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SynodWatch RoundUP for October 23: God is waiting for your reply; Saturday is the Big Day; The Sins of Our Fathers

Today begins the final week of the synod.   A draft of the “Letter to the People of God” was read and applauded by the participants.  They can make additional comments until 6pm today, and then the final text is going to be approved and published on Wednesday.

The work this week for Module 5, will be making changes to the final document – the map that will be used for the next year as we head to the 2024 Synod on Synodality.

Sr. Maria Grazia Angelini O.S.B Photo by Joshua McElwee/NCR

Sr. Maria Grazia Angelini O.S.B gave a beautiful spiritual reflection today about the new stories, new parables, and new narratives  we are telling in the church today.  She ended with:

I pray that this Synod will receive the art of new narratives, the radical humility of those who learn to recognize the likeness of the Kingdom in the truest, most vital dynamisms of the human, of the primary bonds, of the life that pulses mysteriously in all the worlds and spheres of human existence, in an admirable hidden harmony. With such patience. The ability to peer into the night.

Wishing you good final work: in the telling of new parables that help you to think, grow, hope, walk – together.

Dominican Timothy Radcliffe, Vatican Media

Dominican Timothy Radcliffe also offered some thoughtful, tender remarks.  Anybody who quotes Rilke has my attention.

In a few days’ time, we shall go home for eleven months. This will be apparently a time of empty waiting. But it will be probably the most fertile time of the Synod, the time of germination. Jesus tells us: ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how’.

We have listened to hundreds of thousands of words during the last three weeks. Sometimes we have thought: ‘Too many!’  Most of these have been positive words, words of hope and aspiration. These are the seeds that are sown in the soil of the Church. They will be at work in our lives, in our imagination and our subconscious, during these months. When the moment is right, they will bear fruit.

The poet Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry,
He can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly
‘Transmuted into summer’. The earth bestows.[1]

Then he continued:

These eleven months will be like a pregnancy…

So this is a time of quiet pregnancy…

This is a time of active waiting. Let me repeat the words of Simone Weil I quoted during the retreat. ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them…This way of looking is, in the first place, attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive the human being it is looking at, just as he or she is, in all their truth.[3]

This is profoundly countercultural. The global culture of our time is often polarised, aggressive and dismissive of other people’s views. The cry is: Whose side are you on? When we go home, people will ask, ‘Did you fight for our side? Did you oppose those unenlightened other people?’ We shall need be profoundly prayerful to resist the temptation to succumb to this party-political way of thinking. That would be to fall back into the sterile, barren language of much of our society. It is not the synodal way. The synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive. It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle, and as such will be hard for many to understand, sometimes including ourselves!

These are beautiful and gentle words.  But if we can use a metaphor like pregnancy, it will be all the more heartbreaking — and the metaphor will be all the more empty — if we do not see genuine and clear movement toward full equality for women in our church.  And while I do understand the counsel for waiting for the seeds of the synod to grow, I can’t imagine anything other than continued action for justice.  Martin Luther King Jr. may have recognized that that seeds for racial justice were beginning to sprout, but would not have counseled waiting, but moving and working with hearts full of love for the church, for women, for LGBTQ+ people, for those women, children, and men who live at the edges of poverty and war, and more.

God is Waiting for Your Reply

Fr. Ormond Rush Photo from Vatican media

Father Ormond Rush from Australia gave a synthesis report reminding participants of the theological tensions at the Second Vatican Council and what we can learn for the Synod today.  He liberally cites Joseph Ratizinger who was very much about moving the church forward in those days and using Ratzinger he directly addresses those who hold a rigid claim to truth as well as those who need a way out of that mindset.  But the line I love most is, “God is waiting for your reply.”

Having listened to you over these past three weeks, I have had the impression that some of you are struggling with the notion of tradition, in the light of your love of truth. You are not the first to struggle with this. It was a major point of discussion at the Second Vatican Council. I thought it might be helpful to recall the questions they debated, and the answers they came up with. Their answers are, for us, the authority for guiding our reflections on the issues that confront us today. So, maybe Vatican II has some lessons for this synod, as you now bring to synthesis your discernment regarding the future of the church.

Over the four sessions of the council, one of the major recurring points of tension was this matter of “tradition”. In the first 1962 session, a draft text was presented to the assembly on “the sources of revelation”; it was styled in the categories of neo-scholasticism, which spoke of revelation, faith, scripture and tradition in a mostly one-dimensional way: in terms only of propositional doctrinal statements. When put to the council, the bishops virtually rejected it. The next day, Pope John XXIII agreed that a new text was indeed needed. On the historic significance of this debate, as well as the pope’s decision to intervene, the council peritus Joseph Ratzinger wrote at that time:

The real question behind the discussion could be put this way: Was the intellectual position of “anti-Modernism”—the old policy of exclusiveness, condemnation and defense leading to an almost neurotic denial of all that was new—to be continued? Or would the Church, after it had taken all the necessary precautions to protect the faith, turn over a new leaf and move on into a new and positive encounter with its own origins, with its [fellow human beings] and with the world of today? Since a clear majority of the fathers opted for the second alternative, we may even speak of the Council as a new beginning. We may also say that with this decision there was a major advance over Vatican Council I. Both Trent and Vatican Council I set up bulwarks for the faith to assure it and to protect it; Vatican Council II turned itself to a new task, building on the work of the two previous Councils.[1]

That new task was an engagement of Christian faith with history. What Joseph Ratzinger saw during Vatican II as the source of tension here were basically two approaches to tradition. He calls them a “static” understanding of tradition and a “dynamic” understanding.[2] The former is legalistic, propositional, and ahistorical (i.e., relevant for all times and places); the latter is personalist, sacramental and rooted in history, and therefore to be interpreted with an historical consciousness. The former tends to focus on the past, the latter on seeing the past being realised in the present, and yet open to a future yet to be revealed. The council used the phrase “living tradition” to describe the latter (DV, 12). In speaking of the dynamic rather than a static understanding of “the apostolic tradition”, Dei Verbum 8 teaches: “The tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress [proficit, “develops”] in the church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.” And it goes on to speak of three interrelated ways through which the Holy Spirit guides the development of the apostolic tradition: the work of theologians; the lived experience of the faithful; and the oversight of the magisterium. Sounds like a synodal church, doesn’t it?

According to a dynamic understanding of tradition, says Ratzinger: “Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate, tradition… Consequently, tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically; we have Scripture as a criterion for this indispensable criticism of tradition, and tradition must therefore always be related back to it and measured by it.”[3] Pope Francis alluded to these two different ways of understanding tradition, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the ‘deposit of faith’ as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt”.[4]

At the heart of Dei Verbum’s retrieval of a dynamic understanding of tradition was its retrieval of a personalist understanding of revelation, as found in the Bible and in the patristic writings of the early centuries of the church. Revelation is not only a communication of truths about God and human living, which is articulated in Scripture and in the statements of doctrine at particular times in the church’s history, in response to time-conditioned questions put to the tradition. Revelation is primarily a communication of God’s love, an encounter with God the Father in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Dei Verbum speaks of divine revelation in terms personal friendship and encounter, and especially in terms of love and truth. Let me quote DV 2: “By this revelation, then, the invisible God, from the fullness of his love, addresses men and women as his friends, and lives among them, in order to invite and receive them into his own company… The most intimate truth [intima veritas] thus revealed about God and human salvation shines forth for us in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of revelation.”

In Dei Verbum—and this is important for understanding synodality and the very purpose of this Synod—this divine revelation is presented as an ongoing encounter in the present, and not just something that happened in the past. The event of God’s self-revealing (always in Christ, through the Holy Spirit) and God’s offer of relationship, continues to be a living reality here and now. That doesn’t mean there can be some new revelation of who God is. But, the same God, in the same Jesus Christ, through the enlightenment and empowerment of the same Holy Spirit, is forever engaging with, and dialoguing with, human beings in the ever-new here and now of history that relentlessly moves humanity into new perceptions, new questions and new insights, in diverse cultures and places, as the world-church courses through time into an unknown future until the eschaton.

We see this present-nature of the divine-human dialogue in Dei Verbum 8: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to dialogue with the spouse of his beloved Son [the church]. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the church—and through it in the world—leads believers to the full truth and makes the word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.” Therefore, according to Joseph Ratzinger, in Dei Verbum we are given “an understanding of revelation that is seen basically as dialogue… [T]he reading of Scripture is described as a colloquium inter Deum et hominem [a dialogue between God and human beings]… The dialogue of God is always carried on in the present… with the intention of forcing us to reply.”[5]

This Synod is a dialogue with God. That has been the privilege and challenge of your “conversations in the Spirit.” God is waiting for your reply. At the end of this week of synthesis, you might well want to begin that synthesis by saying, as did that first Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts 15: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” In their time, their letter to the churches then went on to address an issue on which Jesus himself had left no specific directions. They and the Holy Spirit together had to come to a new adaptation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ regarding that new question, which had not been envisaged before.

Vatican II, accordingly, urged the church to be ever attentive to the movements of the revealing and saving God present and active in the flow of history, by attending to “the signs of the times” in the light of the living Gospel.[6] Discernment of the signs of the times in the present seeks to determine what God is urging us to see—with the eyes of Jesus—in new times; but also urging us to be attentive to the traps—where we could be being drawn into ways of thinking that are not “of God”. These traps could lie in being anchored exclusively in the past, or exclusively in the present, or not being open to the future fulness of divine truth to which the Spirit of Truth is leading the church. Discerning the difference between opportunities and traps is the task of all the faithful—laity, bishops, and theologians—everyone, as Gaudium et Spes 44 teaches: “With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage.”[7] That “revealed truth” is a person, Jesus Christ. So, as we move to discernment of our final synthesis, may we be guided by the injunction of the Letter to the Hebrews 12: 2: “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”

This is just brilliant.  He reminded participants that at the Council of Jerusalem they addressed “an issue on which Jesus himself had left no specific directions. They and the Holy Spirit together had to come to a new adaptation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ regarding that new question, which had not been envisaged before.”

May the Synod produce such good results as we look forward to a genuine conversion when to comes to women in the Church, LGBTQ people, and more.

Press panel today

Press briefing

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, Mexican Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, Cardinal Jean-Marc Aveline, Metropolitan Archbishop of Marseille, France, and Sr. Samuela Maria Rigon, General Superior of the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother who is a psychologist and professor at the Gregorian.  She was appointed by Pope Francis to participate in the synod.

Cardinal Schönborn commented on what will come out of the synod.  He said, “If out of this council, faith, hope, and charity do not increase, this whole council has been in vain.”

He also spoke about the movement away from a Eurocentric church to a global church where synodality is already much more present in the structures.

A very strong impression for me comes not so much from decentralization, but the fact that Europe is no longer the main center of the church. There are other centers, and this is evident from the daily meetings at the synod with Latin America and Africa.  The Commission of the European conferences have been unable to have the potential that the FABC has developed or CELAM. It hasn’t been enabled to, to develop as they have. So, it is a bit of a criticism that we are lugging behind in the way in which we live synodality among the local, local churches in Europe.  I think we need some stimulus to, to go further, to move on.

Now I have to say that the cardinal has one of the most synodal leaders right within his reach.  Fr. Helmut Schuller has been working with lay persons to create a vibrant synodal church for years and in 2013 shared his message with Catholics in the United States.  The cardinal should learn from one of his own master teachers.

Q & A

Saturday is the Big Day

A journalist began with the question, “When is the final synthesis report going to be published? Is it going to be voted paragraph by paragraph? And when is it going to be published?

The voting of the document is going to take place on Saturday evening. The document is going to be published Saturday evening. It’s perhaps not very convenient in terms of timing, but this is how it’s going to take place because we don’t have the synthesis report yet.  It’s been drafted, so at the moment, I cannot tell you if  we’re going to vote by paragraphs or bullet points. I don’t know. But I imagine that every part is going to be voted on.

He also asked the cardinals on the panel, “In your opinion, will the future conclave have to consider what was said during this month?  And if so, in what way?

Cardinal Retes responded.

My answer if very simple.  If we put into practice what we have defined here, what we have discussed, and what we have experienced, I think that there is a path before us, unless we do this, if we just listen and we, we do not reach the daily life with our responsibilities where nothing is going to happen. So everything really depends on us and on what we do when we go back to our own dioceses, when we put into practice what we have been saying, what we expect as as a church in the future.

Cardinal Schönborn and Cardinal Retes CNS photo

The Schönborn Fest

Most of the questions were directed to Cardinal Schönborn.  Another journalist asked the cardinal:

Of all the synods you took part in, it seems to me evident that this assembly is not going to come up with concrete decisions concerning the individual issues and topics that were discussed also, because there’s going to be another assembly next year.  But I would like to ask if a consensus is emerging concerning this method. So we can imagine that  in the near future, in the church at all levels, this synodal system is going to be adopted from the parish level to the diocese level. Are you going to adopt this system of an assembly that includes laypersons and women voting on decisions, even though at the end it is a pastor…or the bishop who takes the final decision. Can we imagine that the synodal method, which is the model of the second Vatican Council — discussion, vote, and then the Pope who decides — can this method be adopted also in a binding and structural way at all in all levels of the church? Or this method going to be limited to synodal assemblies and it’s not going to be introduced in the concrete life of the church?

Cardinal Schönborn responded,

Starting from the Council of Jerusalem, which is as old as a church, the method is listening.  First of all, what type of listening?  Listening to what God is showing us through the experience of journeying. First, Peter speaks about his experience and after Paul and Barnabas speak, in turn, the decision comes from this common listening and discernment.  I am used to a similar method that we adopted in the Archdiocese of Viena since 2012, up to the present day.  We have had five diocesan assemblies with 1,400 participants – with priests, bishops, laypersons, everyone, well, the People of God. And, we did not vote, but we experienced listening and communion. And, of course, we must come to some decisions. 

Christopher Lamb of The Tablet asked:

We have heard the integrity of the Synod Assembly questioned by some because the synod includes lay members as delegates. As someone who has attended many synods, what would you say to the claim that this synod is somehow lesser or can be questioned because it’s not really a synod of bishops?

Schönborn was quick to respond:

I can’t see, I can’t see the problem.  It remains an episcopal synod with real participation of non bishops. But it’s a real participation. The fundamental position of the episcopal synod was created by Pope Paul VI. It is a consultative organ for the exercise of the papal ministry. This does not at all diminish synod votes.  Whenever we have voted in the synod, we have voted for something we consider to be important that the Holy Father should consider for his own magisterium, in collegiality with the bishops, in a communion with the whole church, and mainly in communion with the faith of the church, which is neither invented by the Pope, nor invented by the synod, which is the faith of the apostles we all share…So it has not changed in nature. It has been enlarged. And my experience is that it is a very positive experience…And I remember some interventions of lay experts that have been of great importance.

The Sins of Our Fathers

Another journalist asked if the Catechism could be changed to reduce the damage it causes to LGBTQ+ people because the language of “instrinsically disordered” is used.

Here is the text:

Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Schönborn gave a disappointing response saying that the Pope has changed the Catechism on the death penalty but not on this.  He said it is up to the Pope.  It is hard to imagine how this atrocious language can stand and that fact that it does is just plain sinful.

A journalist from Catholic News Agency asked Schönborn:

This morning in the Synod Hall delegates heard from theologian Fr. Orman Rush about the Synod being in dialogue with God and that God “is waiting for your reply.”  This week, as you work on the synthesis document, Rush also quoted extensively from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum on divine revelation, which says there’s no new public revelation before Christ returned.  What, your eminence, is the proper relationship between the authority of the magisterium and bishops to teach and preserve the deposit of faith, and the contribution of theologians and the sensus fidelium? And what role will the latter, the theologians and the laity, have in the determining of church teaching going forward? And how is the synod exploring structures and processes to incorporate this? 

The cardinal replied

That would need a whole lecture on fundamental theology. But it is clear that there are two elements. Look at the talk of Saint John XXIII at the opening of Vatican II where he spoke about the immutability of the doctrine and the way to present the doctrine. There is a big development in deepening the understanding. But there is immutability of our faith. What we believe in can never change — the Holy Trinity or in the Incarnation, or the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus. These are beliefs that are immutable, as the creed says. That is valid everywhere in the world.  The cultures may very different, but the substance of the faith cannot be changed. 

I was kind of glad to have the Schönborn fest come to an end.  He has a wealth of knowledge, but his instincts are, too often, to stay safe rather than lead.