ROME – Pope Francis opened his Synod on Synodality Wednesday by urging members to abstain from speaking to journalists in order to maintain what he said was the “priority of listening,” and lamented the influence of public opinion on past synod gatherings.
Speaking to synod members and participants during the Oct. 4 opening session, the pope stressed the need to make room for the Holy Spirit through “the priority of listening.” In this regard, he said synod participants must “send a message” to journalists that reflects “life in the Holy Spirit.”
“It takes a bit of asceticism – excuse me if I speak like this to the journalists – a certain fasting from the public word to safeguard this. And what is published must be in this climate,” he said.
Francis referred to rumors circulating in some media outlets stating that the reason synod participants are hesitant to speak to the media is that “the bishops are afraid,” and insisted that this is inaccurate.
“No, the work of journalists is very important, but we must help them to say this, this going (forward) in the Spirit. And more than the priority of speaking, there is the priority of listening,” the pope said, and made a direct appeal to journalists “to please make people understand this, so that they know the priority is listening.”
Recalling past synods, Pope Francis said that prior to the 2014 and 2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, “There was the public opinion, formed by our worldliness, that it was to give communion to the divorced and remarried, and that’s how we entered into the synod.”
Similarly, ahead of the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, “There was public opinion, pressure, on whether it was to approve the viri probati,” meaning tested married men, to the priesthood.
“We entered with this pressure,” Francis said, and pointed to media speculation in the lead-up to this month’s synod about the potential opening of doors to some issues, such as women’s ordination.
“These (are) things they say outside, no? And they say many times that the bishops are afraid to communicate what is happening,” he said, and made an appeal to journalists “to carry out your role well, correctly, so that the Church and the people of goodwill, the others will say what they want, understand that the Church also has the priority of listening.”
Pope Francis inaugurated his keenly anticipated Synod of Bishops on Synodality Wednesday morning, kicking off a month-long discussion aimed at transforming the Church’s life and structures to make Catholicism more welcoming, inclusive, and collaborative.
The Oct. 4-29 discussion, is titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” was formally opened by the pope with an inaugural Mass Wednesday morning, concelebrated by the new cardinals he elevated during his Sept. 30 consistory and during which he cautioned against ideology and urged participants not to go in barricaded behind “preconceived notions.”
In the months ahead of the synod, Pope Francis sent clear indications that he did not want participants speaking with the media, and speculation arose over a supposed proposal to impose pontifical secrecy – the breaking of which incurs automatic excommunication – over the synod discussion, including the topics discussed, and the brief interventions given by members and participants.
The official regolamento, or guidelines, for the synod, published Wednesday, stopped short of pontifical secrecy while still binding participants to a spirit of confidentiality.
In its section on rules for communication, the regolamento said that in order to ensure “the freedom of expression of each and all regarding their thoughts and to ensure the serenity of the discernment in common, which is the main task entrusted to the assembly, each of the participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants.”
“This duty remains in force once the synodal assembly has ended,” it said.
To this end, the rules stated that all of the 464 synod participants are “forbidden to record, film or disclose their interventions” in both general sessions and small group discussions.
For previous synod gatherings, participants were free to make their own interventions public, and many were made available to the press in between morning and afternoon sessions.
However, the tight clamp-down on media engagement for this month’s discussion implies that the only information that will be available about the synod discussion will come through official, state-run channels, with little independent access.
This synod also marks the first time that both laypeople and women will participate as full members with a right to vote on the concluding summary text, which will be used as a basis for reflection ahead of the second part of the synod, set to take place in Rome in October of next year.
In his speech Wednesday afternoon, Francis said the concept of synodality in Catholic ecclesiology “is not yet mature,” and recalled how in previous synod gatherings, there was a pre-set agenda for what could and could not be put to a general vote.
“We still didn’t have the attitude that everyone must express themselves freely,” he said, saying the path to achieve synodality is “not easy, but it’s beautiful, it’s very beautiful.”
Synodality has been a buzzword for Pope Francis throughout his decade-long papacy, and he said it was the second most requested topic of discussion when questionnaires were sent to the world’s bishops asking what the topic of the next synod should be.
When the responses came in, he said, most wanted the synod to be on priests, while the second preference was for synodality, and the third was to address social issues.
Francis reiterated his insistence that the synod “is not a parliament” or “a gathering of friends to resolve some things at the moment and to give opinions,” but is rather “something else,” guided by the Holy Spirit.
“We are not the protagonists of the synod, it’s the Holy Spirit. If the spirit is in the midst of us guiding us, it will be a good synod. If there are other ways of going forward among us, personal interests, ideologies, it will not be a synod, it will be more like a parliamentary meeting, which is something else,” he said.
The Holy Spirit, he said, works to create “not unity, but harmony. He unites us in harmony, harmony in all our differences. If there is no harmony, there is no unity.”
“He makes that harmony that is not a synthesis, it is a bond of communion beginning with similarities. The Church, one harmony of voices,” united by the Holy Spirit, “this is how we must understand the Church,” the pope said.
Pope Francis said one thing that “saddens” the Holy Spirit “are empty words, worldly words. Going down to a human attitude: gossip.”
“Gossip is anti-Holy Spirit, it goes against the spirit…it’s the most common illness of the church, gossip, and if we don’t let ourselves be healed of this illness, it’s hard for a synodal path to be good, at least internally,” he said.
If during the synod someone has something to say about a person or their contribution, to do it “to their face…No gossip under the table.”
He also cautioned, as he often has in the past, against the “the worst illness in the Church,” which he said is “spiritual worldliness. Be aware of this: taking the place of the Holy Spirit with worldliness, even good things, but worldly.”
Francis closed his address saying the Church during the synod “has paused,” not out of fear, but a desire to listen, which “is the most important thing.”
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