On the road to Emmaus
Youth delegates arrive for a session of the synod at the Vatican
The Synod in Rome
During his first sit-down interview, at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis made some remarks about synods which, at the time, were largely overlooked. “Synodality should be lived at various levels,” he told Antonio Spadaro SJ in August 2013, six months after election. “Maybe it is time to change the methods of the Synod of Bishops. Because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic.” Five years on it is becoming clear that the Synod of Bishops has become one of the primary structures in Francis’ programme of church renewal.
When it comes to youth, which the current synod is focusing on, the Catholic Church could be described as the IBM of the religious world. In the early years of personal computing, lots of people bought IBM computers. They were solid, stable and did the job. Today, particularly in the West and in Latin America, many have switched to new, more nimble tech providers – just as many are switching from the Catholic Church to evangelical or charismatic Churches.
“Young people are disconnected, or seem to be disconnected, from the Church because they feel it isn’t relevant,” Sebastian Duhau, 22, from Australia and the youngest anglophone participant at the synod, told me. “In Australia, we’ve got Hillsong [Pentecostal church] and other movements that see young people flock to them on Sundays; there’s obviously something that’s attracting them. We can learn from that.” The question is whether the Church can develop the software and technology that will connect with young people. Can the synod provide the platform for a missionary Church imbued with the joy of the Gospel?
This Synod, participants say, is a strange beast: it’s neither a decision-making parliament nor just a debating forum; under Francis it is a space for listening and discernment. It seems like going on retreat, with a generous helping of church politics thrown in, and a complicated Roman structure, including “auditors”, “relators” and “special secretaries”.
Despite its limitations, most find that the new process works. “It’s an act of faith,” one participant said. Critics argue that too much focus on synods opens up the Church’s internal divisions, detracts from the office of the papacy and will get the Church bogged down with infighting rather than being focused on evangelisation. The two synod gatherings on the family in 2014 and 2015 saw fiery exchanges, and even a protest letter from a group of cardinals. To its defenders, the more open synods of the Francis papacy are exposing the divisions that were already under the surface.
“We’re walking together, and we are doing it as a family,” the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, one of the most prominent synod fathers, told me. “It’s giving people a growing sense that we are moving into an adult Church, not an infantile Church. This is the way adults deal with differences, they don’t look to Daddy to solve all their problems, or hide them because they are afraid of conflict.” He added: “I grew up in a big family of nine children. We made sure people said what was on their mind, even if they disagreed with one another, and we found a new kind of unity because we could respect each other despite the fact we had disagreements.”
The youngest members of the family are certainly having a say. In the synod hall, a group of 18- to 29-year-olds sit at the back. They cannot vote, but they are making their voices heard. They have developed a “clap-o-meter” where each bishop’s intervention in the gathering is greeted with whoops, cheers or just polite applause. It is a slightly cheeky example of the organic “synodality” in action so loved by this Pope.
“A Church that does not listen shows herself closed to newness, closed to God’s surprises, and cannot be credible, especially for the young who will inevitably turn away rather than approach,” Francis told the synod fathers at the opening of the gathering. He shows his appreciation by raising his arms and clapping at the more inspiring interventions, and he has intervened himself on at least two occasions. The synod officials have not released what he said, but according to those inside the hall he synthesised the important points from other speakers in what was described to me as a “model of listening”.
It’s easy to assume that popes have all sorts of levers in front of them which they can pull to make things happen. The truth is much more complicated. For a reform-minded pontiff faced with an ancient bureaucracy dominated by the mantra “We’ve always done things this way”, there are limited tools at his disposal. One of these is the synod. Biblically-rooted, it has its origins in the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who, as they “talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them”.
Local synods have been a feature in the life of the Church for centuries, but it wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council drew to a close in 1965 that Pope Paul VI announced the establishment of the permanent synod of bishops. Under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, bishops complained that while the gatherings raised important questions, the synod conclusions were tightly controlled by the Roman Curia. Under Francis, the first Latin American Pope imbued with his own synodal and collegial experience as co-ordinator of The Aparecida Document – the dynamic missionary blueprint produced by the bishops of Latin and Central America in 2007 – things look very different.
The synod process starts with consultations in the local churches, with Francis wanting more “synodal”-style structures from parishes upwards. Bishops are called on by the Pope to speak with “frankness” and not to be afraid to have disagreements.
Francis walks from his Casa Santa Marta residence each day to attend the synod sessions, greeting participants at the door, drinking coffee with them, posing for selfies and exchanging jokes. But the gathering taking place in Rome’s autumn sunshine and sporadic showers comes after a torrid summer of sexual abuse disclosures. The discussions, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols told me, have taken on a “tone of realism” and “self-critical reflection”. Clerical sexual abuse will feature in the final synod document.
For the first time, two Chinese bishops are attending the synod. Watching the participants come and go is an instructive exercise. Young people from every continent arrive together with bishops in mini-vans; Religious walk up to the hall in their habits and the odd prelate turns up sporting a cassock with trainers. The overriding sense is of a global, colourful and multidimensional melting pot of a Church. Francis is trying to realise the dream once expressed by the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of a Church which is “synodal, poor among the poor, inspired by the gospel of the beatitudes, leaven and mustard seed”.
To the Pope’s critics the message is the Bishop of Rome “walking with, and listening to” his flock, and placing those intent on undermining his papacy outside the ecclesial reservation. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that the Vatican chose the first weekend of the synod to issue its one-two punch fightback to Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s allegations against the Pope, with an announcement of an internal inquiry into the Archbishop McCarrick files on Saturday, and releasing Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s fiery response on Sunday. Then, a week later, Francis canonised two pillars of the contemporary Church, Oscar Romero and Paul VI, who both epitomised a Church focused outward, and close to the marginalised.
Under Francis, synods are not just meetings taking place in Rome every two years, concluding in a papal document published several months later. Synodality is a new expression of the Church’s life and mission, a way of inviting constant dialogue and discernment. The next formal synod gathering will take place a year from now, and it will focus on the Amazon. The role of women and the ordination of married priests are both on the agenda. The Church’s synodal journey is just beginning.