Article for the Church Times – Published 24/10/14
The sun was scorching; more like July than late October. The position fantastic; right near the front just yards from the canopied holy table, and from the Pope’s throne. Right at the heart of the action. But then I stood and looked out across the packed St Peter’s Square and wondered whether perhaps that was really where the action would be found. This is where the ordinary people would comment on Pope Paul VI being beatified; here is where comments would be heard about Pope Francis, and about the Relatio synodi released on the Saturday evening.
The very splendid pontifical mass concluded the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation. All the cardinals, bishops, archbishops and lay auditors were there on the highest steps in front of the ever impressive St Peter’s. This was us gathering for worship together for the final time. In spite of the size there was a camaraderie around that reflected the fellowship and friendships that had grown through the fortnight. Yet it also illustrated for me some of what the whole synod had been wrestling with throughout its time; both in the plenary congregations of week one and the small groups of week two. Here were all the great and mighty of the Roman Church gathered, with a few invited lay and fraternal guests alongside them. Down in the square and up on the surrounding balconies were the bulk of ordinary faithful Catholics who love their Lord, their church and their Pope. At the far back of the square were those who perhaps had happened upon this all by accident and just hung around to watch and wonder. How well do the two worlds connect? The brave decision to ask Catholics all over the world to respond to 8 questions about family life had led to a very rich input from delegate after delegate around the world. We heard so many stories of faithful family life, and of suffering, pain, breakdown and valiant faithful rebuilding. Divorce and remarriage, broken family relationships because of enforced migration, deep poverty, domestic violence and many other reasons had filled the hall. The deep passion and compassion of pastors, and of truly impressive lay organisations, seeking to care for those who found themselves broken, often through no fault of their own. Yet from these same people a desire to show that family life is joyous for many; that marriage does work and that the gospel remains good news.
Then there were those desperately concerned that somehow any change on Eucharistic discipline, or on responding positively to people whose relationships do not conform to the sacrament of an indissoluble marriage, would so undermine core teaching that all would be lost. Sometimes these voices seemed disconnected from the others; sometimes they did not.
Sitting in deep listening throughout was Pope Francis himself. He challenged everyone at the outset to speak openly; and they took him at his word. He challenged us all at the very end to reflect on where we had given in to the temptation to play safe and not go adventuring with the God of all mercy and truth. He is deeply committed to the truths held by the Roman church; anyone who thinks he is going to make radical changes to doctrine really does misunderstand him. But he is also deeply committed to accompanying people in their pain. The Good Samaritan parable speaks powerfully to him of how the church should respond to the challenges of poverty and violence and family breakdown wherever it is found.
It was an extraordinary privilege to be part of this synod. The seriousness of engagement throughout was hugely impressive. The depth of welcome and engagement with those of us acting as fraternal delegates was humbling. The commitment to faithful living out of the gospel, especially from the lay auditors was inspiring.
There is no doubt disappointment at some of the final statement. But there is much misunderstanding. Nothing was being decided at this synod; that comes at the end of next year’s larger and longer Ordinary Synod. What was produced this time goes back out for Bishops’ Conferences, and hopefully parish churches to consider again. Undoubtedly Pope Francis told us all at the end to keep journeying in mercy and accompaniment. The people in the square are being listened to by their Pope and he is serenely and firmly seeking to lead his whole church forward, though holding fast to the core of its faith.
After the final congregation and the Relatio had been voted on the Pope went out of the hall and straight over to talk with the journalists. One had her baby with her. He smiled, laughed and prayed with them. As a journalist said to me, ‘He has time for everyone.’ it will be interesting to see what more time for everyone will produce in 12 months time.