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Will the Holy Spirit be at the 2015 synod?

St Peter

The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are deciding where to go on vacation. The choice is made; the Holy Spirit gushes: “Rome! I have never been there!”

Secure Roman Catholics can enjoy the joke and still trust that the Holy Spirit has been to Rome. But even to those who believe the Holy Spirit lives in Rome, she often seems to be on vacation elsewhere.

Many Catholics (or at least those of a certain age) agree that the Holy Spirit was in Rome at the Second Vatican Council in 1962-65. Things changed in the Church after that. In general, Catholics feel the changes were for the better. Some now think they see the Holy Spirit in Rome again.

Some hope the Synod will help bring home the outcasts from the Church’s periphery. These are poor families first of all. But the outcasts also include those, poor or not, who fall short of Catholic teaching on the family, or cannot identify with it. Those in nonsacramental unions. Those with failing marriages. Those with failed marriages who have entered new unions. Those with children out of wedlock. Those who do not fit Catholic prescriptions on gender and sexual identity. Those using contraceptives because they have more children than they can feed and have not been taught natural family planning, or find it unviable. Those who have had abortions not to exercise choice, but because they felt they had no choice.

Such outcasts are symbolized in the Gospels by the adulteress Jesus saved from stoning; by the sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears; by the Samaritan woman who had been through five husbands and was not married to the man she lived with. The Gospels show Jesus meeting these outcasts with a desire for dialogue, with a call to discipleship, with compassion. Some Catholics hope the Church will now meet her own outcasts with the same disposition.

The 2015 Synod is probably not going to revolutionize Church teaching on the family. But it might herald more compassion in the application of that teaching. The Synod might move the Church from condemnation and exclusion to accompaniment and inclusion of her outcasts, and to a more intimate understanding of why they may find it hard to obey. There may be some modification of rules about such cases.

One sign of hope is the process used to prepare for the 2015 assembly. It began as usual with reflection questions, or “Lineamenta,” sent in late 2013 to all bishops heading sees—but with an unusual mandate to consult the laity. Any Catholic, or Catholic group or institute, could also send answers directly to the Synod Secretariat.

Answers were synthesized by a committee of six women and six men into an Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, discussed in October 2014 at the III Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. That first meeting, attended by presidents of the national bishops’ conferences, by other delegates named by the Pope, and by married couples as observers, produced a report, the Relatio Synodi. This was the basis for another Lineamenta, which went through the same process as the first. The result of this next round of consultations was a second Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the 2015 Synod.

The Synod’s general secretary, Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, says: “The entire People of God was involved in the process of reflection and study.” That is an overstatement. In some Philippine dioceses, the laity consulted were largely middle-class Catholics in the Church’s family and life apostolates, with scant experience of the troubles of the poor and peripheral. Still, it was the widest consultation ever for a Synod. Its result, the 2015 Instrumentum Laboris, challenges the Church more than one might expect.

This document is another sign of hope. It is not only more challenging than expected, but also more loving than expected toward the not so faithful. It emphasizes hope, not hectoring; mercy, not moralizing; dialogue, not discrimination; respect, not recrimination; tenderness, not threat of damnation. An exemplary passage says: “The Christian message ought to be preferably proclaimed in a manner which might inspire hope. A clear, inviting and open communication needs to be adopted, one which does not moralize, judge or control, but bears witness to the Church’s moral teaching, while, at the same time, remaining sensitive to the circumstances of each individual.”

One more sign of hope is Pope Francis. For the coming Year of Mercy, he has granted priests power to absolve, without a bishop’s authorization, women repenting abortions. He has also issued a motu proprio simplifying the process of obtaining Church declarations of nullity of marriage. While not radical, both gestures model the mercy it is hoped Synod delegates will bear when they reflect on the pain of families struggling with complex moral choices.

Those delegates will mainly be consecrated male celibates with no families of their own. But if they keep mercy in their hearts, the Holy Spirit may yet be seen in Rome at the Synod. For as the 2015 Instrumentum Laboris says, “Mercy is revealed truth itself.”

Note: This piece was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer (24 September 2015).

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