This morning in Rome, Pope Francis offered an address to formally open the first session of the Synod on the Family; a Synod that will carry forward the work of the III Extraordinary General Assembly of Bishops which caused quite a bit of controversy last October.
Instead of back tracking to the controversy, let's take a look at what the Pope offered this morning in his address to the assembly (full text of the remarks here).
Pope Francis sets the stage:
The Synod, as we know, is a journey undertaken together in the spirit of collegiality and synodality, on which participants bravely adopt parrhesia, pastoral zeal and doctrinal wisdom, frankness, and always keep before our eyes the good of the Church, of families and the suprema lex, the Salus animarum.I think we may need to unpack this sentence a bit.
spirit of collegiality and synodality -- in ecclesial definition, collegiality is the shared responsibility of the bishops for their flocks, and synodality (hadn't heard the word synod/synodal "verbed" before) is the ecclesial mission/journey/work to be done along the way as they are gathered in collegiality. Basically, the Pope wanted them to remember that this is a joint assignment to better prepare the Church for her mission in the world.
participants bravely adopt parrhesia, pastoral zeal...always keep before our eyes the good of the Church, of families... -- parrhesia means frankness or boldness in speech. Pope Francis seems to want to drive home this point because he mentions it twice in the sentence; but he doesn't mention it without its proper relation to doctrinal wisdom. In other words, don't go off half-cocked on ridiculous worldly notions to change the Church, but rather act with pastoral zeal to increase the holiness of yourselves and your flock.
always keep before our eyes...the suprema lex, the Salus animarum -- translation: the supreme law of the salvation of souls; this is a Canon Law term that relates to "OBSTINATE HERESY". Well, that seems pretty clear. We're not going to be changing any doctrine here.
What IS the Synod then? Pope Francis defines the Synod this way:
The Synod is...an Ecclesial expression, i.e., the Church that journeys together to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God; it is the Church that interrogates herself with regard to her fidelity to the deposit of faith, which does not represent for the Church a museum to view, nor even something merely to safeguard, but is a living source from which the Church shall drink, to satisfy the thirst of, and illuminate, the deposit of life.He then breaks it down into three distinct characteristics:
1. The Synod moves necessarily within the bosom of the Church and of the holy people of God, to which we belong in the quality of shepherds – which is to say, as servants.
It is a place to serve, to serve the flock which depends on the quality of the shepherd. He's asking the bishops to set aside personal human biases and look to what will get their flock to heaven, not make them more popular among their flock. It is the quality of the shepherd that leads the flock to eternity or to damnation. Pope Francis says self-examine, put aside personal political design, and serve the flock.
2. The Synod also is a protected space in which the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit. In the Synod, the Spirit speaks by means of every person’s tongue, who let themselves be guided by the God who always surprises, the God who reveals himself to little ones, who hides from the knowing and intelligent; the God who created the law and the Sabbath for man and not vice versa; by the God, who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one lost sheep; the God who is always greater than our logic and our calculations.
The Synod is where the Holy Spirit acts; but Pope Francis reminds that Spirit only speaks through those who "let themselves be guided by God who always surprises...who reveals himself to little ones...hides from the knowing and intelligent..." He is calling for the bishops to experience kenosis -- and emptying of self to allow the Spirit to fill them. Again, he encourages them to put aside the temptations of the world and allow the Spirit to illuminate the law and the prophets, to bring the teachings of Christ to life by reminding them of their duty to guide their flock by imitating "the God who created the law and the Sabbath for man and not vice versa; by the God, who leaves the 99 sheep to look for the one lost sheep; the God who is always greater than our logic and our calculations". He reminds them that pride and arrogance can cloud the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and to avoid the folly of the devil by falling prey to our own intelligent notions of what is best, what will make people happy. Rather Pope Francis calls them to be little, to listen and to engage in the ways of God through the Holy Spirit's influence on their hearts and minds.
3. Let us remember, however, that the Synod will be a space for the action of the Holy Spirit only if we participants vest ourselves with apostolic courage, evangelical humility and trusting prayer: with that apostolic courage, which refuses to be intimidated in the face of the temptations of the world – temptations that tend to extinguish the light of truth in the hearts of men, replacing it with small and temporary lights; nor even before the petrification of some hearts, which, despite good intentions, drive people away from God; apostolic courage to bring life and not to make of our Christian life a museum of memories; evangelical humility that knows how to empty itself of conventions and prejudices in order to listen to brother bishops and be filled with God – humility that leads neither to finger-pointing nor to judging others, but to hands outstretched to help people up without ever feeling oneself superior to them.
It wasn't enough for our pontiff to call the bishops to humble and sincere trust once. He knows his brothers; he knows they face the same if not greater pressures from the temptations of the world as a result of their office. In light of this, he calls them to evangelical humility, and to resist the "temptations of the world" that "tend to extinguish the light of truth in the hearts of men." He calls the to judge the situation, not the man, and to remember their place as servant.
What is the Synod NOT?
Pope Francis doesn't mince words:
"...[T]he Synod is neither a convention, nor a parlor, nor a parliament or senate, where people make deals and reach compromises."
What should we make of this statement to the bishops ready to enter into conversation and deliberation at this Synod?
Basically, the pope is saying to leave your arrogance, your political interests, your gossip, your bureaucracy at the door. Enter in with an heart open to the will of God, and assess today's family, their societal situation, their challenges and their gifts, and hear how the Holy Spirit wishes you to assist them on their journey.
It will be an interesting month watching how the Synod unfolds and whether his brother bishops will heed the wisdom of the pope's words to them. Ours is to do what St. Pio recommends: "pray, hope and don't worry".