Synod diary: Audiences, ends, and beginnings

VATICAN CITY – Today, for the first time since I arrived, I slept in before getting to work. I have been fighting a bug the last couple of days, and it got the best of me last night.  I walked around for a half-hour in the evening, which lifted my spirits until it started sprinkling, the first rain I’ve had since being in Rome. Instead of getting a table outside, as I have done most evenings here, I went inside while it was still sprinkling — at which point it must have ended. As a result, I ended up eating in the main restaurant area all by myself, and even the waiter wondered why I’d been sent inside in the first place. Chalking that up as a sign, I went to bed early and got up late. And let me tell you, that didn’t feel bad at all.

Thanks to the structure of the synod, punctuality counts only with the daily press briefing, but I arrived not long after the press office opened anyway. After putting up a couple of early-morning posts, I went out to the regular papal audience held every Wednesday.  The press credential request I filed yesterday never got a response, and I didn’t get a ticket for it, but watching it from the outer barricades was worthwhile, too. (I will have video and more on this at Catholic Match Institute later today.) I did take a couple of pictures of the event, and this one gives an idea of the distance, if not the crowd size:

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This is a wide-angle lens view, so it may be a little difficult to guess at the crowd. There were tens of thousands of people there, pilgrims from all over, plus the usual tourists taking selfies and the like. As can be seen from the skies, last night’s rain didn’t exactly leave entirely, although no precipitation fell during the audience. The wide-screen TVs showed the wind making it difficult for  Pope Francis to hold onto his notes, but otherwise it went without a hitch.

Today’s press briefing similarly seemed aimed at demonstrating a smooth-running operation. Where yesterday’s briefing featured pushback against the relatio released on Monday, today’s commentary from the participants on the dais assured the media that the synod had not worried much about the media reception at all. Archbishop Stanley Kurtz professed ignorance about the media coverage of the relatio altogether, saying that he had focused entirely on the ongoing discussion groups. Kurtz also referred to the relatio as a “wonderful” starting point for the small-group sessions that wrapped up today, but that his group had proposed a number of amendments to its language. The amendments, Kurtz noted, would reflect the “integral nature” of the faith.

Cardinal Fisichella was a little more specific. Francis Rocca and Catholic News Service translated the thrust of his remarks to say that the passages on homosexuality in the relatio that created some controversy were primarily aimed at bringing the children of irregular unions back into the church. Kurtz noted that the subject in his group discussions prompted suggestions on how to create pastoral outreach to gays and lesbians that remained welcoming while upholding church teaching on marriage and sin. More than once, Kurtz stressed that the model was one of finding people where they were and walking them toward Christ. “Go where people are,” Kurtz said, “and accompany them on the journey.”

This tends to corroborate John Thavis’ skeptical take after yesterday’s briefing:

Did the media overreact when the relatio was read aloud on Monday? I don’t think so. The media recognized in the text a profoundly new pastoral approach to a whole range of marriage and family issues, and in particular a welcoming tone regarding homosexuals. The bishops in the hall recognized the same thing, and not all of them were pleased. That’s why the synod hall quickly lit up like a pinball machine with questions and calls for clarification.

As for the weight of this relatio, some things need to be said. I have covered synods of bishops for 30 years, and the midterm relatio is always where the ideas expressed in synod speeches begin to gel. All last week, in fact, reporters at the Vatican were told not to put too much stock in individual synod statements or daily summaries – it would be the midterm relatio that would distinguish the really important themes.

Of course, it’s not an encyclical – no one said it was. Of course, it doesn’t change doctrine – everyone knew that. Of course there can be modifications – that was reported. But up to now, it’s the most authoritative text coming out of this very important assembly. And unlike previous assemblies (which have used the relatio as a jumping-off point to write final “propositions”), this synod’s relatio will be the main document going forward, even with possible revisions.

As for objections by some bishops to the text, I have no doubt they are real. But when it was presented to reporters Monday by some of its authors, reporters were repeatedly assured that it accurately reflected the main themes of the synod. And after the relatio was read aloud, there was strong applause in the synod hall. We shall see just how strong the objections really are only when we see the final, revised text.

We’ll see when the final version of the relatio is published, but that may not be for a while. Tomorrow the rapporteurs from the small groups will synthesize their discussions into reports, and those will be read by the synod. The synod participants will then begin to use those to craft the final version of the document, and a vote on that will take place on Saturday afternoon — after the press briefing that day. It will go to Pope Francis before publication, one assumes, so it may not emerge until well after the beatification of Pope Paul VI on Sunday, which is the final official event of the Synod. Even after it does, the next year will have all of the bishops around the world working on the relatio and developing pastoral responses to it before the next ordinary synod a year from now, when the authoritative document from the project will likely emerge.

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