Synod reaction

December 2014 Feature Wel-Com recently interviewed Bishop Charles Drennan on his reactions to the Synod. What follows is a summary of his response Yes, I’ve read the comments attributing to…

December 2014


Wel-Com recently interviewed Bishop Charles Drennan on his reactions to the Synod. What follows is a summary of his response

Yes, I’ve read the comments attributing to the synod seismic shifts in thinking. Having been in both the Christchurch earthquakes I’m a little wary of the comparison but a stirring of viewpoints and reactions there certainly has been.

So where’s the epi-centre? Clearly there is little room for inertia in Pope Francis’ view of tradition. From his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s we have experienced innovation. The changes he has ushered in to the synodal processes are a further example of this. Some claim the adjustments or surprises are a “liberalization” of the Church. That’s a shallow analysis.

Political labels (liberal, conservative etc) don’t do service to the Church. They tend to divide rather than build communion. When Papa Francesco said emphatically at the opening of the Synod that no one should feel reticent in expressing any view in their heart, many reports said he was blowing wind into the sails of “progressives”. I think they missed the point. I believe he was acutely aware of his ministry of unity and so wished to assure those present feeling distant from his own thinking that they should not feel constrained in expressing their views. So Cardinal Burke’s comfort, for example, in lamenting publically that the Church seems rudderless is in the first instance a credit to the fearless and faithful leadership of Pope Francis.

What do I make of Cardinal Burke’s comments? Look, the barque of Peter [the image of the Church as a boat] isn’t anchored. To want to tether the Church to chains isn’t loyalty or orthodoxy or even prudence. It’s fear. It was Jesus himself who said to Simon Peter “put out into the deep” (Lk. 5:4). Inevitably that means encountering rough seas.

We’ve tended to attribute turbulent seas to secular society. What this Synod has confirmed – with its broad pre-synod consultation phase – is that within the Church, within the community of believers, the waters are swirling too; we can feel multiple currents. Are they to be feared or harnessed? Will they bring to the barque momentum and direction or resistance and friction? The answers to these questions are not clearcut. That’s precisely why the Pope has called the Synod.

The Synod framework, remember, was think big (evangelization of the family). It strikes me that now it has become think deep. Why the shift? The reality being faced is that in our many efforts to pick up Pope St John Paul’s and Pope Benedict’s call to the new evangelization, we are meeting not just those who have never known Jesus, not just those outside the Church but many many people whose parents or who themselves were once within the Church but now consider themselves placed beyond the Church. And in this category predominant are the divorced and re-married, and gay men and women.

So, it is these two groupings that have attracted most interest; not least from the media. Where to from here? That’s a complex question. Personal stories, and sociological and psychological observations are helpful descriptive tools. But for a faith community woven together by God’s revelation these will never be enough; indeed they can become a kind of diversion. What we need is deep theological reflection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That can lead beyond intransigence – repetition of tired formulae – to that wonderful understanding of progress so succinctly described at the second Vatican Council as: growth in insight (Dei Verbum, 8). A challenge or a conundrum or a complexity is perceived afresh, is understood in a deeper light.

I remind myself that the election of a Pope is the Holy Spirit’s business. Francis, like every Pope, is a gift to the Church for our time. Central to his mission has been a prominence given to mercy. Some commentators portray mercy as being shackled by truth. That is a mistake. Mercy in fact equips us to grasp truth more fully. Pope Francis’ motto encapsulates this important insight. Miserando atque eligendo (because he saw him through eyes of mercy) comes from a homily of St Bede and refers to the calling of Matthew the tax collector by Jesus. The point made is that through Christ’s eyes of mercy he is able to see Matthew in a fresh light; a light which reveals the truth that notwithstanding his past Matthew too is capable of discipleship.

In regard to the Synod we might ask, for example, will eyes of mercy lead us to recognize insights about the truth of human nature concerning homosexuality? The Church has rightly been steadfast in teaching that gender isn’t a social construct yet some within the Church still claim sexual orientation is. Where is the logic in that?

The role of mercy in the pursuit of knowledge is a very interesting concept. It could well be the source of insight needed to embrace those who in the end cry not for mercy but for the recognition of what is true.

Click here for the full text of Pope Francis’ closing speech at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod, given on 18 October, 2014.

Family and community
The Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops convened by Pope Francis on marriage and family during October begins a year of deep reflection for the Church.
This reflection will continue in the lead-up to part two of the Assembly in October 2015.
Advent and the Christmas celebration of the Holy Family bring special attention to the significance of our families and communities.
In this issue of Wel-Com we feature invited contributions with a variety of viewpoints and encounters about what family means in Aotearoa New Zealand today.