Cardinal Napier: Process Working Well at This Year’s Synod, Unlike Last Year

The South African cardinal explained how last year’s problems have been constructively addressed, but some concerns remain about the remainder of the synod process.

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa speaks at a briefing on the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 20 in the Holy See Press Office.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa speaks at a briefing on the Synod of Bishops on Oct. 20 in the Holy See Press Office. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, has praised aspects of the new process of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, saying, so far, that the meeting has recaptured the optimism of the first week of last year’s meeting, which he said was marred by the pushing of a “particular ideology, agenda.”

Speaking to reporters on Oct. 20, Cardinal Napier also said the so-called “13 cardinals letter” was sent to the Pope at the beginning of this year’s synod in the spirit of openness and honesty and that the cardinals’ concerns about the meeting “had been registered.”

Reflecting on the three-week synod, which ends Sunday, the cardinal, who is one of the five co-presidents of the ordinary synod, said the African bishops found the emphasis on the small groups “very helpful,” because they gave them “so much more time to reflect.” This has allowed those present to “learn from each other” and about what is “going on in different parts of the world” from bishops, laity and fraternal delegates.

Unlike previous synods, this synod has placed greater emphasis on 13 small groups, called circuli minori, made up of 20 members and divided into languages. They have been meeting for most of the three-week synod, rather than just the second half of the meeting, as happened in previous synods. Pope Francis said the change was geared towards fostering a more “intense” debate.

The groups have produced reports and tabled amendments on the three-part text for the synod, the instrumentum laboris (working document), which will then be turned into a final report, to be voted on paragraph by paragraph on Saturday.

Cardinal Napier welcomed the procedure compared to last year’s meeting, which, he recalled, took a negative turn when the interim report was published at the end of the first week of the two-week meeting.

He said there were “certain individual items of concern” at last year’s synod, and “one in particular was the presentation of the interim report, as if it had come from the synod, as if it were part of the synod’s deliberations.

“That was not true, because we received the document about an hour after you guys had received it in the media; and we only then started reading it.”

The South African cardinal said the interim document contained paragraphs that only two or three people “at the most” had presented, but were “presented as if they were a reflection of the synod.”

“Now, that certainly gives you the impression that the synod was being pushed in a certain direction,” the cardinal said. He added that he also served on a commission (along with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and several other synod fathers) that was drafting last year’s final document, and “there were certain issues there that were, once again, being pushed in a certain direction, in the sense that a particular ideology, agenda, or whatever you like to call it, seemed to have been in operation.”


Pope’s Actions ‘Made a Huge Difference’

Regarding the cardinals’ letter (11 prelates actually signed it) calling on the Pope to make changes to the synod revolving around three concerns — voting procedures, composition of the commission drafting the final document and the dominance of the issue of Communion for remarried divorcees —  that was sent as the synod got under way on Oct. 5, he stressed it was a “private letter between cardinals, bishops and the Pope.” It was written, he added, “in the spirit of what Pope Francis had said at the beginning of last year’s synod, when he said: ‘Please speak openly and honestly, but listen with humility.’”

“It was sent to him in that spirit,” Cardinal Napier said. “Pope Francis immediately responded by coming out with a statement on the day after he had received the letter.”

The Pope’s response, he said, “made a huge difference” to the “scale of confidence and of trust, that the concerns had been registered, they had been taken care of, and, therefore, from then on, everyone was going to work at the synod with all they had got.”

He added: “I think that’s what I’ve experienced, and that has been why I feel that this synod takes up where that first week of the last one had left off, when we were all optimistic and looking forward to really working together on the issues as a team, with the synodality, the words Pope Francis is so fond of using — collegiality and synodality — walking together as colleagues in the direction of what’s best for the Church.”  


Some Remaining Concerns

However, synod fathers remain concerned about some procedural aspects to take place in the coming final days of the synod.

The main area of concern revolves around the final report, or relatio finalis.

It’s not clear exactly when the draft of the final report will be ready, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the synod fathers will probably receive it on Thursday evening.

The report is meant to “set forth the conclusions reached at the synod on subjects receiving the consensus” of the assembly, according to the Synod of Bishops, achieved through synod fathers tabling modi, or amendments, to the three-part instrumentum laboris.

They will then be able to amend the draft, orally or in writing, on Friday, possibly continuing into the night. The amended final report will then be presented to the synod fathers on Saturday morning and voted on in the afternoon. Each paragraph requires “a strong consensus, or at least a two-thirds majority,” and voting will be done electronically.

But it will be available only in Italian, with language interpreters translating the text as it is read out to them. This could be problematic, given the gravity and complexity of the subject matter. “How are they to make a considered vote on the final report if they don’t understand Italian?” asked one synod father.

Father Lombardi told the Register the time “is very short” and that “a lot of hard work” is being done at present to ensure the modi are being inserted into the third and final part of the instrumentum laboris so that it can be used by the commission to draft the final report.

Given the pressures of time and the enormous amount of information to process, some are wondering if much of the final report is already ready and was, in fact, drafted some time ago. “It’s Mission: Impossible,” said one observer. “They simply cannot come up with such a lengthy and complex document in so little time.” The cardinals in their letter warned that voting on the final document “comes too late in the process for a full review and serious adjustment of the text.” 

Some synod fathers also are concerned about the composition of the 10-member commission drafting the final report; they believe the members mostly favor pastoral innovations and are not sufficiently robust in their knowledge of Catholic teaching and morals. This was also one of the three concerns raised in the cardinals’ letter.

“The structure of my small-language group is completely different to that of the commission drafting the final report,” a synod father told the Register on condition of anonymity. “In my group, there are only two or three members who support controversial reforms, such as Communion for remarried divorcees, but on the drafting committee, it’s seven out of 10.”

The secretariat for the Synod of Bishops did not respond to the Register when asked last Saturday and again on Monday if a draft of the final document had been written in advance. 


Prayers Are Helping

These concerns aside, Cardinal Napier said today he believes this synod “will give great impetus to local Churches to embark on ensuring we have more and more really good marriages through good marriage preparation, but also through good, clear teaching of what the Church expects of marriage and how the sacrament of marriage is celebrated.” 

“We believe, from these good marriages, we’ll get good families, and these will have an impact on society,” the cardinal said, adding that the synod process actually began at the 2013 conclave, when cardinals were calling for Church reform, beginning with the Vatican.

“We believe this is also a way of reforming the Church,” Cardinal Napier said. “If you reform the family structure, you make sure it is strong, you will have a Church built on good foundations and, therefore, one that can effectively impact society.”

On behalf of the African bishops, the cardinal also thanked the “millions of laypeople who are praying for the synod.” He said he could “say with a degree of certainty that we feel those prayers are helping us through the difficult moments of the synod.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

He is the author of The Rigging of a Vatican Synod?

An Investigation Into Alleged Manipulation at the

Extraordinary Synod on the Family (Ignatius, 2015).

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