Monday, October 20, 2014

The Synod: A Messy Journey

Whether you take one side or the other in the discussions at the Synod on the Family you have to admit that we have seen in action that fifth mark of the Church.

Those of us raised on the Baltimore Catechism remember the question and answer: Q. What are the chief marks of the Church? A. The chief marks of the Church are four: one, holy, catholic or universal, and apostolic.

Those marks or properties were proposed as criteria for proving that the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ.  Over the centuries apologists suggested many other marks (or signs, characteristics, arguments) to demonstrate Catholic claims: e.g, miracles, pastoral succession, antiquity, infallibility, and even indefectibility.

The number of marks in the 16th century ranged from two to a hundred. Since the 17th century we have generally agreed on listing the four.

Throughout it all, however, the fifth mark which I think we saw at play in the Second Vatican Council, in the Synod on the Family, and in countless other occasions in Church history has yet to be officially added to the list, even though it has been there since the Council of Jerusalem (cf Acts 15) and in Jesus’ relations with the apostles –the Church is also messy.

It has to be messy (unsettled, in conflict, contentious) because it is made up of people, and as a result sometimes has, in Pope Benedict XVI’s famous phrase, “a disfigured face.”

The controversies at the Synod demonstrate that the Church is a living body, still wrestling with implementation of the Gospel, still on a journey. In his closing remarks Pope Francis described the Synod as facing “moments of desolation, of tensions and temptations.”

One temptation , he noted, was “to hostile inflexibility, that is, wanting to close oneself within the written word (the letter), and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises (the spirit): within the law, within the certitude of what we know and not of what we still need to learn and to achieve.”

At the same time there was at the synod a temptation to, what Pope Francis called, “a destructive tendency to goodness (in Italian, buonismo), that in the name of deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots. It is the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so called ‘progressives and liberals.’”

Clearly the Holy Father was walking a fine line, but a necessary one if the integrity of the Gospel is to be preserved.

He reminded his audience, “Dear brothers and sisters, now we still have one year to mature, with true spiritual discernment, the proposed ideas and to find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront., to give answers to the many discouragements that surround and suffocate families. One year to work on the ‘Synodal Relatio’ which is the faithful and clear summary of everything that has been said and discussed in this hall and in the small groups. It is presented to the Episcopal Conferences as ‘lineamenta’ (guidelines).”

The discussions continue, contentious points will be debated again and again in bishops’ conferences around the world, in anticipation of the next Synod in October of 2015.

The initial summation (the so-called relatio post disceptationem) issued on October 13, midway through the Synod, was met with applause by some and rejection by others.

Reports from the Vatican indicate that points in the initial summation were submitted to intense discussion by the bishops, leading to a change in language. This final report has been judged  “a compromise document” and a “re-balanced” report.

Two of the issues which caused sparks focused on homosexuals and divorced/remarried Catholics.

Those who expect or want a non-messy Church are sure to be disappointed as discussions and debates continue over the next twelve months.

It is said that Pope Francis’ speech at the closing of the Synod was greeted with sustained applause, a welcome sign that differences in opinion and theological application do not undermine the fundamental unity of the Church.

We are now in a time of discernment, a time for finding concrete solutions (to borrow the language of Pope Francis). It is therefore a time of prayer, of openness to direction from the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis prayed, “May the Lord accompany us, and guide us in the journey for the glory of his name, with the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of Saint Joseph.”

And then he added, “And please, do not forget to pray for me! Thank you!”

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