. “Humility in listening must correspond to courage in speaking,” he said. “I told the young people in the pre-Synod Meeting: ‘If you say something I do not like, I have to listen even more, because everyone has the right to be heard, just as everyone has the right to speak’.”
That is certainly true, though critics will rejoin to the effect that it is easy for the Pope to say: his voice is the only one that really counts. If Francis is troubled by the criticism of his new modes and orders for the Synod, he showed no sign of it. “Many of you have already prepared your intervention beforehand,” Pope Francis said, “but I invite you to feel free to consider what you have prepared as a provisional draft open to any additions and changes that the Synod journey may suggest to each of you.” He went on to say, “Let us feel free to welcome and understand others and therefore to change our convictions and positions: this is a sign of great human and spiritual maturity.”
Time will tell whether that last cuts both ways.
Pope Francis also introduced a three-minutes’ silence, to be observed at regular intervals during the course of the working sessions. “Discernment needs space and time. And so, during the work done in plenary assembly and in groups, after five interventions are made, a moment of silence of approximately three minutes will be observed,” Pope Francis ordered during his opening address. “This is to allow everyone to recognize within their hearts the nuances of what they have heard, and to allow everyone to reflect deeply and seize upon what is most striking.”
Practically speaking, it is difficult to see how this new wrinkle can fail either to add hours to the process, or take hours away — piecemeal — from the time allotted for speaking.
With all this talk of procedure and rules and practicality, one could easily get the sense that the thing is all humdrum. Not so. Pope Francis was visibly moved — his voice cracking — when he introduced the two Synod Fathers from China, Bishop John Baptist Yang Xiaoting of Yan’an, and Bishop Joseph Guo Jincai of Chengde. “Today, for the first time, we have also with us two bishops from mainland China,” Pope Francis said. “We offer them our warm welcome,” he continued, “the communion of the entire Episcopate with the Successor of Peter is yet more visible thanks to their presence.”
Whatever the judgment of history shall be on the deal Pope Francis has made with the Chinese government, that moment happened.
The Pope’s opening allocution at the afternoon session was peppered with humor. Some of it showed a charming capacity for self-deprecation, as when he said, “Discernment is not an advertising slogan, it is not an organizational technique, or a fad of this pontificate,” and got good laughs, before he added, “but an interior attitude rooted in an act of faith.”
Another winning line came at the end, when he said, “Let us therefore work to ‘spend time with the future,’ to take from this Synod not merely a document — that generally is only read by a few and criticized by many — but above all concrete pastoral proposals capable of fulfilling the Synod’s purpose.” At least over the closed-circuit feed in the Press Office, the line — tightly scripted and delivered with some self-conscious flair — seemed to play very well.