It was a perfect storm. Confusion, tension, and even a sense of crisis during the Synod on the Family on this side of the Atlantic, and I can tell you the atmosphere on the ground in Rome was even more fraught.
Milling around outside the Scala Stampa (the Vatican press office) on the last day of the Synod were anxious observers of all types, waiting for the latest document, the latest comment and its latest interpretation. Speculation flew fast and furious, with talk of factions, cabals, and bitter discord among the bishops.
Leading up to that last day was much controversy sparked by the first relatio, a working document issued halfway through the Synod. This document detailed a series of concerns and possible solutions in the pastoral care of the family. Concerns like the general lack of understanding by today’s Catholics of the sacramental and indissoluble nature of marriage, and how poverty and war separates parents from their children.
Right when we thought that the Synodal boat must surely sink, done in by discord, dissension and gossip, a luminescent figure held up his hand and calmed the roiling waters.
The Synod’s mission was to assess the current state of the family, so of course homosexuality, the issue that has become a lightning rod in the West, had to be addressed. Also mentioned was the idea that it might be possible for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive communion.
On one side you had excited and triumphant commentary, declaring that the Church had finally decided to join the rest of the Western world in its “modern” attitudes to divorce, sex, and gender. On the other you had those (not all of the them Catholic) who feared they were being abandoned by one of the last institutions that teaches the sacred nature of the marriage bond, and that to call certain acts wrong is not the same as rejecting the person inclined to those acts.
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And so the winds of controversy began to rage. Being here in Rome, certain analogies jump naturally to mind. Because right when we thought that the Synodal boat must surely sink, done in by discord, dissension and gossip, a luminescent figure held up his hand and calmed the roiling waters.
With his usual frank and affectionate manner, Pope Francis addressed the fathers of the Synod. He gave a speech at the end of the meeting which brought ALL of them to their feet for a standing ovation.
He first described the two sides: One, those tempted to inflexibility “wanting to close oneself within the written word, and not allowing oneself to be surprised by God ... it is the temptation of ... the so-called ‘traditionalists’ and the intellectuals.” And two, those with the “temptation to a destructive tendency to goodness, that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them … it is the temptation of the so-called ‘progressives and liberals.’”
He would have been sad, he said, if those disagreements had not taken place. Instead he heard with joy interventions full of pastoral zeal, of courage, wisdom, and frankness. And no matter what the point of view of the speaker, always without questioning the timeless truths of marriage: the unity, indissolubility, and its openness to life.
He told the bishops that it was his job to guarantee the unity of the Church. He reminded all of them that it is THEIR job to feed their flocks, always without fear, and going out to find them and bring them home, no matter where they are. And he reminded them to trust in the Holy Spirit, who is guiding and safeguarding the barque, even when the storm seems most fierce and the danger of capsizing greatest. With this guidance the Church cannot err.
The next day I was fortunate enough to attend the beatification of Pope Paul VI in St. Peter’s square. It was beautiful in the way only a majestic, solemn ceremony held in the glorious plaza designed by Michelangelo could be. At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis came down through the rows of the faithful in his open car.
All of us, from all parts of the world, with all kinds of viewpoints and under all types of stresses, pressed toward him joyfully. His smile and wave promised each of us the perfect mercy that accepts us with all our hurts and wounds, and offered us the cure that helps us live up to the noble ideals the Church promotes. We raised our hands to wave back to him, in the perfect unity of love.