VATICAN CITY — On the third day of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, Pope Francis told pilgrims the Church “is and must be the family of God,” an American synod father voiced concerns about the meeting’s working document, and a leading African bishop said his fellow bishops were “optimistic” about the impact the Church in Africa can have on the synod.

Also today the Vatican announced the names of moderators and relators of the circuli minori (small groups). The groups will have greater prominence than in previous synods, in order to foster a more “intense” discussion, Pope Francis said.

Concerns were also raised today about discrepancies in official Holy See reports on the synod and what was actually discussed. As an example, it emerged that one of many talks not reported to the press was the content of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s speech, in which he warned against gender ideology and the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism.

During his weekly general audience catechesis, Francis called on all of the faithful to pray for a good outcome of the synod and underlined that the family deserves all the dedication of which the Church is capable. He called the “family spirit” a “constitutional charter for the Church” and that the Church “is and must be the family of God.”

Recalling Jesus’ exhortation to the apostles to be “fishers of men,” he expressed his hope that the synod fathers, “inspired by the Holy Spirit, kindle the zeal of a Church that abandons the old nets and goes out to fish again, trusting in the word of her Lord.”

“Let us pray intensely for this!” he said. “Indeed, Christ promised and reassures us: If even a bad father does not refuse to give bread to his hungry children, of course God would not refuse to give the Spirit to those who, imperfect as they are, ask with impassioned insistence.”

 

Moderators and Relators

At today’s press briefing, the Holy See Press Office announced that the synod fathers had elected moderators and relators for the 13 small groups of the synod, all determined by language. English-language moderators include Australian Cardinal George Pell and Canadian Cardinal Thomas Collins, while relators include Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Some moderators for the other language groups include Cardinal Sarah of Guinea, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, primate of Canada. 

The moderators conduct the discussions, keeping them focused and running smoothly, while the relators present at the end of each session a summary of the opinions expressed, both pro and con, prepare a report containing all the views expressed, and then give it to the assembly. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said details of which particular synod fathers are in which group will be announced in due course.

The groups began working on Wednesday morning on the first part of the instrumentum laboris (working document), which outlines the context in which contemporary family life is lived.

 

Archbishop Chaput

Archbishop Chaput spoke to reporters at today's briefing of synod delegates’ “concerns” about the document, which he said in his intervention “engenders a subtle hopelessness.”

He said synod fathers questioned whether it really reflected the experience of the universal Church, “or is it too much of a Western, European, Northern Hemisphere kind of document?” He said there was “some discussion” of this issue that morning.

He went on to say the groups are “trying to figure out what our responsibilities are and how to do it best in the amount of time that we have,” but added: “There’s a real dedication in our group to give advice to our Holy Father on the needs of family and dreams of family life.”

At the extraordinary synod last year, African bishops felt their views, which tend to be more traditional than their Western counterparts, were eclipsed by Western-oriented issues such as divorce and remarriage and all extramarital unions. Archbishop Chaput, who has some African synod fathers in his group, said it’s too early to say if the African perspective is being listened to, but that his group talked about the issue.

The Philadelphia archbishop also said calls to change and “renew” the Church’s language are another concern. He felt it important to ask who the audience is, as language that might be offensive in Europe and North America might be “necessary for clarity in African and Asia.”

“This is an international meeting of the Catholic Church, all of us, and so it’s important for the work of the synod that we not be narrowly focused on, primarily, the concerns in my country, for example,” he said. “We need to deal with those concerns, but that’s not the only thing.” The Church’s “audience” is “huge and diverse,” and so “it’s important to respond to that diversity.”

Archbishop Chaput also said the Holy Father urged the synod fathers not to think of each other as “conspiring against one another, but to work for unity among the bishops.” But he added that he has never been to a Church meeting “where groups don’t get together and lobby for a particular direction, and that’s what’s going on, I assure you.”

“We shouldn’t be scandalized or surprised by that,” he said, “as long as it’s done up front and honestly, and not in a way that tries to win rather than arrive at the truth. We’re not here to win anything; we’re here to arrive at the truth.”

Reflecting on the World Meeting of Families attended by the Pope in Philadelphia last month, Archbishop Chaput said there were roars of approval when people heard what the Church traditionally taught at the meeting. “We must affirm the 99 [sheep] when we go looking for the one,” he said.

 

Cardinal Sarah’s Intervention

Meanwhile, it emerged today via the blog of the president of the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, that Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, outlined two main, immediate global threats against humanity in his intervention.

Echoing Pope Benedict XVI, he spoke of a dictatorship of moral relativism, which is especially reflected in gender ideology and Islamic fanaticism, such as in the various jihadi movements, especially the Islamic State group (ISIS). The cardinal compared these two ideologies to the totalitarian expressions of the 20th century — communism and fascism. Moral relativism, according to the cardinal, breaks down the family and leads to the loss of true humanity.

From gender ideology flows euthanasia, abortion and homosexuality, leading to ruthless practices depriving man of his human dignity. Contrasting with gender ideology that flows from moral relativism, Islamic fanaticism leads to the terrible abuse of the human person.

Archbishop Gadecki said his fellow synod father, Archbishop Henry Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, was “deeply impressed” with the theological and intellectual depth of Cardinal Sarah’s intervention. 

“His was not the voice of a prophet of doom, but a voice that flowed from the deep need of the awareness that we know how to react to such events,” Archbishop Hoser said.

There was no record of Cardinal Sarah’s comments during yesterday’s Holy See Press Office briefing on the session in which he spoke. The Register also learned today that other interventions upholding Scripture, doctrine and practice were largely overlooked at the briefing.

Asked at today’s press conference if, to give the media a better idea of the talks, the press office could provide the number of speakers who gave interventions in the synod hall, Father Lombardi said he was “not in a position to do so” and that to list the many themes would be “hard to carry out.” He said each synod father can make his intervention public if he wishs.

 

African Bishops Meet

Also today, African bishops met in Rome to coordinate a unified approach to the synod. After their meeting, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa, a co-president of the synod, said, “Most of the African groups participating are very optimistic about the impact the Church in Africa can have on the synod.”

He said he didn’t know how to bring the diversity of issues into the working document, but that the priority of African bishops is to “concentrate on the theme of the synod.” He said he couldn’t see how issues such as homosexual relationships related to the family and that those pastoral issues “have to be dealt with at a different level.”

“I don’t think one can simply say that these issues need to be at the forefront of the discussion,” he said.

He added that “ideological colonization,” through making aid contingent on developing nations’ passing of legislation in support of agendas such as same-sex “marriage” and abortion rights, is one thing African bishops are “very, very conscious of; they’re very concerned about,” he said.

“We want to be free, with the freedom for which the West was telling us we were struggling for for all those years,” Cardinal Napier said. “We would like to live that freedom now and not to have the political colonization being retraced by a different colonization.”

He recalled that such ideological colonization was “explicitly said” recently in Kenya by President Barack Obama and more implicitly by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a few years ago.

On pressure to limit population in Africa, he said it is “ironic” that Europe has a “difficult decision” to make regarding accommodating refugees from the Middle East when its population is falling. “It’s actually a Godsend, because they’re an aging population,” he said.

Cardinal Napier said he had no concerns about the new methodology of the synod “because we’ve always been saying there should be a much stronger and much greater interaction among people and the amount of time that’s been given to the small groups has really given us that opportunity.” He believes the greater use of the small groups in helping to draft the final report helps to lessen fears that the synod is being manipulated.

 

Support for Cardinal Erdo’s Intervention

Synod sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a number of synod fathers had tried to make Cardinal Peter Erdő’s introductory relatio, which was widely praised, an official discussion paper, in addition to the instrumentum laboris.

But their moves were effectively shut down after Pope Francis restated that the only official documents for the 2014 synod were his two speeches and the final report. The introductory relatio of that synod, therefore, was not among them. 

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.