In his greeting to the gathered assembly, the Pope recalled that a synod is not a parliament or senate, where people do deals and make compromises, but rather a journeying together of the people of God, guided by the Holy Spirit. He appealed for courage, humility and prayer, so that participants may not be intimidated by worldly temptations, but at the same time that they may not turn the Church into a “museum of memories”, unable or unwilling to respond to the challenges facing so many families today.
Synod secretary general Cardinal Baldisseri outlined the previous steps on this journey, from the much talked about consistory of cardinals back in 2014, right up to the World Meeting of Families that concluded in Philadelphia last weekend. In between we’ve had a year of reflections on family life from the Pope at his weekly general audiences and a new document making it simpler and cheaper to obtain annulments for those whose marriages can be declared invalid – both important parts of the puzzle for those trying to predict how this highly charged meeting will pan out.
For the secular press inevitably, the focus of the past weekend has been on the ‘coming out’ of a Polish monsignor working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, timed- as the head of the Holy See press office put it – to subject the Synod to “undue media pressure” on issues of celibacy and gay relationships. In a lengthy introductory presentation, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo touched on – in his words – the “pastoral care of people with homosexual tendencies”, but he also outlined so many other issues, from violence, migration and unemployment to cohabitation, divorce or declining birth rates, often stemming from the individualism or fear of commitment often experienced by young people today.
In short, there’s a lot for synod participants to get their heads around over the next three weeks before a final document is drawn up and voted on. A couple of cardinals I chatted with over coffee this morning said despite the huge workload, the atmosphere was ‘serene’ with bishops convinced that differing perspectives can enrich the discussion, rather than being a source of irreconcilable division, as the media would so often have it. Other participants were a bit more realistic perhaps, describing a sense of tension and awareness of just how important this meeting may prove for the credibility of the Church over the coming years.
The only person in the room I spotted completely unaffected by the whole proceedings was a tiny baby snoozing quietly in the arms of his father, one of the 18 couples who’ll be sharing some very practical experiences of the joys, hopes, sorrows and anxieties of bringing up a family today.