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On the road together – The power of words

Let’s hope that new words can create new worlds.
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Yesterday afternoon, we finally moved into the small groups, which was a bit messy but refreshing. I say messy because the first challenge was to find the room where your group was to meet. That may sound easy, but (with four English groups, three French, three Italian, two Spanish-Portuguese and one German) it wasn’t.

Having found the room, the challenge was then to find enough space in the room to accommodate the 20+ people in the “small” group. As well as the Synod bishops, there were experts, auditors and ecumenical reps. It was definitely economy rather than business class. Keep the elbows down.

The first step was to elect the moderator (group chair) and the relator (group reporter). That too may sound simple, but it required God knows how many ballots to get both. The Archbishop of Armagh, Eamon Martin, was eventually elected moderator, and I (he says in all humility) was eventually elected relator. We both demurely acknowledged polite applause when our elections were announced. I’ve been relator before and it’s seriously hard work – interesting yes, but demanding. So less play for me now and fewer frolics through the Eternal City … even if I did have a quiet Scotch yesterday evening with Bishop Hurley (he drinking Coke) on the terrace of Maria Bambina.

Once the elections were decided, we settled to the discussion. Predictably the first question was: What are we supposed to be discussing? There were a few tentative suggestions, but then the moderator decided that we should share our impressions of the procession of the three-minute speeches we’d heard. Most of us felt that we’d been bombarded, with the speeches lacking an integration or focus. That was supposed to come because they were addressing themes raised in the first of the three parts of the Instrumentum Laboris. But it didn’t really work, chiefly because there are so many themes in that first part. One of the bishops said to me that listening to a different speech every three minutes was like watching corn pop. Stuff was going off in all directions.

But some good discussion followed. One of the ecumenical reps said that listening to the bishops talk about the family left him with a sense that the rhetoric was somehow idealised and detached. It was all true and (in it own way) beautiful, but it didn’t quite touch down deep in the soil of human experience. It was a little bloodless. And I had to agree. Some times we bishops can indulge in a kind of churchspeak, which may seem wondrous to us but which communicates little or nothing to most people.

In fact, a key issue we came to focus on in the small group was language, and I was reminded of John O’Malley’s seminal point that Vatican II was above all a “language-event”. Even after two days, I find myself ardently hoping that this Synod will be the same. To speak of the Council as a language-event is to point to something much more than cosmetic. In the Bible, words create worlds, and so it was with Vatican II. So may it be with this Synod too. We will have failed if all we can come up with is a final document full of churchspeak which the Synod fathers may admire but which most of the world find incomprehensible.

Out of curiosity, I went through the Instrumentum Laboris to see how it described the language we need now to speak comprehensibly about marriage and the family. Here’s the list of words I found: symbolic, experiential, meaningful, clear, inviting, open, joyful, optimistic, hopeful. The opposite of that kind of language is: one-dimensional, abstract, incomprehensible, opaque, alienating, closed, joyless, pessimistic, hopeless. God save us from the second and grant us the first in this Synod. Let’s hope that new words can create new worlds.

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