THE BLOG
10/20/2014 10:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pope Francis: Moving the Church Forward on the Modern Family, One Step at a Time

Sébastien Maillard
la croix

ROME -- As the Synod was ending in Rome, Pope Francis reassured one of his closest allies among the cardinals that he felt "serene." On the last day of this two week gathering of bishops from all over the world dedicated to family-related issues, an important vote was about to take place on the final report, with an unexpected outcome.

"Did you sleep well?" one of the organizers dared ask the pope that very morning, before the vote. "Like an angelino (little angel)," replied Francis, who always gives the impression he knows where he is headed despite the apparent chaos and confusion around him.

Never has a Synod captured so much media attention and publicly displayed such deep disagreement among the Catholic Church's high ranking officials.

There are two reasons for this: Pope Francis chose to convene this top level gathering not on an internal question such as the eucharist or new ways to evangelize, as was often done in the past, but on a hot, universal and concrete topic: the family. Or rather families -- plural.

As he understands, the fact is that all sorts of private personal situations are developing nowadays, with more or less public acknowledgement and acceptance. These new arrangements, no less than the more traditional type of family, face the same pressures that result from migration, stress from workload or lengthy unemployment or links through the Internet that may weaken traditional family ties.

The question put forward by the Bishop of Rome to his colleagues was, roughly: How do we deal with all this? With charts documenting the dropping figures of weddings or of falling attendance by children in catechism instructions, Pope Francis pressed his church to update its pastoral approach in order not to lose touch with reality.

The other reason why this Synod looked very different from previous ones is because this time, it was not boring. That was not just because of the subject matter, but also because of the way it was all handled. Francis attended all preparation meetings for this assembly -- things Popes usually do not bother with.

He wanted the point of departure for his bishops to be today's reality, not some abstract, comfortable doctrine from times past. To ensure this, last fall he circulated a questionnaire globally to collect grassroots insights.

During the Synod itself, Pope Francis openly encouraged lively and honest thematic debate, not some somber colloquium where each participant reads out his script while others look at their watches and wait for the coffee break.

He set the tone on the opening day, asking bishops to speak openly, without caring if it would please him or not.

As the Synod's chairman, Francis spent the whole first week listening to the day-long discussions. This gave him to time to see who thinks what -- to get a clear snapshot of where his various pastors stand on the family.

He refrained from expressing himself personally, though it was obvious that he wants the bishops to walk along closely in step with families of all kinds, including gay couples with children, without making any prior judgment.

He also favors change on the disciplinary rules on access to sacraments for divorced people who remarried outside the Church.

Yet, even though he is the mighty 'sovereign pontiff," he also knows he cannot just simply impose touchy pastoral shifts overnight without harming the Church's unity. As a former archbishop coming from "the end of the world," the Argentinian pope does not want Rome to solely and imperiously decide on difficult matters.

This Synod has shown he was right to be cautious. The discussion turned out to be very frank, passionate and even heated at times. An interim report set an unexpectedly positive tone on gays, but caused emotional quarrels and strongly irritated some cardinals and bishops.

Even in the final report, which deeply softens controversial paragraphs from the first version, votes on three articles related to the divorced-remarried couples and to the gentleness towards gays did not gather the required two-thirds majority among the 183 voters.

FAILURE, OR LONG TERM SUCCESS?

This failure and the visible disagreements of the Synod are seen by some as a harsh blow for Pope Francis. But this is just a first impression. With political maestria, the Jesuit pope decided, immediately after the vote, to publish the full final report, including parts that had not been agreed upon.

He also requested the results on each of the 62 articles of this document be made public. This unusual act of transparency followed a 20-minute speech by Pope Francis to the Synod's participants, where he, gently but openly, described the various human temptations they had succumbed to in their discussion, such as "doctrinal zeal" or "do-goodism."

In the end, he got a long standing ovation from all. By these moves, he managed to weaken the institutional culture of rigidity and deliver a more democratic image of the Church.

Moreover, the deep reason why Francis can remain "serene" and sleep well is that, from the beginning, he planned and announced a twofold Synod. Another assembly of bishops is scheduled in a year's time, at the Vatican, to come up with solutions. The so-called final report of last week is actually the working base for the following Synod.

In the meantime, this 17-page document is to be debated in dioceses and parishes worldwide so bishops get ground-level feedback again. This way of proceeding, based on the spiritual Jesuit exercise of discernment, is also completely new in the Catholic Church at this level.

"We have yet another year to mature," Pope Francis concluded when closing the first round of the Synod.

He trusts time is on his side.

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