Some commentators believe it has changed the culture of the Synod; others view it as a lobbying device to win the Pope’s ear. Whatever impact it may have had, the decision of Pope Benedict to add an extra hour of free and open discussion to the end of each day of the Synod has been a welcome innovation.
“It helps quite a bit because people are able to take up a theme proposed earlier in the day, comment on it, and ask a speaker to clarify his intervention,” said one expert assisting the synod fathers with their deliberations. “It makes for an interesting exchange and livens it up.” The free discussion, or open forum, allows participants in the Synod hall to put forward a point or ask a question within a three-minute time-frame. It follows the morning and afternoon general congregations in which scheduled speakers can talk for up to six minutes on a chosen theme.
In the past, these six-minute interventions, which used to be of longer duration, have been criticised for stifling spontaneity and debate in the Synod, or for occasionally being used to seek publicity for a (usually controversial) point of view. The open forum, however, serves to “remove some of the grandstanding”, according to one veteran commentator.
This was probably helped by a wise (though somewhat unpopular) move by the Vatican to cut back on who and what was said during the free discussions in its press briefings. Having begun by providing detailed reports and quotations, Vatican officials first curtailed the amount of information released and then, a day later, agreed to reveal what was said but without disclosing the speaker.
Officials were perhaps uneasy at the publicity surrounding some comments made in the early forums such as that of Archbishop William Levada’s who made one of his first public remarks since taking over Pope Benedict’s former position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
However, aside from the unwanted publicity, there is another concern that these sessions, which have so far been regularly attended by the Holy Father, are being cynically used to curry favour with the Pontiff on such controversial issues as married clergy and the right of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist. Yet if that is the case, it would probably be welcomed by the Pope who has made it a priority of his pontificate to listen to all sides of a debate.
The Holy Father has not been taking notes during the discussions, but he has been listening closely to what has been said, with his hand propping up his head in a posture reminiscent of Pope John Paul II. And there has been no criticism that debate has been stifled. “The bishops do feel free to share what they honestly feel in their heart,” said Bishop William Skylstad, president of the US bishops’conference.
Also helpful to debate have been the smaller workshops in which different language groups have been divided into small parties of between 24 and 35 participants. They are free to discuss whatever aspect of the working document they choose, and are given suggestions from the general relator, Cardinal Angelo Scola.
But how much of what is discussed will really help bring the Eucharist back to the centre of the Church’s life? “The Synod itself is a consultative synod, but that doesn’t mean that whatever comes through from the discussion is not going to be taken lightly,” said Bishop Skylstad. “The fact that the Holy Father has been there for a good many of the sessions shows that he is wanting to listen, and everyone is deeply concerned about how we address the Eucharist, how we can make it more vibrant and alive in the Church.” During the Synod’s first 10 days few concrete suggestions had been made as to how to resolve some of the issues raised. The “heavy work” starts in the latter half of the Synod, once all the Fathers have spoken. As the Synod closes, a list of propositions will be presented to the Holy Father.
The Vatican, like the rest of the Church, takes a very longterm view, so any change tends to be imperceptibly slow; the fruits of this Synod will not be seen for some months or years. But there are positive signs. Not only are the discussions of high standard, the fact that the Synod Fathers voted to have two “holy hours” each day and one whole day given to Adoration is encouraging. The mood of the Synod is also said to be very open, positive and fraternal. As the bishops celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first such Synod of Bishops, this highly significant synod could well be one of the Church’s most fruitful.
According to the Italian media Pope Benedict is said to have approved the forthcoming new instruction on homosexuals and the clergy in which it is speculated to permit only those candidates to the priesthood who have lived chastely for at least three years. It is now expected the document will be published in November.