Pope Francis is worried about the synod, and he wants journalists to help tell the real story of it—only it appears he also wants them to tell it as told by the managers of his seminal and legacy-sealing “synod on synodality” and his own comms outfit.
He said so himself, in words, during a special audience at the Apostolic Palace to present him with the Premio “È giornalismo” – that’s Italian for “the ‘It’s Journalism!’ Prize” – awarded since 1995 by a prestigious group of Italian scribblers to journalists and high-profile personalities in television and other media “who have,” to hear the pope’s own official Vatican News media outlet tell it, “shaped the narrative of current affairs in Italy with objectivity, professionalism and creativity.”
In a speech to the delegation that presented him with the award in late August, Pope Francis said, “In just over a month, bishops and lay people from all over the world will meet here in Rome for a synod on synodality: listening together, discerning together, praying together.”
Pope Francis went on to call the synod on synodality “abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical,” at least in appearance to folks on the outside, and “of little interest to the general public,” though he insisted that the gathering is one of real importance for the Church.
Then he asked the “masters of journalism” to help him “narrate this process for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories.”
One would expect an announcement of unprecedented access for accredited journalists to the synod hall should have followed on the heels of a speech like that, or at least a relaxation of restrictions and some of the more heavy-handed management apparatus that has grown around such gatherings over the years.
Synod assemblies have always been highly managed affairs, and access to the sessions themselves has usually been prohibited, while gatekeepers and message managers have used tools like scheduled media availabilities with select officials and participants.
Instead, Pope Francis told inquiring journalists on the flight home from Mongolia that they’d have to rely on Paolo Ruffini, who heads the communications dicastery, for daily reports.
In case you’d forgotten, Ruffini and his outfit are the ones responsible for the marvelous message discipline on display at the extraordinary synod assembly for the Amazon.
When it comes to process, Pope Francis told journalists: “There is one thing that we must safeguard, the synodal atmosphere.” He said the synod “is not a television show where you talk about everything,” but “a religious moment,” in which “there is a moment of religious exchange.”
“Regarding the privacy of discussions,” Pope Francis said, “there is a department headed by Dr. Ruffini, who is here, and who will issue press releases regarding the synod progress.”
“In a synod,” Pope Francis said, “it is necessary to safeguard religiosity and safeguard the freedom of those who speak,” hence, “there will be a commission, chaired by Dr. Ruffini, which will provide information on the progress of the synod.”
Cindy Wooden of CNS pressed the issue in a follow-up.
“We journalists don’t even have access to the Assembly and the general sessions,” Wooden said, after noting the great numbers of laity who have given time and energy to preparation efforts at home and will want to know what’s happening in the hall they helped prepare.
“How can we be sure,” Wooden asked, “that what we are given as gruel [It. pappa, which could be gruel but is more like mashed or puréed baby food] is true? Is there not a possibility of being a little more open with journalists?”
“But [it is] very open, dear,” Pope Francis replied. “It is very open,” he said. “There is a commission chaired by Ruffini that will give the news every day, but more open, I don’t know, more open, I don’t know.”
Pope Francis went on to promise that the commission “will be very respectful of everyone’s speeches and will try not to chitter-chatter, but to say the things precisely on the synodal progress, which are constructive for the Church.”
“If someone wants the news to be, ‘This person has taken it out on that person for this or that reason,’ that is political gossip,” Pope Francis said.
“Do not forget that the protagonist of the Synod is the Holy Spirit,” Pope Francis said. “How can this be transmitted?” he asked.
I guess we will have to wait for Paolo Ruffini to show us.
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