VATICAN CITY — This week the Synod of Bishops begins its 15th ordinary general session, convoked to discuss the themes of young people, the faith and vocational discernment. The session will take place over three weeks, from Oct. 3-28, and include bishops and other delegates gathered from around the world.
The bishops who will attend do so either by virtue of their office (as is the case for many Curial prelates), through election by the local bishops’ conference or the synod’s previous session, or because they were specially appointed by the Pope.
In total, more than 300 hundred participants will gather in Rome, including clerics and religious, as well as 49 auditors, among them 36 young people from the five continents.
The U.S. delegation was publicly confirmed in July. Elected to represent the American bishops were Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB; Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the conference’s vice president; Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, chair of the USCCB committee on marriage, family and youth; Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who also sits on the committee; and Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.
In addition to these, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Illinois, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, as delegates.
Cardinal Tobin subsequently announced he would not travel to Rome, saying he could not afford to be absent from Newark for the several weeks covered by the synod, citing revelations concerning sexual abuse in the archdiocese over the summer, which he called a “crisis that continues to unfold.”
The working document that will form the basis for the synod’s deliberations was released in May. Drawing on responses gathered from local Churches and young people as part of the synod’s preparatory phase, the document outlined a number of themes for discussion during the general session. These include vocational discernment and the transmission of the faith, but also how the Church can better engage with young people on issues such as sexuality and gender, social-justice themes, including racism, migration and economic exclusion, and the place of young people as “leaders” in their communities.
Some bishops, including Archbishop Chaput, have questioned the appropriateness of continuing with the synod as planned in the wake of the sex-abuse crises that have rocked the Church in the last few months. In an op-ed published Sept. 29, Archbishop Chaput noted that a meeting on young people and vocational discernment in the midst of clerical abuse scandals was poorly timed.
“A more ironic, and more difficult, confluence of bad facts at a bad time for the meeting can hardly be imagined,” he wrote.
Many concerns have also been raised that the synod itself might be pressured to focus disproportionately on so-called “LGBT” issues, much as the last synod, held on the family, was seen as fixating on the pastoral care of the divorced and civilly remarried.
Like all sessions, the synod will produce a final document treating the themes discussed. Traditionally, the Pope issues a document of his own in response to the synod’s deliberations, called an apostolic exhortation. Recently, Pope Francis approved changes to the way the synod functions, creating the explicit possibility that he could adopt the final document as his own and incorporate it into the ordinary papal magisterium.
Looking ahead to the synod sessions, a number of bishops and cardinals from around the world are expected to figure heavily in the deliberations.
Possibly the two most influential figures will be Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri and Cardinal Sergio da Rocha.
Cardinal Baldisseri is the secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops and has had a central role in the synod’s preparations, and he will help manage the day-to-day progress of the meetings. He has been in charge of the synod’s permanent secretariat in Rome since 2013.
During the last synod session in 2015 on the family, Cardinal Baldisseri came under criticism for attempting to steer the process and content of the discussions and final document. A letter signed by 13 cardinals, including Cardinal DiNardo, was handed to the Pope the day the session began, complaining about shortcomings in the working document to be discussed and of attempts to foist an agenda on the bishops before they had begun discussions.
On Oct. 1, Cardinal Baldisseri publicly criticized Archbishop Chaput for raising concerns about the working document ahead of this month’s session. Archbishop Chaput, who as a member of the synod’s ordinary council was involved in the preparation of the instrumentum laboris, published a theological critique of the working document Sept. 21 prepared by an anonymous theologian.
The critique highlighted “a pervasive focus on sociocultural elements” in the working document “to the exclusion of deeper religious and moral issues.” It also said the text relegated the Church’s essential teaching function and authority in favor of a passive posture of “listening” and “dialogue.”
Cardinal Baldisseri said he could not understand Archbishop Chaput’s criticisms or the need to make them publicly. Instead, the cardinal said, concerns should have been raised privately and could have been included in the document “with calm.”
Cardinal Sergio da Rocha is the archbishop of Brasilia. In November of last year, Pope Francis named him as the relator-general of the synod, charged with outlining the synod’s themes at the beginning of the session and summarizing the contributions of members throughout the synod’s progress. He will also play a key role in drafting the text of the synod’s final document, which will be put to members for a vote.
Cardinal da Rocha has played an active role in public life in his native Brazil, chairing a debate between the country’s presidential candidates and publicly condemning the legalization of abortion in response to the Zika virus outbreak. He was also a member of the planning committee for the 2015 synod on the family.
Another potentially crucial figure at this month’s session will be Cardinal Wilfred Napier Fox, archbishop of Durban, South Africa.
Cardinal Napier was also an active participant in the 2014-2015 sessions, where he played a vocal role in opposing what were seen by many as attempts to push through plans to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to Communion over the majority consensus of the synod fathers.
During the last synod, Pope Francis asked Cardinal Napier to join the group charged with drafting the synod’s relatio, or final document, citing concerns that the Churches in Africa and Oceania were under represented.
During the drafting meetings, Cardinal Napier recalled that he objected to the inclusion of language about same-sex couples in the section on marriage, noting that the Church does not recognize such unions to be marriages at all, and that the proposed text undermined efforts by bishops in African countries to oppose the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage.
Despite his opposition, he said, the drafting committee “just carried on discussing how the proposition should be phrased in Italian.” According to an account given by Cardinal Napier, the drafting committee, led by Cardinal Baldisseri, continued to ignore his objections, prompting an angry intervention in support of him by Washington archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl.
As an outspoken defender of the Church’s teaching on life issues and a frequent presence on Twitter, and given his previous criticisms of the synod process being overly managed, many are looking to Cardinal Napier as a potential voice for synod members and a force for “fair play” in how the final document is drafted.
Another bishop-attendee predicted to play an influential role is Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznan, president of the Polish bishops’ conference. Archbishop Gądecki has shown himself to be an adept leader of the bishops of one of Europe’s most conservative, and sometimes combative, episcopal conferences.
During a period in which European countries have struggled to form a common approach to the issues of increased political integration and the migrant crisis, which still dominate large parts of political debate, Archbishop Gądecki wrote a document contrasting the “dangers of nationalism” with the “beauties of patriotism.”
Similarly, the pastoral guidelines issued by the Polish bishops’ conference on the implementation of Amoris Laetitia were widely seen as a thoughtful via media. Emphasizing Pope Francis’ priorities, like better and longer marriage formation for couples before and after the wedding, the document stressed the need for pastoral accompaniment for couples in irregular unions, while underscoring the Church’s discipline with regards to reception of Communion.
Often seen as an agent of compromise, but unflinching on matters of doctrine, Archbishop Gądecki could well emerge during the synod as a constructive force in reconciling those looking for a change of pastoral tone with others concerned with protecting the integrity of the Church’s teaching and discipline.
A final synod father likely to make an impression is Cardinal Louis Raphaël I Sako, Chaldean patriarch of Babylon and archbishop of Baghdad. In addition to choosing him as the first voting cardinal from the Chaldean Church, Pope Francis has asked the head of the Church in Iraq to serve as one of the synod’s four presiding delegates, charged with leading the sessions.
A tireless advocate for persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East, Cardinal Sako will provide a global perspective for the synod’s deliberations and could well serve as a vocal corrective should proceedings begin to turn too closely around what are seen as European and North American concerns.
Formed by his own experiences in Iraq and by the suffering of Christians in that country, Cardinal Sako frequently references the Christian call to heroic witness and martyrdom, something which may well feature in discussions of how the Church best expresses unpopular truths in the modern world.
Before being submitted for consideration by the Pope, the synod’s final document will be voted on my members, with a two-thirds majority needed to include an item and only a simple majority needed to strike an item.
Given the express possibility that Pope Francis may adopt the final text as a magisterial document of his own, the debate amongst delegates over the final wording could prove even more contentious than the last meeting of the synod in 2015. In such a case, figures like Cardinal Baldesseri, Cardinal da Rocha, Cardinal Napier, Archbishop Gądecki and Cardinal Sako could well prove decisive in forging not just a final document, but the support needed to pass its provisions.
Ed Condon is the Washington editor for CNA.