Briefing at the USCCB: The ‘Real Synod’ Stands Up

Four U.S. bishop delegates to last month’s synod in Rome address media-generated misconceptions and discuss the road ahead for the synodal process.

(photo: CNA)

BALTIMORE — The U.S. Catholic bishops received firsthand accounts of last month’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in Rome from participating American bishops, who said it differed greatly from the media’s presentation of those two weeks.

Speaking during the first day of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore, USCCB president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop William Skurla of the Eparchy of Pittsburgh, gave the bishops their report from the synod.

“There must have been two synods, and the four of us must have happened to be at the wrong one,” quipped Cardinal Dolan. He related that while there were some difficulties — miscommunications, miscues and the publication of the synod’s midway report without prior authorization by the synod fathers — the reality of the synod was “largely overlooked by the synod of sound bites and headlines.”

The cardinal said the real synod wasn’t “spicy, juicy or pugnacious,” as reported by many media outlets. “This synod was one of consensus, rather remarkable consensus, faithful to the understanding of matrimony as revealed by God and of a Catholic family always loyal as well to the example Jesus gives us of compassion and mercy to those not yet living the truth, beauty and goodness of our belief in marriage.”

Cardinal Dolan said a number of media narratives were not true: that the “real synod” was “divisive, confrontational and partisan,” dwelling “only” on the contentious topics of same-sex attraction, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage of Catholics; that it was “hijacked by left-wing dissenters diluting doctrine”; or that it was “smothered” by intransigent reactionaries bent on resisting any change.

Cardinal Dolan said Pope Francis “clearly trusts that the Holy Spirit works among us in a climate of fraternity, trust and give and take.”

He said they listened to lived experience of married couples and theologians teaching how the lifelong love of one man and one woman reflects the Holy Trinity “giving us a forecast of heaven.”

“At this synod, we listened to brave bishops from Africa about how the biblical teachings on marriage, so widely dismissed in the first world, were actually transforming their culture.”


Collaborative Process

Cardinal Dolan said the bishops discussed pastoral strategies “to meet the most urgent vocation crisis of all: the vocation to lifelong, life-giving, faithful marriage.” This included talking about how to help priests, deacons, religious and lay leaders in parishes “prepare couples for marriage and accompany them through rough times,” as well as simplifying and expediting marriage cases.

Archbishop Kurtz said the synod had three distinct expressions, as articulated by Pope Francis: “speak[ing] openly,” “listen[ing] with humility” and being “open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.”

“I believe that we did that during those two weeks that we were together.”

Archbishop Kurtz said the synod’s final relatio synodi “emerged after a lot of exhaustive collaboration and consultation” from the small groups that worked to deepen and clarify the summary of the synod’s controversial midway report. He said the final report achieved “three basic points of unity and consensus.”

“First of all is the clear affirmation that the teaching of the Church is unchanging. It was something our Holy Father said as we began, and this was confirmed,” he said. “Secondly, the contemporary challenge of secularism is present in every part of the world. And, thirdly, we have a major task of accompaniment: How do we accompany our brothers and sisters to help them come closer to Christ? How do we accompany all people?”


Looking Forward to 2015

Cardinal Wuerl said the relatio “reflects not only what was said, but also what a majority of the synod fathers could support.”

He added the Holy Father wanted all 62 paragraphs debated by the bishops to be available in the text — including the three that did not achieve the required two-thirds endorsement — along with the voting numbers to show the strength of consensus behind each paragraph.

Cardinal Wuerl said the relatio is more a “frame of reference” than a working document for the upcoming discussion at the ordinary synod of bishops in October 2015. That meeting will complete the two-year synodal process on the theme of the family.

“We have our work beginning now,” Archbishop Kurtz said later at the noon press conference. “This final relatio is not the final, final step, but it is a step in the wise progression Pope Francis envisions in the two-step process of the synod.”

“The 62 paragraphs are given to us for further study, for further grounding in Scripture and teachings of the Church, and, obviously, to be done so in the true spirit of accompaniment,” he said.

The next steps for the bishops are getting the relatio’s official translation and receiving instructions from the Vatican about how to begin the next consultation.

“It will probably be similar to what happened when we prepared for the first synod: We’re going to be asked in some way to reflect on that relatio and get back to our conference,” said Archbishop Kurtz.


The Laity’s Major Role

Both Archbishop Kurtz and Cardinal Wuerl affirmed that the laity will have a “major role” in this upcoming consultation.

“I think that is going to be a very real part of this process,” Cardinal Wuerl said, saying the discussion will involve the lay faithful asking themselves to consider not just where they stand in their own faith, but “how am I inviting others into the experience of the faith?”

Archbishop Kurtz explained this will involve consideration of the “art of accompaniment,” which he explained as how “to enter into the lives of the people, to join them where they were and then to lead them: together lead them to Christ.”

“We would make a big mistake if we say this art of accompaniment is somehow meant exclusively for priests and bishops. It’s meant for all of us,” he said, saying the best parishes and families have this at the center of their community life.

“I think there is a gold mine of opportunities for laypeople, but, really, for all of us to be engaged in the process.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.