Today we had the first full day of small group work. We hacked our way through the first two chapters of Part I of the Instrumentum Laboris: the challenges of the family. The method being used in this Synod is, as one bishop said, “cumbersome”. That’s putting it mildly.
We moved through the working document paragraph by paragraph, asking what we should emend, delete or add. In other words, we re-wrote the document, trying wherever possible to abbreviate rather than lengthen a document that’s already too long and repetitive. When we’ve finished our reworking of Part I, I have to report to the plenary assembly on our work; and when we’ve finished the three Parts, we hand it all over to the group of 10 whom the Pope has asked to compose the final document of the Synod. I wish them luck.
Among the big questions we discussed in looking at Part I were the following: the relationship between the Gospel and history, the Church and modernity; the difficulty of phrases (cliches?) like “the Gospel of the family”, “expert in humanity”, “domestic Church”; the changed understanding of the human person and of the social ecology that flows from that; the influence of ideologies; the need to be more positive in assessing contemporary cultures and the current situation of the family; the destructive effects not only of poverty but also of affluence on family values; the need to address many issues in the area of the family at the local rather than the universal level; the heavily Western perspective of the working document; the need to avoid a language of return to some supposedly golden age.
We’re still at the messy and muddling stage of this new Synod format where no one quite knows what the task is and how we should go about it. But after we’d finished this evening at 6.30pm, I sat down as the “relator” to bash the first two chapters of Part I into the shape the group had proposed – much briefer, less verbose, more focused. The group will have a look at the new draft tomorrow morning to see if it’s what they had in mind. Fingers crossed.
Mind you, it’s hard to know what exactly the group had in mind at times. They were feeling their way like everyone else. But I guess it has to be this way for the time being. I can only hope that this will yield focus (if not perfect clarity) at some point down the track.
We even spent a long time discussing what we meant by “the family” – which, need I say?, is fairly basic to this Synod. Did we mean some idealised, abstracted, romanticised, even sentimentalised notion of “Mum, Dad and the three kids”? Or were we in touch with the more fragmented view now dominant, at least in Western cultures? “Family” can mean many things these days: were we collapsing its many meanings into a too narrow and perhaps antiquated notion that removes us from reality? We all agree that it’s crucial for this Synod to be in touch with the reality of family life. The snag at this stage is that not everyone agrees on what that means.
After a solid enough morning, I went to lunch at the house of the Augustinians which is right next door to Maria Bambina. Strangely, I’d never visited the Augustinians in all my years in Rome. But Fr Tony Banks from Down Under is now the Number 2 of the Order, and he invited myself, Bishop Hurley, Cardinal Dew of Wellington and Bishop Drennan of Palmerston North to lunch and a tour of the house. I’d always thought Tony was an Aussie, but I’ve discovered he was born and bred a Kiwi. What a shock! But his hospitality was impeccable and the tour of the famous school of patristic studies was fascinating.
I hastened back to Maria Bambina to speak with the respected and widely read journalist, John Allen, doyen of Vatican correspondents. He’d seen the blog and wanted to catch up. Fine by me. We chatted on for about 50 minutes – amiably and interestingly, at least to me. John has long been one of those whom people talk to in Rome, because he has both insight and balance. He has an unusual gift of being neither friend nor foe. Obviously he has views on all kinds of things, but his powers of attention and observation transcend those views, whatever they may be.
Tomorrow we head back into the small group both morning and afternoon. That should bring greater focus in this cumbersome process. Part of coming to greater focus is cutting through bland and slippery churchspeak to speak in accessible ways of the real experience of family life these days.
After another day of no doubt heavy discussion, I’ll head to Domus Australia tomorrow evening for a meal with Cardinal Pell and other Aussies associated with the Synod. This will be a kind of farewell to Bishop Hurley who on Friday heads back to Australia for three days for an unexpected family commitment. He’ll return to the Synod next Tuesday. Give the man a great big gold medal! Nothing unfocused about Eugene.