Pope Francis stops and shakes hands with a Swiss Guard as he enters into the Synod Hall for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. October 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma
This week an extraordinary meeting began at the Vatican. In Vatican words it is the “Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges on the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” Huh? What’s that? It is a meeting to discuss and seek answers to some of the hottest questions facing the church today.
Let me give a quick list of some of the issues that have emerged from all five continents: birth control, communion for divorced and remarried couples, pre-marital sex, in-vitro fertilization, pre-marital co-habitation, baptism for adopted children of gay couples, polygamy, child brides, teen mothers, migration and domestic violence and abuse. Wow, that is enough to leave anyone’s head spinning.
Unlike Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who would arrive at meetings in a car from the Papal apartments, Pope Francis showed up early Monday morning, walking over from the Santa Marta residence where he lives. In a gesture that I have seen before, Pope Francis stopped in front of the Swiss guard saluting at the door and shook his hand. To me this simple gesture says a lot. Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan said in an interview in “Corriere Della Sera” today that inside the Synod Hall Pope Francis leaves his seat walks around seeking out people he wants to speak to, he gets a coffee with the rest of them and chats with the waiters. Pope Francis wants to reach out to everyone, that is what he is doing on a personal level, and that is clearly the direction he is pushing the church, but not everyone agrees with him.
In his opening statement, Pope Francis urged the 235 attendees to speak their minds. He said, “speak clearly,” “without fear” and “listen with humility.”
So, who is attending this meeting and can we expect them to reach any decisions? There are 235 people attending, 191 of whom are the Synod fathers — Bishops and Cardinals who will have a say in the final document. The others are priests and nuns, experts and observers. Among the observers are 14 married couples — one of which is a mixed marriage between a Catholic and Muslim. There is a total of 25 women attending.
To prepare for this meeting, the Vatican sent out a questionnaire one year ago to be given to Catholics around the world asking them in 39 questions about issues related to the family. The results showed that on some key issues, birth-control for example, many Catholics ignore church teaching. From that Synod organizers put together a working document called the Instrumentem Laboris, laying out what they intend to discuss. (If anyone is interested in reading it, here is the link to the English version on the Vatican website. INSTRUMENTEM LABORIS )
Pope Francis at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma
For many people in the US and Europe, the meeting is about birth-control, and communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, but this week I spoke to Robert Mickens, Editor-in-Chief of the Global Pulse and a long time Vatican watcher. He told me,
“We have got issues of single people, we’ve got issues of gays and lesbians – this is all spelled out in that document. Birth control for example, that is one of the things that has always been a hot-button issue in the church ever since 1968 when Paul VI issued Humane Vitae….but you have to remember that this is an international meeting. We are not talking just about North America or Europe, where the issues like divorced and remarriage are very much in the forefront. There are issues of polygamy in other countries and on other continents. So the Synod is going to have to somehow deal with all these things.”
Cardinals at prayer vigil on October 4th, the night before the opening of the Synod on the family. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma
Before the Synod even began, controversy was brewing over the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
The debate started in February when a prominent German Cardinal, Walter Kasper, delivered a speech during a closed meeting of cardinals in which he presented the possibility that divorced Catholics who are re-married might be able to receive communion. The key word in Kasper’s thinking is the same as the title of a book he wrote called “Mercy”. Kasper thinks that mercy should be shown to those who are divorced and remarried.
Before the opening of the Synod, five Cardinals, including the Head of the Vatican’s office for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court, published a book expressing their views in sharp contrast to Cardinal Kasper. The book, titled “Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church,” appeared in bookstores near the Vatican just as the Synod was about to begin.
Australian Cardinal George Pell, Pope Francis’ top economic adviser, did the same in a preface to another book, making his case on the indissolubility of marriage. (A little side note, one Italian Vaticanista told me, making a play on words with the Cardinal’s last name, that Cardinal Pell “non ha peli su la lingua” which literally translated is “he doesn’t have hairs on his tongue” and means he speaks his mind, a straight shooter who says exactly what he thinks. That is apparently what Francis wants — people who speak their minds, even if they disagree with him.
While the Synod Fathers debated the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, out on the street in front of the Vatican, the public was with Kasper. An Associated Press Television crew spoke to some married couples attending the Pope’s weekly audience. Pamela Scarpitta, a newlywed from Salerno, Italy attending the audience in her wedding dress, said she thought it was not fair that divorced and remarried couples cannot take communion. “If Christ came to heal the sinners, why shouldn’t they receive the communion? This is not to say divorced people are all sinners, but they are those who need it the most. So why deny it to them? ”
Inside the Synod Hall it has been a busy week. The Vatican heard from a couple who has been married for 55 years, Ron and Mavis Pirola of Australia, who shook up the the austere group by talking about the joys of sex and how Catholic friends warmly welcomed their gay son’s partner in their home for a Christmas celebration.
Outside the Synod, Cardinal Burke immediately expressed his opposition to a family welcoming a gay couple into their home. In an interview with Lifesite News he said, “If homosexual relations are intrinsically disordered, which indeed they are — reason teaches us that and also our faith — then, what would it mean to grandchildren to have present at a family gathering a family member who is living in a disordered relationship with another person?”
However, other Bishops speaking in the Synod have suggested that the Vatican needs to change its language getting rid of expressions like “living in sin”, “contraceptive mentality” and “intrinsically disordered” (in reference to homosexual sex) because they are judgmental and distance people from the Church.
Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, suggested streamlining the annulment process (don’t expect any annulment drive-thrus at the Vatican any time soon). Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama said on homosexuals, “We would defend any person with homosexual orientation who has been harassed, who has been imprisoned or punished.”
Progressives seem pleased with the process, conservatives less so. AP wire’s Vaticanista Nicole Winfield pointed out a website to me that is highly critical. It is called “The Catholic Thing.” There I found the following quote from Robert Royal reporting on the Synod:
“The mood in Rome is – let’s just speak the truth – tense. According to one quite reliable source on site, it’s not only the “Ratzingerians” like Cardinal Burke who have been feeling an icy wind. It’s also more “moderate” Cardinals and members of the Curia who simply don’t know what to make of what’s going on. And fear what might happen if they say the “wrong” thing – difficult to avoid when things are so unclear.
… the responses to the pope in private – again, beyond the usual conservative suspects and into more neutral, mainstream figures – has been equally tart: “a Latin dictator,” “a Peron,” someone who likes to be center stage in the limelight. And perhaps the most shocking comment of all from more than one person: “His health is bad, so at least this won’t last too long.”
YIKES! I have never heard any of those descriptions of Pope Francis before.
But beyond the debate,what is actually going to happen? The Synod ends on October 19th. A team of bishops will be putting together a final document with the conclusions from the Synod. This document will be sent to bishops around the world to be discussed in their archdioceses. Catholics around the globe will have a chance to read it and give their opinion. In one year the Synod will meet again to go over the results. When next year’s synod ends the Pope will release a “Apostolic Exhortation”, which presumably will include some changes. So if anyone is expected any tangible changes after these two weeks, they can forget it. But the ball is rolling.
Blog readers — all this Synod stuff is very complicated– I didn’t even touch the question of pastoral vs. doctrinal changes– so if you are interested in more detail, I suggest you read the articles written by my colleagues and friends including, AP wire’s Vatican expert Nicole Winfield @nwinfield, John Thavis’ Blog www.JohnThavis.com, Father Thomas Reese on National Catholic Reporter ncronline.com, Bob Mickens at the Global Pulse Mag www.globalpulsemagazine.com, all the reporting by Catholic News Service, and John Allen at www.cruxnow.com — I know all these people and they are all excellent Vatican reporters. If you are interested in the views of the guy I quoted above, I do not know him and do no agree with the viewpoint, but the website is: www.thecatholicthing.org
A huge THANK YOU to my AP colleagues – photographers Alessandra Tarantino and Gregorio Borgia who are always so generous about giving me their extra photographs that don’t go out on the AP Wire.