The Synod begins with Pope Francis urging dialogue and discernment

With all the talk of procedure and rules and practicality, one could easily get the sense that the thing is all humdrum. Not so.

Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Gerald Lacroix of Quebec as he leaves the opening session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct 3. Also pictured is Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 190 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. “Dialogue” and “discernment” have become propagandist in nature. There will be no “dialogue” with the bishops opposing change to Church doctrine as the outcome has been rigged in advance.

  2. In the Pope’s opening statement he declared that the first fruit of dialogue is that “everyone is open to newness, to change their opinions…” This is a frightening opening. Why should the bishops concentrate on opinion (belief that is known to be probably true) when they have before them divine revelation (knowledge from God known to be certainly true)? A synod should not be an exchange for changing opinions but a union that verifies a united belief for the purpose of addressing some practical problem. Pope Francis continued: “The accumulation of human experiences throughout history is the most precious and trustworthy treasure…” Wrong again.The most trustworthy treasury are our experiences of God acting in human history, that is, once again divine revelation. Human “opinions” and human “experiences” leading a holy synod – this can’t be good!

  3. I am praying and fasting for faithful Catholic Bishops like Archbishop Chaput (and those of the same mind and heart of Jesus) that The Lord will fill them with His grace and power in this unfaithful moment that threatens our Church and our children and faithful seminarians in Rome.

  4. What is to become of those who discern that partial discernment is not enough?

    We have this from Philip Hughes (The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870), writing on the eve of the Second Vatican Council which discerned the need to return–and listen–to the Church Fathers, i.e., ressourcement as well as aggironamento). He cites one Louis Duschesne:

    “…Very, very different is the spirit that gives life to the theology of St. Cyril [Christ as redeemer rather than only a model]. Here Jesus Christ is truly God-within-us. The Christian makes a direct contact with Him, by a union of natures, a mysterious union indeed, under the sacramental veil of the Eucharist. Through this body and this blood he comes to make the contact with God, for these have, in Jesus Christ, a union (equally a union of natures) with divinity…To the poor peasant working in the fields of the Delta, to the dock labourer at the port of Pharos, Cyril gives the message that, in this world, he can touch God. And that through this contact, whence springs a mystical kingship, he can receive assurance about the life hereafter; not only the guarantee that he is immortal, but that he will be immortal joined with God.”

    For us, those who listen today, Hughes then adds: “Such can be the practical importance of ‘abstract theological thought’.”

  5. Will palanca letters (remember those?) from family and friends be delivered to these youth attendees during some optimum moment of sleep deprivation that will cause them to weep, hug others and “change their lives forever,” a “forever” of about 4 months? Or alternately, will they and conservative “rigid” Bishops change their “convictions” in favor of something akin to Rahner’s anonymous Christianity but now paradoxically an anonymous Christianity for practicing Catholics?

    Will they consider these changed “convictions” also “convictions” or simply greater “maturity?” Who will “discern” this “greater maturity?” Bergoglio?

    Spoiler alert. I have come to this conclusion: in our times, there are no more “spiritual elders.” And if there are, they remain hidden, seeking no “spiritual children,” hidden in prayer. This is not a novel view…

    And these “elders” seeking “spiritual children?”

  6. Dialogue?
    What about answering the “dubia.” That would be a good place to start a “conversation.” It might even bring Bergoglio to conversion.
    Then he can move on to the issues raised credibly by Archbishop Viganò.
    Beyond that there is plenty to discuss about the abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, conclave shenanigans, human resources abuses at the CDF, the oppression of classical expressions of religious life…
    Is there anything else about which the good pope would like to dialogue?

  7. I and many faithful Catholic friends have held the prospect of this synod in dread and not quite known why. Now we do.

    With shock we viewed a picture of the Pope at this event, holding a most un-holy symbol, the pagan stang, instead of a crucifix.

    What is this man thinking of and does he really know what this symbol stands for? It is used in witchcraft as a symbol of the ‘horned god’ – and I refuse to give that title capital letters! Some descriptions describe a stang as connecting the ‘ancient to the new’ – and that is scarey also.

    Whatever, it is a diabolical sign, and although we know not to be afraid, it’s a bit hard when one is human. Have the ‘occupying forces’ in the Vatican hidden something evil in plain sight? Enough is enough.

    he does know, and has chosen to use it then we must all be afraid.

  8. A wise Pope would DISCERN that restoring the confidence of the lay faithful in the leadership of the Church involve demanding all of McCarrick’s protégés and allies relinquish their red hats and mitres (beginning with B. Cupich, J. Tobin, K. Farrell, D. Wuerl). And with such acts of good faith, a sincere DIALOG can commence with the Dubia Cardinals and their questions.

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