“We were reminded again and again of the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst us. Of this presence, there was no doubt in my mind.”
It has been a welcome end to an intense three weeks as well as a poignant one. All of us are grateful for the time we have been privileged to share: a time of rich discussions, intense debate and the congenial settling of most differences. It is poignant as we farewell people that we would like to see again, whilst knowing this is unlikely. In our temporary ‘home’ at CIAM we shared in a cultural programme in which even the nuns participated in the dancing and singing.
Last Sunday we were again privileged to attend the canonisation of four saints in St Peter’s Square. Relevantly for this synod, two of these, Ludovico Martin and Maria Guerin, a married couple, were the parents of five children, one of them St Thérése. Pope Francis’s talked about them as a couple whose doors were always open to those in need and I thought with pride of all the women and men in our services in Australia whose focus is on those in need.
The week saw the preparation, discussion and voting on the final document that had been prepared by the ‘writing group’. There is no doubt about the level of anxiety palpable as on a welcome day off we waited for the new document. Why the anxiety? Because there had been such criticism of the structure and some of the content of Instrumentum Laboris – the document we had worked with -and also because there were particularly divided thoughts about some matters raised therein.
The outcome was a major relief to most synod members. “The document reads well” most of them said as excitedly as one can at a synod. The writing group had done an inspired job. While the three part structure honoured the original intent of ‘Looking, Judging, Acting’, there was accord with a remarkable integration of ideas that honoured the original text and added a spiritual and mystical depth. We were reminded again and again of the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst us. Of this presence, there was no doubt in my mind.
Unfortunately, the lay delegates (including some women religious) were not given the final document to read so shared impressions and later discussions with Synodal fathers as well as experts that helped us put the pieces together. We were all present as the text was read word by word to the 265 Synod fathers present. Written in Italian and then voted on by paragraph headings of which there were 94, it was generally hard to pick the content of each paragraph. However, fairly soon into the voting it was clear there was significant consensus. Nearly every paragraph received near unanimous support.
The unanimity was striking and included matters such as the richness of the text, the recognition of the centrality of families in our world; the vital role of Catholic families as both subjects and objects of evangelisation; a recognition of the suffering of millions of families across the globe; the need for a more embracing and welcoming church; the need to work with various instrumentalities and fellow churches to support families; and, the importance of educating children and supporting families in their times of need. These concepts sound highly predictable but it is in the reading of the text that their richness is evident.
The ‘outlier’ issues were predictable but even they received a two thirds majority – just!
The possibility of welcoming of divorced and remarried people back into full participation in the church had provided opportunities for fierce debate during the Synod. In lay terms it seemed a debate of ‘mercy versus doctrine’. It would appear the more progressive in the synod (strongly present amongst these were the Germans) won the day and by some remarkable consensual easing of the language were able to win what was ‘consensus through ambiguity’. The door appears open for a process of discernment for these many thousands of couples to enter a path of reconciliation. How this is configured will become clearer in the time ahead.
Other issues that continue to be evident in their conflictual nature are the re-commitment to Humanae Vitae – although again there appears some softening in relation to the repetition of the idea of the requirement for ‘consensual dialogue’ by the couple. The role of conscience precipitated intense divergence of views. Again, there may be clarity in the time ahead. I remain anxious by the language of ‘homosexual tendencies’ and the inadequacy of how the matter of same sex attracted couples and homosexuality were addressed in such a limited fashion. While this is perhaps understandable in a synod on the family, I only hope this receives the deep discernment it needs in the years ahead. Of some significance, a small window was opened in relation to the role of women in the church with the acceptance of a paragraph recommending increasing their participation in many areas including inclusion at some limited level in church governance. I am hopeful.
In both his comments and his appearance, Pope Francis appeared very content with the outcome. And most, although not all, of those present are too. I certainly am. Many windows have opened and I think it is true, the wish of Pope Francis for a more inclusive church is being realised. I finish with the resonating words said sometime towards the end of the three weeks of proceedings, “the Synod has awoken something inside us”.
Dr Maria Harries