Attending the Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome

The session of the Synod of Bishops on the Family is now well underway in Rome. The streets are full of tourists. For many of them the excitement of being in the city is amplified when, twice a day, prelates dressed in red and purple walk to the Vatican. They’re heading to the Paul VI Synod Hall for the daily sessions.

Journalists sit at every possible entrance to the Vatican, hoping to get an interview or picture. If they’re lucky, they might get a glimpse of the Pope. He walks to the hall to join the other 270 bishops who are delegates at the Synod. There are also a number of married couples, auditors and fraternal delegates in attendance. 

The Synod sessions meet six days a week – only Sundays are free. Each day there are two long sessions. Some days the delegates meet in plenary, on others in small language groups. It’s in these small groups or “circoli minori” that much of the work is done. It’s also in these groups that some of the biggest challenges facing the Catholic Church are being vigorously debated.

The mass media has tended to zone in on a few issues: the admittance of the divorced and remarried to Communion, contraception, and how the Church responds to homosexuality. These are being spoken about and, at times, cause robust debate! There are divergent opinions on the way forward. However, much more is on the agenda.

Issues ranging from violence against women, abuse, war, migration, legal systems that disrupt family life, polygamy, poverty, political situations, the reasons why young people delay or resist making commitments today, cohabitation, marriage preparation and the accompaniment of couples, have all been laid out for discussion.

Three weeks will not be enough for all these issues to be adequately dealt with. There is, despite any claims to the contrary, a real ideological and ecclesial division amongst the bishops. Some are very resistant to change. Just this week a letter was leaked to the media, which was signed by twelve Cardinals, outlining their concerns to Pope Francis about how he is conducting the Synod. Pope Francis clearly faces internal resistance to his desire for a more open and merciful Church.

Vaticanista tell me that this Synod is remarkable in that nothing has been “controlled” – in past Synods interventions had to be vetted before going public. This Synod has been a place for delegates to speak freely and openly about anything – and they have.

Will the Church change significantly? No. There might be a shift in pastoral practice for the admission of the divorced and remarried to communion. We may see some development in the requirements for people wishing to marry – pre and post marriage. A slight change in the language the Church uses to talk to families could be on the cards. Any other changes will be up to Pope Francis after the Synod.

It’s an unenviable task. However, the Jubilee Year of Mercy is ahead and Francis is, after all, the “Pope of Surprises”.

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
B.A. (UNISA) B.D. (Urbaniana) M.Th. (UKZN)

Fr Russell Pollitt SJ is the Director of the Jesuit Institute and is interested in the impact that communications technology has on society and spirituality. He regularly comments on South African Politics and various issues in the Catholic Church.

r.pollitt@jesuitinstitute.org.za @rpollittsj
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