How will reform impact extraordinary synod?

The Vatican’s Oct. 8 announcement that Pope Francis would convene an extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops next October — on “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization” — raised two immediate questions. First, how will the impending reforms of the Synod of Bishops impact the deliberations and work of the bishops? And second, would the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics be discussed under the wider theme of family and marriage in the modern world?

The urgency of the synod was made clear by the director of the Holy See Press Office, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, when he said in a press conference, “It is very important that an extraordinary synod has been convoked on the theme of the pastoral care of the family. This is the way in which the pope intends to promote reflection and to guide the path of the community of the Church, with the responsible participation of the episcopate from different parts of the world.”

Pope Francis drove home the importance of the gathering to him personally by going to the offices of the synod’s general secretariat near the Vatican and taking part in some of the two days of preparatory discussions held just before the official announcement. Customarily, the officials would meet with the pope in the Apostolic Palace and his participation would be limited.

Effects of reforms

The Synod of Bishops was inaugurated by Pope Paul VI in 1965 with the intention of fostering close cooperation between the pope and the world’s bishops in dealing with questions and situations facing the Church or to deliberate on essential points of doctrine and procedure in the life of the Church. Topics for previous synods have included evangelization, catechetics, penance and reconciliation, the Eucharist and the role of the laity in the Church.

This will be only the third extraordinary synod convoked by a pope. The two previous extraordinary synods, in 1969 and 1985, looked at the relationship of bishops and priests and the implementation of the Second Vatican Council (on its 20th anniversary), respectively. There have been 13 so-called ordinary synods — such as the one convened last year in Rome on the New Evangelization.

This third extraordinary synod comes at the time when the synod itself has been slated for potentially extensive reforms under Pope Francis, and it was a topic of considerable discussion by the eight-person Council of Cardinals recently established by the pope to oversee the reorganization and renewal of the entire Roman Curia.

There have been complaints for some years that the synod’s proceedings are too cumbersome and inefficient, there are too many speeches and the final statements are largely prepared with little input from the actual participants. The Council of Cardinals had its first formal meeting with Francis at the start of October, and it is expected that a full set of reforms for the synod will emerge over the next months.

Notably, the official charged with carrying out the reforms in a practical sense is a long-time Vatican official, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, who was appointed the new General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops only last September after years in the Congregation of Bishops. How the synod performs next year will give a major clue as to the seriousness and overall effectiveness of Francis’ wider reform agenda for the Roman Curia.

Pastoral care for divorced

2012 synod
Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, looking up from booklet, participates in opening prayer during a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 26, 2012. CNS photo/Paul Haring

The other immediate question that emerged regarding the extraordinary synod is whether attention will be paid to the pastoral crisis of such large numbers of Catholics who have been divorced or are divorced and civilly remarried. Parishes and dioceses continue to grapple with the best ways to provide proper pastoral care, especially to those Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment and therefore may not present themselves to receive the Eucharist.

There have been recent efforts, most notably in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, Germany, to explore potential guidelines to assist divorced and remarried Catholics in receiving Communion.

The announcement of the synod clearly was meant to discourage any movement on this issue ahead of the gathering next year.

As Father Lombardi said, “It is right that the Church should move as a community in reflection and prayer, and that she takes common pastoral directions in relation to the most important points — such as the pastoral of the family — under the guidance of the pope and the bishops. The convocation of the extraordinary Synod clearly indicates this path.

“In this context,” he stressed, “the proposal of particular pastoral solutions by local persons or offices carries the risk of engendering confusion. It is opportune to emphasize the importance of following a path in full communion with the ecclesial community.”

A matter of mercy

Before his election as pope, then-Cardinal Jorgé Mario Bergoglio spoke frequently about the need for an effective ministry to the divorced that fosters a genuine sense of belonging and participation even for those unable to receive Communion. His concern, however, is not a radical departure from the papal teachings of recent pontiffs, including Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In 2012, during the World Meeting of Families in Milan, Pope Benedict taught, “Their suffering is great and yet we can only help parishes and individuals to assist these people to bear the pain of divorce … the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love.”

Pope Francis addressed the very issue of divorced Catholics during his in-flight press conference returning to Italy from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in July. He said bluntly that he wants the synod to address the crisis within the larger context of the entire pastoral area of marriage and also desires an examination of what can be an overly complex and lengthy annulment process.

“We are moving toward a somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” he said, reiterating the theme of mercy as central to that pastoral care, even for the divorced and remarried. 

“The Church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy,” he added. “And find a form of mercy for all.” 

Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.