VATICAN CITY — Today was a day of conflicting experiences, special blessings, and a certain degree of confusion. The latter comes with the turf when trying to step outside of one’s professional comfort zone, as I have been doing for the past week or so. Whether it’s just the dislocation of time zones, language, or somewhat unfamiliar turf, you’re never really sure where you stand.

This morning started with a great opportunity to attend the opening prayer of the Synod, led by Pope Francis. A few reporters are allowed each day to attend, take pictures and video, and write about the experience. I described the experience and posted my exclusive video at the blog of our Synod coverage partner, Catholic Match. Let’s just say that the experience was powerful and joyous. The journey to get there was somewhat less uplifting. I ended up wandering around a parking lot for a few minutes, attempting to figure out whether I needed to check in and where. Fortunately, a pleasant security officer (no, really) explained the process a little more clearly.

Afterward, I checked back in to the press room to get some writing done — most of the blogging I accomplished this morning, actually, got finished before noon today. The press briefings start at 1 pm, and are the core of what we learn from the Synod, so it’s a must-attend event. The last three days, I’ve wandered all over the place looking for an inexpensive and quick lunch, but have avoided the food trucks on Via Conciliazione, for the same reasons that I avoid them back home. Today, I finally caved in because of the lack of time to walk anywhere else, and got pleasantly surprised with a decent-but-not-spectacular spicy salami sandwich on a roll that wasn’t bad at all. It was also about a third of what lunch has cost me each of the last three days. If I’m not sick tomorrow, it was a great move. If I am … I promise not to share that with you.

Today’s briefing did actually break a little news. The topic yesterday afternoon and this morning was mostly on difficult pastoral situations, including marriage issues, which produced intense, passionate debate — or “animated and fraternal discussion,” depending on which interpretation one prefers.  According to CNS, which has done a great job of live-tweeting all of the remarks (acting a bit like a translation service for some of us), the Synod “strongly reaffirms that those who remarry without annulment cannot receive Communion,” even though the bishops also see the need for pastoral outreach for those Christians. One speaker at the Synod — the Vatican is not providing names — said that the lack of Communion “isn’t moral judgment of individual,” but objective assessment of his/her marital status (again, translation according to CNS). 

That was one of the key points for conservative Catholics as the Synod approached. Bishop Francesco Coccopalmerio further commented during the briefing itself on the suggestion that Catholics look to the Orthodox churches for their practice on remarriage, and it tended to corroborate Fr. Federico Lombardi’s read. “It is difficult to turn to Orthodox practice of accepting second unions,” Coccopalmerio said, as it just doesn’t fit with Catholic theology and canon law. In other words, there won’t be many changes in practice in regard to divorce and remarriage. With that said, the Synod participants clearly signaled that they want the marriage annulment process reformed. That has been a given anyway; Coccopalmerio noted during the briefing that Pope Francis already has a panel working on annulment reform, which is separate from the Synod. He also insisted that the Church had to have a pastoral solution for real people in difficult situations, but that the truth of marriage as a sacrament had to be upheld.

Bear in mind, though, that the Synod isn’t taking votes or forming any conclusions in this fortnight. They are framing the debate over the next year for the entire Church to conduct. Bishop Paul-Andre Durocher reminded us of this during the briefing on another topic. So far, though, the Synod appears to desire to emphasize these points. He also defended those arguing for either side, saying that all sides want both justice and mercy. “It’s a question of discerning the mind of God” on these issues, Durocher said, and that process won’t end on the 19th of October. He said at the end that the lived experience of Christians is a theological resource, and joked that the Synod is learning to use the Harvard Business School method.

This also came as a surprise, as people expected to hear a lot of debate on the Catholic teachings on contraception:

Later today, I’ll appear on both Relevant Radio’s Morning Air and on EWTN (on camera). I’ll have more tomorrow. In the meantime, the restrictions on publication at the Synod has rubbed at least one cardinal the wrong way, and it’s one that has some pull. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the doctrinal chief for the Vatican, told Salt and Light Television that this synod should be publishing documents in the same manner as past synods:

The texts of speeches at the family synod should be released publicly, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief has said.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Salt and Light: “These interventions should be published as before. All Christians have the right to be informed about [the] intervention of their bishops.”