St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) had a hard way to go in life. He was a French bishop, responsible for bringing people to God precisely in, and through, the Church; and the Church in many places literally was coming apart because of the Protestant Reformation.
It certainly was coming apart in Geneva, where he had been assigned as bishop. It was so bad in fact that he never was able even to visit Geneva, let alone live there. He probably would have been killed if he had attempted even a visit. Protestants, as well as Catholics, frankly, played for keeps at the time.
Amid all this, Francis de Sales never lost his faith, and he never lost the yearning to bring people to the Catholic Church.
To bring people to the Church, he had a plan. Before ever speaking about the definition of the Church, or the Sacraments, or about anything else challenged by the Protestant Reformers, he tried to win people’s hearts. Then, coupled with the example of his own devotion to the Church, he could make headway.
Supposedly he had a saying to describe this plan. “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
When reporting of discussions at the Synod of Bishops was underway, with all the sensationalism surging through the news media, I thought about St. Francis de Sales and his plan for conversion — or re-conversion as the case may have been.
Blessed Pope Paul VI invented the synods a half-century ago to give bishops around the world, and popes, the opportunity to come together to consider what conditions actually are affecting the lives of Catholics.
At the same time, Pope Paul VI never gave synods any policy-making role. His successors, Pope John Paul I, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis, have kept the practice of calling synods together, but none of them has vested in any synod any legislative authority.
Obviously, regarding this synod, what has happened in Rome is a carbon copy of what occurs every day in ordinary conversation among Catholics. People talk about the number of couples living together outside marriage. People talk about the press for legal recognition of same-sex marriage. People talk about friends or relatives who are divorcing. People talk about the diminishing numbers attending Sunday Masses.
So, bishops at the Synod talked. Their obligation, like that of St. Francis de Sales centuries ago, was to draw people to love the Gospel, to convey the Gospel truthfully, but also to realize the pressure on people created by the times.
This does not mean tolerating immorality in any form or abandonment of Church doctrine. For instance, in the much discussed report, the sanctity of marriage was clearly affirmed. The belief that good Christian marriages provide the best setting for the upbringing of children was repeated. The doctrine that marriage is only possible between one man and one woman was restated.
Also a Church teaching is the belief that no one is intrinsically bad. It is a matter of good educational philosophy. Before teaching anyone, a missionary must convince the hearer that the hearer is seen as good and worthy of God’s love. Nothing is achieved by pushing people away or by insulting them.
By acknowledging the innate goodness of people, and by realizing their instincts for companionship, and hope in life, security and peace, the bishops who participated in the synod hoped to create an appealing atmosphere from which they then can invite all people to the table of the Lord.
In any case, no doctrine was changed in the least. It was a matter of attitude, and it makes sense.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.