It is somewhat difficult to summarize in just a few paragraphs the very lengthy, very important, very eloquent talks given in recent days during pre-synod events, at the opening Mass and today, the first day of meetings. I have spent several hours reading three speeches and homilies given by Pope Francis and the main 7,500-word presentation given this morning by the synod’s relator general, Cardinal Peter Erdo of Hungary. I’m offering a fairly lengthy summary of these days of talks for one reason: not because it is easier to present more of a talk but because I do not want to take some very important words out of context. Context is and will be everything in this synod.
To paraphrase Blaise Pascal who wrote in Letter XVI of “Provincial Letters”: “I made this letter longer because I did not have the time to make it shorter.”
The fact that journalists will not receive daily written summaries of interventions by synod participants could present a problem. We will be relying on the daily briefings of those people allowed to be in the synod hall for this purpose.

Check this website for multi-lingual info on the synod, including video from CTV: http://synod14.vatican.va/content/sinodo/it/sinodo2014/events/topic.html/content/sinodoevents/it/2014/10/1/sinododeivescovi

First, just a brief note on Sunday’s Angelus: In asking for prayers for the synod that is focusing on the family, Pope Francis urged families to keep a Bible handy in their homes, and read it often. Noting that Bibles were being distributed in the square, he said, “Today, as the Synod for the Family opens, with the help of the Pauline Brothers there is a Bible for every family! Not to just put it on a shelf, but to keep it on hand, dip into it often, both individually and together, husband and wife, parents and children, perhaps in the evening, especially on Sundays. In this way the family will grow and walk in the light and the strength of God’s Word!”

I posted the Pope’s words at the Sunday Angelus on Facebook and shared one of my favorite quotes about the Bible: Italian comedian and actor Roberto Benigni once said: “The Bible is the only book whose author also created its readers!”

So, pour yourself a second cup of coffee or tea or, perhaps if it is later in the day, a nice glass of Malbec and sit back and digest what follows.


The main takeaway from three papal talks over the weekend, from the opening discourse by Cardinal Peter Erdo at this morning’s first session of the synod on the family and from statements by four synod Fathers at a Monday morning press conference is that Church teachings on marriage, principally its indissolubility, are not up for debate at the synod. They will not change. Instead, the focus of the synod will be on pastoral and practical response to urgent issues and the “difficult pastoral situations” facing families.

Those issues, problems and challenges were laid out at length in the 7,500-word talk given by Cardinal Erdo of Hungary who is the relator general of the Synod. His talk Monday morning, transmitted live and online by CTV, was the only public moment of the synod’s first day. Interventions in coming days will not be made public so as to guarantee freedom of expression.

Cardinal Erdo said one notable new element in his speech was that it contained several written interventions of synod fathers.

In order to guarantee frank and free discussion by all synod participants, Pope Francis, speaking at today’s first congregation, urged, almost ordered, participants to speak from the heart. Do not worry about pleasing – or displeasing – me, he said. “This is not good! A general condition is this:“Speak clearly. Let no one say: ‘This you cannot say.’ You need to say all that you feel with parrhesia,” he added, using the Greek word for speaking boldly, fearlessly. “And, at the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.”

The Pope recounted that, “Following the consistory in February of this year in which we spoke about the family, a cardinal wrote the following: ‘What a pity! Some cardinals did not dare to say some things in respect for the Pope, thinking that maybe he thought differently’. This is not alright.”

But, let’s look at the weekend in chronological order.

It had been said that one would be able to see what the focus and challenges for the synod fathers would be through three documents: the working document for the synod released last June, Pope Francis’ homily Sunday at the Mass opening the synod and today’s introductory talk by Cardinal Erdo, relator general. I would add a fourth – the Holy Father’s words at the prayer vigil on Saturday evening in St. Peter’s Square!

He began by saying, “The evening falls on our assembly. It is the hour in which one willingly returns home to the same meal, in the midst of affection, of the good that has been done and received, of the encounters that warm the heart and make it grow, good wine which anticipates in the days of man the feast without end.

”It is also the most weighty hour,” added the Pope, “for the one who finds himself face to face with his own loneliness, in the bitter twilight of broken dreams and plans: how many people trudge through the day in the blind alley of resignation, abandonment, even resentment: in how many homes was the wine of joy less plenty, therefore, the zest – and the wisdom – of life. For one another we make our prayer heard.”

How beautifully the Pope indicates he understands people. “In each person born of a woman, there remains alive an essential need of stability, of an open door, of someone with whom to weave and to share the story of life, a history to which to belong.”

It is for this that we have families, that we are families, that we want and need families, he said.

”The family continues to be a school without parallel of humanity, an indispensable contribution to a just and united society. And the deeper its roots, the more it is possible in life to leave and to go far, without getting lost or feeling out of place in foreign lands. This horizon helps us to grasp the importance of the synodal assembly, which opens tomorrow.”

He said, ”To search for that which today the Lord asks of His Church, we must lend our ears to the beat of this time and perceive the ‘scent’ of the people today, so as to remain permeated with their joys and hopes, by their sadness and distress, at which time we will know how to propose the good news of the family with credibility.”

Francis exclaimed: “In the Gospel there is salvation that fulfills the most profound needs of man! Of this salvation – work of God’s mercy and grace – as a Church, we are sign and instrument, a living and effective sacrament. If it were not so, our building would remain only a house of cards, and pastors would be reduced to clerics of state, on whose lips the people would search in vain for the freshness and ‘smell of the Gospel’.”

Pope Francis asked the Holy Spirit, “for the gift of listening for the Synod Fathers” to “hear the cry of the people; to listen to the people, until they breathe the will to which God calls us.” he also asked the Holy Spirit for “an openness toward a sincere discussion, open and fraternal.”

It is only by fixing our gaze on Christ, he said, that “we will never tire of translating the synodal work into guidelines and paths for the pastoral care of the person and of the family. At that point, our listening and our discussion on the family, loved with the gaze of Christ, will become a providential occasion with which to renew – according to the example of Saint Francis – the Church and society.”

Sunday, in his homily at the opening Mass of the synod, The Pope pointed to the reading of Isaiah and the Gospel, both of which employed the image of the Lord’s vineyard. “The Lord’s vineyard is his “dream” and that “dream …is his people. He planted it and nurtured it with patient and faithful love, so that it can become a holy people. But his dream was thwarted: “In the Gospel, it is the farmers themselves who ruin the Lord’s plan: they fail to do their job but think only of their own interests.

In this parable,” said the Holy Father, “Jesus is addressing the chief priests and the elders of the people, in other words the ‘experts’, the managers. To them in a particular way God entrusted his ‘dream’, his people, for them to nurture, tend and protect from the animals of the field. This is the job of leaders: to nurture the vineyard with freedom, creativity and hard work.”

”We too, in the Synod of Bishops, are called to work for the Lord’s vineyard. Synod assemblies are not meant to discuss beautiful and clever ideas, or to see who is more intelligent… They are meant to better nurture and tend the Lord’s vineyard, to help realize his dream, his loving plan for his people. In this case the Lord is asking us to care for the family, which has been from the beginning an integral part of his loving plan for humanity.

”My Synod brothers, to do a good job of nurturing and tending the vineyard, our hearts and our minds must be kept in Jesus Christ by ‘the peace of God which passes all understanding’.”

Monday at the first congregation of the synod on the family Pope Francis addressed the participants, including 190 cardinals and bishops, by insisting on the fact that they all speak openly, from the heart, without fear or reservations. To do otherwise, he said, “is not good. It is not alright!”

“A general basic condition is this: speak clearly. Let no one say, ‘this can’t be said, they will think this or that about me’. Everything we feel must be said, with parrhesia. After the last Consistory in February 2014, which focused on the family, a Cardinal wrote to me saying that it was a pity that some cardinals did not have the courage to say certain things out of respect for the Pope, thinking perhaps that the Pope thought differently. This is not good – it is not synodality, because it is necessary to say everything that in the Lord we feel must be said: without human respect, without timidity. And, at the same time, we must listen with humility and accept with an open heart all that our brothers say. With these two attitudes, synodality is achieved”


Cardinal Peter Erdo, the relator general of the 2014 synod on the family, Monday morning at the First General Congregation presented what is known as the “Report before the Discussion.” He divided his 7,500-word talk into an Introduction, four parts and a Conclusion. The four sections were dedicated to 1. The Gospel of the Family in the Context of the New Evangelization; 2. The Gospel of the Family and Family Ministry; 3. Difficult Pastoral Situations, and 4. The Family and the Gospel of Life.

The Vatican summary of his speech can be found here in English: http://visnews-en.blogspot.it/2014/10/summary-of-relatio-ante-disceptationem.html

He began by stating that, “the message of Christ is not easy to accept, because it places demands, requiring a conversion of heart. Nevertheless, it is a truth that sets us free. The fundamental goal of the Christian proposal for the family must be ‘the joy of the Gospel’ that ‘fills the heart and the whole life of those who encounter Jesus’ and who ‘accept his offer of salvation’ and thereby experience liberation ‘from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness,” as taught by Pope Francis in Evangelii gaudium.”

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Synod Press Conference

Synod Press Conference

Cardinal Erdo said the family is “the school of humanity, … a school of social relations, … the womb of the Church’s life, … and the school of holiness.”

“The family today,” said the cardinal, “is not only the object of evangelization but also the primary agent of proclaiming the good news of Christ in the world. …The most serious of family problems themselves are considered ‘signs of the times’ to be discerned in the light of the Gospel and read with the eyes and heart of Christ and from his perspective in the house of Simon the Pharisee.”

He said, “The crystal clear and whole truth of the Gospel gives the light, meaning and hope which humanity needs today. The Church must offer this ‘truth cure’ so that it can be recognized in the present moment as a “remedy” for the many problematic, oftentimes burdensome, family situations. In other words, without detracting from the truth, this must also be proposed from the perspective of those who “struggle” to recognize it as such and to live it.

The relator general then examined in depth the four points of his talk, with special emphasis on difficult pastoral situations. He said the Church is the “House of the Father” where there must be truth and mercy. He then spoke of cohabitation and civil marriages, the pastoral care of divorced and remarried persons, matrimonial cases according to canon law and those outside the juridical process, and the practice of the Orthodox Churches.