There’s method in the synod’s madness

Bishops need to show the Pope they are up to the challenge of leadership, writes Cathal Barry

The Synod on the Family appears on the surface to be more “muddled than methodical”, to borrow a phrase from one of the English speaking language groups after the first week of deliberations in Rome.

The phrase, used by the group chaired by Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, came with the hope, however, that “focus, if not perfect clarity,” will emerge as the Synod unfolds.

It is hard to fathom that confusion still abounds in Rome given the time, thought and preparation afforded to this synod, but perhaps, at this early stage at least, it’s all part of the Pope’s plan.

Ever since his election in 2013 Pope Francis has indicated that he intends to rebalance power within the Church.

In his programmatic document, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the Pope clearly hints that he wants to give more power to the local Church in general, and bishops’ conferences in particular.

The back-to-back synods are his first real attempt at such a power shift and an ideal opportunity to see if the bishops are up to the challenge.

Pope Francis clearly isn’t afraid of confusion. In fact, he told young people at World Youth Day in Brazil in 2013 that he wanted them to make a mess.

As a Jesuit too, he is expertly skilled in the art of Ignatian discernment, capable of interpreting thoughts, emotions, inclinations, desires, feelings, repulsions, and attractions, reflecting on them, and understanding where they come from and where they lead us.

Perhaps the most insightful remarks by a participating bishop so far have been those of Brisbane’s Archbishop Mark Coleridge. He said if the synod were to vote on whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed return to Communion, they would probably reject the proposal by almost two to one. More interesting, however, was his remark that if the question were altered so that it asked whether individual bishops’ conferences could make the decision for themselves, the division might be an even 50/50 split.

Such a ratio clearly indicates that there is too among bishops an appetite for decentralisation. At least half of those participating at the synod according to Archbishop Coleridge, feel they are more than equipped to handle certain contentious issues themselves.

Given that the Pope clearly wants to divest at least some power to local bishops’ conferences, then surely the synod is the perfect opportunity for them to prove their capabilities.

Pope Francis wants the bishops to take ownership, to be leaders, shepherds of their flock. So instead of looking to Rome for answers, perhaps the bishops need to look to each other.