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On the Road Together – Thoughts from the Synod

There’s a real element of unpredictability about this Synod, by which I mean there may be surprises of the Holy Spirit.
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Finally, after months of preparation, the bags are packed and I head to Rome tonight for what is probably the most eagerly anticipated Synod since the close of Vatican II, 50 years ago. The word “synod” means “on the road together”, which explains the title of this blog. When the Pope decided to convene the two Synods on marriage and the family, he summoned the Church to undertake a journey together. He made the Synod more of a process than an event. First there was the preparation for last year’s Synod; then there was the Synod itself which drew widespread publicity. Since then we’ve had the journey from one Synod to the next, with all the consultation and fermentation that has brought. Now we will have the second full Synod, beyond which there lies the Jubilee Year of Mercy which, I’m sure, Pope Francis sees as part of the ongoing journey.

I’ve heard a whisper that this time there’ll be no Apostolic Exhortation after the Synod. If that’s true, it may be because Pope Francis doesn’t want people to think that the journey is over. We’ll finish this Synod on October 25, but that won’t be the end of things – especially when dealing with the immensely complex questions about marriage and the family. Neither the Synod nor the Pope will come up with a “final solution” that will answer all the questions and solve all the problems. We’ll have to journey further, awaiting more light from the Holy Spirit.

I’ve worked hard at preparing for the Synod ever since I was elected back in early May. The work has been challenging and fascinating. Many of the questions before the Synod become more rather than less complex the more you look at them. I’ve gone back to the key biblical texts – especially the NT ones – to see what help they can give. In studying those texts, I’ve been struck again by the truth of something said by the Anglican NT scholar N. T. Wright. He said that to understand the authority of the Bible you need to think of it as a newly found play by Shakespeare. It’s a marvellous discovery but there’s only one problem: the fifth act is missing. We have the first four acts, but we need to write the fifth. To do this will require a profound and instinctive grasp of Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic idiom. So too the Bible doesn’t tell the full story; it’s essentially unfinished. We have to finish it, following its trajectories with great creativity; and the finishing will be done not on the written page but on the stage of our own life, both communal and personal. So we can’t expect the Bible to offer ready-made answers to all our contemporary questions about marriage and the family. But neither can we simply set it aside as if it had nothing to say about those questions. That would be like setting ¬aside the first four acts of the newly found Shakespearean play and starting to write from Act 1. The Bible is always essential but it’s never enough.

I’ve also been reading a lot of history, because this Synod doesn’t take place within a vacuum. It looks back through previous Synods to the Second Vatican Council. But the Council itself is situated in a sweep of conciliar history, traced splendidly by the American Jesuit historian John O’Malley, whose work I’ve found especially helpful and illuminating in trying to come to grips with the underlying questions of this Synod. I think the Pope was shrewd in his choice of theme for these two Synods. First, because the questions about marriage and the family are crucial. But they also serve to focus deeper questions like the engagement of faith and culture (the divorce of which, according to Pope Paul VI, is the drama of our time) and the dialogue between the Church and the modern/postmodern world. We can’t just turn our back on culture or the modern/postmodern world. We mightn’t like all that we see, but to walk away and simply talk to each other is not the Catholic way. Throughout history, the Catholic Church – taking its cue from the Word made flesh – has at its best engaged human cultures and the world of now. That’s what Vatican II did when it took on board what’s often called “historical consciousness”; it was the Council of history. The Church doesn’t stand outside of history; it is immersed in culture, willy-nilly. The Church makes culture and culture makes the Church. It’s a point that Pope Francis makes in many different ways; it was a truth at the heart of the Council. The Synod will also have to take it on board.

Inevitably this raises questions of the development of doctrine (which, according to John Courtney Murray SJ, was the key issue of the Council) and of reform in the Church, which has a very long and varied history of which O’Malley gives a fascinating account. Both development of doctrine and Church reform need to be treated with great care, giving due authority to both past and present. One temptation is a kind of ahistorical classicism which says that the past has absolute authority and will provide us with all the answers to the questions of now. Another is a kind of uberhistorical iconoclasm which says that the past has no authority and must be rejected if we are to find real answers to the questions of now. The Synod will have to steer a steady and deep course between Scylla and Charybdis, between classicism and iconoclasm.

A third key element of my preparation – perhaps the heart of it – has been trying to listen to the many voices of people who have made known to me and the other bishops their thoughts and feelings on marriage and the family and how the Church should deal with them. An enormous number and variety of responses and proposals have come to me from near and far; and I’ve tried to look carefully at them all. My overriding impression is that the many contributions running all along the spectrum reduce to not too many real options. But it’s been important for all voices to be heard. The Synod won’t work if it’s just 280 bishops talking to each other behind closed doors in an upper room (the Synod Hall is actually upstairs). I like to think that each bishop in the Hall will be a kind of antenna, having listened to many voices before coming together. No bishop will speak simply as himself. But we will also have people in the Hall who aren’t bishops; and we will have representatives of other Churches. Such people may not get to vote, but they are a crucial part of the Synod dynamic. So too are the host of people who will surround the Synod with prayer. I don’t know how many people said to me in recent days that they’ll be praying for me and the Synod through the next few weeks. I’ve come to see their prayer as like the sea on which the barque of Peter sails. We’d be high and dry without it.

People keep asking me what will happen at the Synod, and I keep answering: “I don’t know”. That’s true. There’s a real element of unpredictability about this Synod, by which I mean there may be surprises of the Holy Spirit. No one saw the Second Vatican Council coming. But it came and it’s still coming. If nothing changes, then it’s not clear to me why we should have bothered with the time, energy and resources of two Synods and the larger journey surrounding them. The Synod of course will decide nothing; it’s not deliberative. Things will be left in the hands of the Pope. But he is a Pope of surprises, and who knows what he’ll do with what’s left in his hands. In the end however the real surprises will come not from the Pope and bishops but from the Holy Spirit who at the first Pentecost threw open the doors of the closed upper room. The rest is history.

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