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On the Road Together – Invective, fear and surprise

"Those voices, clinging desperately to some imagined or ideologised past, cannot point the way into the future. History will have its way, however much we try to cling to illusions of timelessness."
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The Italians are past masters of the art of improvisation. In a restaurant (at least of the more old-fashioned kind) the menu is only a rough approximation of what they actually have on offer. So too with the details of the Synod timetable. At the start we were given a timetable, but there have been many adjustments as we’ve gone along. As a group reporter, you never quite know until the last minute when you’ll have to swing into action, so you just stay tuned and learn to improvise. Nothing is set in concrete; everything seems to be fluid.

I might add that the sense of fluidity has been aggravated by the weather, with unwelcome rain seeping through old shoes, leaving me with wet feet and now a (slightly) sore throat. Pass me a lozenge. In fact most of the bishops seem to be coughing and spluttering.

I could have done with a lozenge before yesterday’s press conference which turned out to be a bigger affair than I had expected. I’d seen these things on TV but never actually been part of one, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Strangely in all my Roman years I’d never been inside the press office building just off St Peter’s Square. I was on show with the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, and Bishop Enrico Solmi of Parma. I think we were also supposed to have Paolo Pezzi, the Italian-born Catholic bishop in Moscow, but he got lost in action.

We met with Fr Federico Lombardi for a short briefing that simply outlined the process and suggested that certain political issues might be put to the Patriarch and the Bishop of Parma. As it turned out, they weren’t. When we walked on to the podium in the press room, the first thing that surprised me was the number of journalists. The place was packed, and I hadn’t expected that. After a brief intro by Fr Lombardi, we each spoke a few introductory words before the microphone was handed to the journalists. There were no surprises in the questions, but I was surprised at how quickly the 60 minutes went.

Whatever about the press conference itself, the big surprise for me has been the ferocious reaction in some quarters to what I regard as my quite moderate remarks. Twitter has been frothing with invective, which shows what’s out there – by which I mean the fear, even the panic this Synod seems to have provoked in some. That sort of thing doesn’t look like the Holy Spirit to me – red-eyed joylessness cannot be of God. The impression is that, if you touch the slightest jot or tittle not so much of what the Church teaches but of what her pastoral practice has been or how her truth has been expressed, then the whole edifice built up over 2000 years will come tumbling down. If I believed that, I’d be panicking too and hurling lemon-lipped diatribes this way and that. But I don’t believe it and therefore find myself trusting in the path that’s opening before us, with the abuse rolling like water off a duck’s back. Voices of fear, even panic, have also been heard in the Synod Hall and the small groups, but what’s clearer to me now is that those voices within have strong links to similar voices without. It’s also clear that those voices, clinging desperately to some imagined or ideologised past, cannot point the way into the future. History will have its way, however much we try to cling to illusions of timelessness.

This morning we’re in the small groups trying to put the working document to bed. We have to submit our proposed amendments to Part III by 1pm. I also have to have the group report in by then. I drafted it late last night and will run it past the group this morning before putting it in and then delivering it at the plenary assembly in the Hall this afternoon.

When the afternoon session finishes at 7pm, we group reporters have to work though the evening, into the night assessing the proposed amendments from the 13 groups. That could take time and the Secretariat very generously has suggested that there might be “una rapida cena” (a quick meal). Otherwise it’ll be just prayer and fasting. I was due to to go to the English College this evening for a reception, which would have been fun. But I’ve had to cancel because of the work. See what Synods are like.

Once we’ve done our work, it goes to the 10-man commission who are writing the final document. They’ve been hard at it, dealing with the first two parts of the working document. Cardinal John Dew told me that they were huddled over the work yesterday afternoon and into the room unannounced walked Pope Francis – like the Risen Lord, though not (I think) walking through a locked door. He simply wished them well in the work and urged them to give him a good document. They promised to try. Another moment of the Pope of surprises. Let’s hope for some surprises from the final document.

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