True reform comes from the margins

Pope Francis is entirely convinced that diverse points of view, freely expressed, can produce real reform writes Austen Ivereigh

The real topic at the opening of the synod in Rome this week was not the question of divorced and remarried, or even the family, but the synod itself: how under Pope Francis a new mechanism is coming into being that allows the universal Church to come to a common mind on issues where disagreements prevail.

The synod was re-born under Pope Paul VI, as part of the post-Vatican II reforms attempting to recover a valuable instrument of the early Church. But under St John Paul II synods were tightly controlled by the Vatican, which viewed them not as deliberative bodies sharing in the governance of the Church, but as means of bonding bishops with each other and Rome – instruments of ‘affective’ rather than ‘effective’ collegiality. Participants regularly complained of too much talk and not enough debate.

Synod reform was strongly urged by many cardinals in their pre-conclave meeting in March 2013. Pope Francis didn’t need convincing. He knew of the frustrations first-hand after being named relator, or chair, of the 2001 synod, and when he was elected to a major role in the first synod under Benedict XVI, in October 2005.

Many of the delegates to that assembly, which was on the Eucharist, wanted to discuss access to the sacraments for the divorced and civilly remarried, and were furious that they were unable to. According to leaks, about a quarter of the bishops present did not vote for the proposition reaffirming existing practice.


Cardinal Bergoglio concluded that the issue should be tackled in a reformed structure that allowed not just for proper debate but also prayerful discernment. His deep reading of Yves Congar and Romano Guardini had long convinced him that diverse points of view, freely expressed but properly contained within an environment of careful listening and discernment, could produce great fruit.

The model currently being road-tested by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, whom Francis appointed to head the synod, reflects this lifetime of experience and reflection. Just months after Francis was elected, Cardinal Baldisseri said the Pope was looking for “a dynamic, permanent synod, not as a structured organism, but as an action, like an osmosis between centre and periphery”.

This is the language of Congar: that all true reform in the Church begins at the margins, where the ordinary faithful people are; and the point of all true reform is pastoral, to tend to their needs and sufferings. Where the centre – in this case, Rome – becomes detached from the periphery, it becomes ‘self-referential’, turned in on itself, deaf to the Holy Spirit.

Hence this synod process began with a consultation of the faithful in November-December last year, so that discussion could start from realities rather than abstract doctrines. It continued with the consistory of cardinals in February this year, when Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal helped to shake loose the discussion, and in the extraordinary synod now underway in Rome.

Unlike usual synods which conclude with propositions, Cardinal Baldisseri said the October 5-19 meeting would end with a Relatio Synodi,  to be voted on by the presidents or vice-presidents of 114 bishops’ conferences and 25 heads of Vatican dicasteries among other participants. That document will be culled from an initial summary (Relatio Post Disceptationem) of the first week’s deliberations, to be modified by participants in language-specific working groups (circuli menores) next week.

The Relatio Synodi will be put to a simple yes-no vote on October 18, and if approved will be sent to bishops’ conferences across the world, asking for their response and further input over the next year – returning, as it were, from the centre to the periphery. The year-long process of deliberation will culminate in the three-week Ordinary Synod in October 2015 which will agree and vote on concrete proposals for the Pope to implement.

The new modus operandi draws heavily on the effective method of deliberation developed by the Council of Latin-American Bishops’ Conferences (CELAM) in the run-up to the great Aparecida assembly of 2007, whose concluding document, which underpins Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium, was redacted at the time by Cardinal Bergoglio and his team.

CELAM, the oldest and most highly developed transnational collegial body in the Church, has unmatched experience in consultation, deliberation and consensus-building.

Its current president, Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Tlalnepantla, Mexico, confirmed to me at the press briefing on Monday that there were “many common elements” between CELAM’s methodology and the reformed synod now underway.


Both in the weekend prior to the synod and on the morning of its opening, Pope Francis was guiding participants to embrace an approach for which previous synods have not prepared them: a collective search for the truth through honest expression of diverse points of view and careful listening to others.

“We will let our hearts flow, without ever losing our peace, but with the serene trust that in his time the Lord will not fail to lead us back to unity,” he said at the prayer vigil on October 4. Referring to the fierce disagreements yet great fruits of the early Church councils, he prayed for “the gift of listening: listening to God, until we breathe the will to which God calls us”, urging participants to “lend an ear to the debates of this time and smell the ‘odour’ of the people of today, to the point of being impregnated with their joys and hopes, their sadness and anguishes”.

“The purpose of the assembly is to better nurture and tend the Lords vineyard.”

At his homily opening the synod the next day, he said the purpose of the assembly was “not to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent” but “to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realise his dream, his loving plan for his people.”

On the synod’s first morning, Pope Francis called for disagreement and apostolic courage – parrhesia – without trying to please him. “A general condition is this,” he urged,  “speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’” At the same time, he added: “You should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.” As the Archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, put it to journalists: “We are not there to achieve majorities for particular positions,” but “to work towards the objective of allowing a common will to emerge in the Church”.

Nobody is in any doubt that intense disagreements exist over the pastoral applications of core agreed doctrines: as Archbishop Bruno Forte pointed out, if they did not disagree, there would be no need to meet. How can the Church be merciful, while upholding the indissolubility of marriage? Humanly speaking, there are no obvious ways of reconciling these tensions.

If the reformed synod works as Francis intends it to, it will give room for the Holy Spirit to perform the  apparently impossible. As he pointed out at the vigil:  “Every time we turn to the source of the Christian experience, new ways and un-thought-of possibilities open up to us,” or as Honduran cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, chair of the Pope’s council of nine cardinals, put it: “Let’s hope that, during the synod, the Holy Spirit isn’t on holiday or taking a siesta.”