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Bold before the listening Pope

24 October 2014

Paul Butler witnesses an extraordinary - in both senses of the word - synod in Rome


Face in the crowd: Pope Francis talks with prelates at the synod on Monday

Face in the crowd: Pope Francis talks with prelates at the synod on Monday

THE sun was scorching, more like July than late October. The position was fantastic: right near the front, just yards from the canopied altar, and from the Pope's throne. Right at the heart of the action.

But then I stood and looked out across the packed St Peter's Square behind me, and wondered whether perhaps that was really where the action would be found. This is where the ordinary people would comment on the beatification of Pope Paul VI; here is where comments would be heard about Pope Francis, and about the relatio synodi released on the Saturday evening.

The splendid pontifical mass concluded the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation. All the cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and lay auditors were there on the highest steps in front of the ever-impressive St Peter's. This was us gathering for worship together for the final time.

In spite of the size of the group, there was a camaraderie that reflected the fellowship and friendships that had grown through the fortnight. Yet it also illustrated for me some of what the whole synod had been wrestling with throughout its time, both in the plenary congregations of week one, and the small groups of week two.

Here were gathered all the great and mighty of the Roman Catholic Church, with a few invited lay and fraternal guests alongside them.

Down in the square and up on the surrounding balconies were the bulk of ordinary faithful Roman Catholics who love their Lord, their Church, and their Pope.

At the far back of the square were those who perhaps had happened upon this all by accident, and just hung around to watch and wonder.

How well do the three worlds connect?

THE brave decision to ask RCs all over the world to respond to eight questions about family life led to a very rich input from delegate after delegate around the world.

We heard so many stories: of faithful family life, and of suffering, pain, breakdown - and valiant, faithful rebuilding; marriage after divorce, broken family relationships because of enforced migration, poverty, domestic violence, and many other reasons; the deep passion and compassion of pastors, and of truly impressive lay organisations, seeking to care for those who found themselves broken, often through no fault of their own - and yet, from these same people, a desire to show that family life is joyous for many, that marriage does work, and that the gospel remains good news.

Then there were those who were desperately concerned that, somehow, any change in eucharistic discipline, or by responding positively to people whose relationships do not conform to the sacrament of an indissoluble marriage, would so undermine core teaching that all would be lost. Sometimes these voices seemed disconnected from the others; and sometimes they did not.

Sitting listening throughout was Pope Francis himself. He challenged everyone at the outset to speak openly, and they took him at his word. He challenged us all at the very end to reflect on where we had given in to the temptation to play safe and not go adventuring with the God of all mercy and truth.

He is deeply committed to the truths held by the Roman Church; anyone who thinks he is going to make radical changes to doctrine really does misunderstand him. But he is also deeply committed to accompanying people in their pain. The Good Samaritan parable speaks powerfully to him of how the Church should respond to the challenges of poverty, violence, and family breakdown, wherever they are found.

IT WAS an extraordinary privilege to be part of this synod. The seriousness of engagement throughout was hugely impressive. The depth of welcome for those of us acting as fraternal delegates was humbling. The commitment to faithful living out of the gospel, especially from the lay auditors, was inspiring.

There is, no doubt, disappointment at some of the final statement. But it is important to avoid misunderstanding. Nothing was being decided at this synod: that comes at the end of next year's larger and longer ordinary synod. What was produced this time goes back out for bishops' conferences and, possibly, parish churches to consider again.

Undoubtedly, Pope Francis told us all at the end to keep journeying in mercy and accompaniment. The people in the square are being listened to by their Pope, and he is serenely and firmly seeking to lead his whole Church forward, though holding fast to the core of its faith.

After the final congregation, and the Relatio had been voted on, the Pope went out of the hall and straight over to talk with the journalists. One had her baby with her. He smiled, laughed, and prayed with them. As a journalist said to me: "He has time for everyone." It will be interesting to see what more time for everyone will produce in 12 months' time.

The Rt Revd Paul Butler is Bishop of Durham.

Paul Vallely: Don't be fooled: this was a big thing

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