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On the Road Together – The search for something greater

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It’s taken quite a while, but finally a typically Roman melodrama (not untinged with psychodrama) has emerged in and at the fringes of the Synod. Its focus is the “private” letter to the Pope supposedly signed by 13 cardinals concerned about the Synod process, its working document and the selection of key personnel by the Pope.

It’s all very confusing because various cardinals who were supposed to have signed the letter (five, I think, at the last count) have denied signing it. Then some who said they did sign went on to say that they didn’t sign the version of the letter that was leaked. And of course no one knows how anything was leaked to a notoriously leak-prone Vatican journalist. It could only happen in the shadow of St Peter’s. What it all tends to do is aggravate the sense that the Synod is not much more than a political caucus, with ideological riptides swirling around us and the odd stinger drifting by.

Yesterday at Mass we had the Gospel reading where Jesus speaks of “the queen of the south” who paid homage to King Solomon but goes on to say that “there is something greater than Solomon here”, meaning of course himself. The problem with an over-politicised view of the Synod is that it can’t see that “there is something greater than Solomon here”, by which I mean the Risen Christ. If there isn’t “something greater”, then we should all pack our bags and go home, stop wasting time and money. But if there is “something greater”, then it might pay for us to keep making our way through the muddle.

Another thing is that some of the complaints about the Synod – the process of which is certainly open to criticism – are driven by a fear that can become a kind of paranoia. It’s as if, were the Synod to touch the smallest jot or tittle of what we have long said and done in the area of marriage and the family, the entire edifice of Catholic doctrine, all that has been built up over 2000 years, would begin to unravel and we’d be left sooner or later with nothing, lost in a world without truth. I simply don’t believe that.

I agree that the Church’s core doctrine on marriage and the family should not be violated, in large part because it relates deeply to what we believe and teach on the Eucharist and the Church. Marriage, Eucharist and Church form a kind of trinity: touch one, you touch them all. But that doesn’t mean that we just keep on saying and doing what we have always said and done in the area of marriage and the family – particularly given that it often doesn’t work or communicate. That’s why I say we need a new kind of pastoral creativity.

For one thing, we need a new language, which in the words of the Synod working document is “symbolic”, “experiential”, “meaningful”, “clear”, “inviting”, “open”, “joyful”, “optimistic” and “hopeful”. The Synod would do well to become what Vatican II was – a language-event (John O’Malley). That would mean drawing more deeply on sources both older (Scripture and the Fathers) and more contemporary (taking account especially of the behavioural sciences).

One Synod Father (echoing Pope Paul VI) said that, with talk of change to Church discipline and practice in the area of marriage and the family, the smoke of Satan had entered the Church. But another took up Pope Paul’s phrase and said that the smoke of Satan would enter the Church and the Synod Hall if we succumbed to an anxious and ideologically driven spirit of partisanship that violated the communion of the episcopal college and the Church and reduced the Synod to no more than a political cause where power is what really matters. Satan is “diabolos”, the separator.

That there are powerful political undercurrents in the Synod is not hard to see. That’s in no way surprising. But if there’s nothing more, then we bishops are missing the “something greater” and we’d better reach for the gas masks as the smoke billows around us.

The bells of St Peter’s are telling me it’s time to head to the Hall where we have another day in the small groups working our way through the long and important Part III of the working document on the mission of the family in the world of today.

I’m also busy putting together my 10-minute group report on our work on Part II of the document on the vocation of the family. That’s quite a challenge: it has to be done quickly (with an eye to publication) and it has to account for the different voices and points of view in the group itself. We’ll look at a draft today before I submit the agreed final version to the Secretariat this evening before presenting it (with the other 12 reporters) to the plenary assembly tomorrow. Given how far we’ve come even before the mid-point of this Synod, who knows where we’ll be by Synod’s end? Let’s hope there’s no smoke in the Synod Hall.

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