On to the synod! After a triumphal weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, Pope Francis headed back to Rome. In Philadelphia, his moving words capped a family festival of song and story. Then he met with sexual abuse victims, visited prisoners and celebrated a hugely attended Mass, closing the World Meeting of Families.
Starting Sunday, he’ll lead what could be a contentious synod on family issues.
That synod, essentially the second half of one that took place last fall, will address knotty questions such as whether divorced Catholics should be permitted to receive Communion. It will attempt to strike a difficult balance between the pope’s emphasis on God’s mercy and the church’s teaching about marriage and family. Many Catholics want mercy to prevail, but a core of bishops don’t want to see any change.
On his U.S. trip, family was at the top of the pope’s mind. And being surrounded by families at a festival on Saturday night energized him.
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If you looked closely at that festival you could see two faces of the church, foreshadowing the coming struggle at the synod.
One face, of course, was that of the pope himself. For much of this visit, he read carefully crafted, powerful speeches that are well worth study. But Saturday night, after listening to families tell their stories, the pope abandoned his prepared speech about family and decided to speak from the heart. Liberated from the tyranny of the printed page and free to be himself, Francis gave a master class in the theology of the family, mixing profundity with broad humor.
“All that is beautiful leads us to God,” the pope said, in his native Spanish. Then he told a tale of a boy’s question. “ ‘What did God do before creating the world,’” the pope recalled the boy asking. “I assure you, I found real difficulty answering the question. I said, ‘Before creating the world, God loved, because God is love. ... It was so big, this love, that God could not be egoistic. It had to be poured out of him, so as to share that love with those outside of himself. And God created the world.’” Then he returned to the theme of his encyclical, Laudato Si, the need to preserve the common home that Creator’s bursting love gave us: “We are destroying it.”
The other face was the conservative, worried-about-Francis one, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. In 2013, Chaput said out loud what many of the more conservative bishops were grumbling. He told the National Catholic Reporter that right-wing folks in the church “generally have not been really happy about his election.”
Whatever Chaput thinks of Francis, then or now, the Vatican lists the archbishop among the nearly 300 participants in the Synod on the Family, where he seems likely to be a strong voice for the status quo.
At last year’s first session, the synod began with some wide-ranging, freewheeling, open discussion on complex issues -- a freedom of speech encouraged by the pope. But the document that concluded the session backed away from any significant changes in church practice.
The pope has since taken a major step, easing the process of issuing annulments, which declare that the marriage was null and void from the start. But that doesn’t change the church’s teaching that a valid marriage is indissoluble. So difficult issues remain.