VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family will be shorter than a usual synod and will include new rules aimed at helping the bishops really grapple with the issues together, said the general secretary of the synod.
“We want a frank, open, civilized discussion,” Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri told Catholic News Service July 25.
The extraordinary synod will meet at the Vatican Oct. 5-19, bringing together the presidents of national bishops’ conferences, the heads of Eastern Catholic churches and Vatican officials. The world Synod of Bishops, which will include more bishops — many elected by their peers — will meet at the Vatican Oct. 4-25, 2015, to continue the discussion on pastoral approaches to the challenges facing families today.
Although the number of participants in the extraordinary synod is smaller, it will include a dozen or more voting members named by the pope, three priests chosen by the Union of Superiors General, a dozen or more expert advisers, about a dozen representatives of other Christian churches and up to 30 observers, more than half comprised of married couples — who will be encouraged to address the assembly, the cardinal said.
Cardinal Baldisseri said he is not surprised by all the attention the synod is getting in the church and the media, because “the problems of the family are what people are dealing with every day.”
He knows there are “great expectations,” and he is pleased about that, although he has cautioned repeatedly that decisions about the church’s pastoral approach to families are not expected until after the 2015 synod gathering.
The synod is a gathering of bishops, he said, but the preparatory questionnaire distributed in October 2013 and summarized in the synod working document that was published in June demonstrated a desire to hear from the grassroots.
The topics raised in the questionnaire included contraception, divorce and remarriage, same-sex marriage, premarital sex and in vitro fertilization.
Some responses questioned the church’s teaching or encouraged greater understanding of people who cannot always live up to that teaching. Cardinal Baldisseri said that the bishops “must recognize that the faithful perceive the truth” about the Gospel and its values and their input cannot be ignored. “But the bishops have the responsibility and authority to discern ways to apply the constant teaching of the church,” he said.
The big change from past synods is that the voting members of the extraordinary synod will be asked to submit their presentations in writing at least two weeks before the meeting opens, the cardinal said.
“This is not to limit the discussion, but to help organize it,” he said.
The report opening the synod, which used to be a rephrasing of the synod working document, now will be a first summary of the bishops’ submissions, he said.
During the first week of the synod, instead of reading their presentations, the bishops will have “three or four minutes” to summarize it — focusing only on one theme — and, perhaps, include ideas or clarifications that have come from listening to their brother bishops, he said.
Cardinal Baldisseri said that as the bishops address the assembly, the synod’s opening report will be modified to reflect the discussion. At the end of the first week, the revised report will be presented to the group.
In the past, the synod would take a half-day break while the relator or recording secretary and synod staff worked far into the night writing a report summarizing the discussion. “Staying up all night required a huge effort, but it also was difficult to produce an excellent text under those conditions,” the cardinal said.
The second week of the synod will be taken up mainly by work in small groups organized according to language, he said. But instead of brainstorming propositions for the pope, the small groups will work, theme by theme, on amending the summary report, which is likely to be used as the working document for the 2015 synod.
The cardinal, who spent 20 years as a nuncio before being assigned to the Roman Curia, has never actually participated in a synod. He said he told Pope Francis that before the pope named him head of the synod office last year, “but I think that is partly why he did it.”
With a fresh approach, but also in consultation with synod veterans, Cardinal Baldisseri hopes the synod reforms that began under Pope Benedict XVI will continue to make it an effective, more efficient forum for tackling questions facing the church.