Tempering Synod Expectations, Yet Expecting the Unexpected

Bondings 2.0 writers Robert Shine and Francis DeBernardo are in Rome for the month of October covering the first global assembly of the Synod on Synodality, particularly LGBTQ-related developments. For the blog’s full coverage of this multi-year synodal journey, click here.

REPORTING FROM ROME—As LGBTQ+ issues emerged as a priority in  the past two years of the Synod, my hopes for bold, positive developments to come out of the first global Synod assembly this month kept increasing. My optimism was countered by some who would remind me that 1) synods possibly don’t have the power to effect much change; 2) plenty of leaders in the Catholic Church, some who would participate in the Synod meeting, strongly oppose any changes to teaching or pastoral practice regarding LGBTQ+ people.

These “reality checks” were important for me to consider, but they also always seemed very discouraging, almost as if there was nothing good that would come from the Synod. That same message of “Synod limitations” was aired again here in Rome, on the very first day of the Synod assembly’s opening. Only this time, the message of the Synod’s limitations were fused with an optimism about what yet unseen promises the Synod might deliver.

The person who provided that message was Pope Francis, and he did so in the homily of the Synod assembly’s opening Mass. His words had an unusual mixture of both checking expectations and exhorting us to expect the unexpected.

For example, he described what a Synod assembly is not, but also what it is

“We are not here to carry out a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation.  The Synod, dear brothers and sisters, is not a parliament. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist.  We are not here to form a parliament but to walk together with the gaze of Jesus, who blesses the Father and welcomes those who are weary and oppressed.”

Yet soon after, the pope reminded us what opportunity the Synod presents to us:

“[The Lord] invites us to be a Church that, with a glad heart, contemplates God’s action and discerns the present.”

The Synod is about the present. It is not about the past, and the future is still unknown. In a sense Francis was advising conservative naysayers not to focus too much on where the church has been, while at the same time advising progressives not to let expectations of what might be obscure the reality of who and what we are as a church. He offered wisdom from St. John XXIII as a way to direct not only the work of the assembly participants, but all of us, who while not in the Synod hall, are still members of the synodal journey by being members of the church. St. John XXIII stated:

“It is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.  But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate” (Address for the Solemn Opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, 11 October 1962).

And as the Synod focuses on the present, it should also be focused on God:

“. . . [T]he primary task of the Synod: to refocus our gaze on God, to be a Church that looks mercifully at humanity.  A Church that is united and fraternal – or at least seeks to be united and fraternal –, that listens and dialogues; a Church that blesses and encourages, that helps those who seek the Lord, that lovingly stirs up the indifferent, that opens paths in order to draw people into the beauty of faith.  A Church that has God at its centre and, therefore, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally.  A Church that takes a risk in following Jesus.”

I’m encouraged by the words of this last quotation because I feel that they sum up the church that Pope Francis has been describing throughout his papacy. It is not a stern, rigid, law-enforcing church, but one focused on humanity, not its own image. It is an outward-facing church, ready to encounter the real world of people and new situations. It is not a defensive church, which pulls up its drawbridge over the moat and posts sentries at its battlements.

And the pope continues laying out what is essentially, his vision of what the church should be, and again, he lays out themes that have been familiar throughout his papacy–encounter, dialogue, welcome:

“This welcoming gaze of Jesus also invites us to be a welcoming Church, not one with closed doors.  In such a complex time as ours, new cultural and pastoral challenges emerge that call for a warm and kindly inner attitude so that we can encounter each other without fear. . . .  A Church ‘with a gentle yoke’ (cf. Mt 11:30), which does not impose burdens and which repeats to everyone: ‘Come, you who are weary and oppressed, come, you who have lost your way or feel far away, come, you who have closed the doors to hope: the Church is here for you!’  The doors of the Church are open to everyone, everyone, everyone!”

In the words of a favorite hymn of LGBTQ+ Catholics, Pope Francis wants a church where “All Are Welcome.”

This homily has given me hope that even if my expectations for the Synod on Synodality are not met in full, it is still an important and worthwhile journey for the church to be on.  As Pope Francis said in one of the closing lines of his homily:

“The Holy Spirit often shatters our expectations to create something new that surpasses our predictions and negativity.”

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 9, 2023

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