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Cardinals and bishops processed to the altar to concelebrate with Pope Francis the opening Mass of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4.
Cardinals and bishops processed to the altar to concelebrate with Pope Francis the opening Mass of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4.
Photo Credit: Lola Gomez | Catholic News Service

Synod seeks to discern God’s will for the present moment

At opening Mass Oct. 4, Pope Francis said the synod is ‘not a political gathering, but a convocation in the Spirit’

VATICAN CITY — Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops are not gathered in Rome to implement a “plan of reformation” but to walk together as a Church that discerns God’s will for the present moment, Pope Francis said at the assembly’s opening Mass.

With cardinals from across the world at his side, including 20 new cardinals from 16 nations created just four days prior, the pope urged people to avoid looking at the synod through the lens of “human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles.”

Asking “whether the synod will give this or that permission, open this or that door, this is not useful,” he said at the Mass Oct. 4 in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis gave the homily at the Mass opening the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4.
Photo Credits: Lola Gomez | Catholic News Service
Instead, Pope Francis said the primary task of the synod is to “refocus our gaze on God, to be a Church that looks mercifully at humanity, a Church that is united and fraternal — or at least tries to be united and fraternal.”

The pope acknowledged that some people have fears about the synod, but he asked them to remember that it is “not a political gathering, but a convocation in the Spirit; not a polarized parliament, but a place of grace and communion.”

“The Holy Spirit often shatters our expectations to create something new that surpasses our predictions and negativity,” he said.

Through “synodal dialogue,” the pope said, “we can grow in unity and friendship with the Lord in order to look at today’s challenges with His gaze,” becoming a Church “which does not impose burdens” and is “open to everyone, everyone, everyone.”

“The blessing and welcoming gaze of Jesus prevents us from falling into some dangerous temptations: of being a rigid Church — a customs office — which arms itself against the world and looks backward; of being a lukewarm Church which surrenders to the fashions of the world; of being a tired Church, turned in on itself,” he said.

Lay members and ecumenical delegates to the assembly of the Synod of Bishops led the procession into St. Peter’s Square — still decorated with flowers from the consistory that created 21 new cardinals Sept. 30 — followed by priests, bishops and then cardinals. Synod members had participated in a retreat outside Rome Oct. 1-3, during which they reflected on ways to overcome differences of opinion and to listen to each other and to the Holy Spirit.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re was the main celebrant at the altar for the Mass; Cardinals Mario Grech, synod secretary-general, and Robert Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, one of the new cardinals, joined him at the altar. The Vatican said some 25,000 people were present in St. Peter’s Square.

Celebrating the Mass on the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, a day when Pope Francis also published an apostolic exhortation on the environment, he recalled the story that Jesus told the medieval saint to “repair my Church.”

“The synod serves to remind us of this: Our mother the Church is always in need of purification, of being repaired, for we are a people made up of forgiven sinners,” he said.

St. Francis lived in a time of “struggles and divisions between temporal and religious powers, between the institutional Church and heretical currents, between Christians and other believers,” Pope Francis said. But the saint “did not criticize or lash out at anyone.” Rather, he took up the “weapons of the Gospel: humility and unity, prayer and charity.”

“Let us do the same!” urged the pope, noting that the “most fruitful moments of the synod are the moments and prayer and the environment of prayer in which the Lord acts in us.”

On retreat, synod members look at ways to accept, overcome differences

ROME — Knowing they would be wrangling with different opinions and that Catholics around the world had different hopes and fears for their work, the 364 full members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops gathered for a retreat.

At a large complex in Sacrofano, about 20 miles north of Rome, Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe and Benedictine Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini were asked to provide the spiritual foundations for the synod’s work over the course of the retreat Oct. 1-3. Pope Francis did not attend the retreat.

“The risk for us, men and women of the Church, is to proceed from our inner, objective, pressing navigation systems” with all the potential danger signs marked out, Mother Angelini said during lauds Oct. 1. But without prayer, “we lose the horizon.”

“We are not synodal Church first and foremost because we face each other and exchange opinions, much less because we talk over each other,” but because “we draw on the same foundation,” that of faith and openness to the Holy Spirit, she said.

Father Radcliffe, former head of the Dominican order, told synod members they were at the retreat “because we are not united in heart and mind” and yet are called through the synod to find ways to embrace “the Catholic both/and” in responding to the Holy Spirit and to the hopes and fears of Catholics around the world.

“The vast majority of people who have taken part in the synodal process have been surprised by joy,” he said, because for many of them, “it is the first time that the Church has invited them to speak of their faith and hope.”

But there are conflicting expectations, Father Radcliffe said. “Some hope that the Church will be dramatically changed, that we shall take radical decisions, for example about the role of women in the Church. Others are afraid of exactly these same changes and fear that they will only lead to division, even schism.”

Synod participants, he said, need to ask the Lord to vanquish their fears and give them hope, “the hope that this synod will lead to a renewal of the Church and not division; the hope that we shall draw closer to each as brothers and sisters.”

The ultimate source of hope for Catholics is the Eucharist, he said. In that sense, he said, synod participants are gathered “like the disciples at the Last Supper, not as a political debating chamber competing to win.”

“At the Last Supper, there seemed to be no future. All that lay ahead apparently was failure, suffering and death,” he said. “And in this darkest moment, Jesus made the most hopeful gesture in the history of the world: ‘This is my body, given for you. This is my blood poured out for you.’ This is the hope that calls us beyond all division.”

U.S. delegates say prayer is key to preparation for synod

By Maria Wiering | OSV News

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, a delegate to the Synod on Synodality from the United States, said that going into a pre-synod retreat was a “good idea,” but added that he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of meaningful personal interactions he has had with other participants in the world Synod of Bishops.

“This is really a spiritual exercise that I’ve found very enriching,” he said Oct. 2. “This is really beginning with a strong spiritual focus.”

Speaking from Fraterna Domus retreat house 17 miles north of Rome in Sacrofano, Italy, Bishop Rhoades said the Oct. 1-3 retreat had not included “the content” of the synod at the Vatican, but instead had provided opportunities for “really, really good conversations” with people from around the world.

“I understand what the Holy Father is hoping for — that there will be spiritual conversations,” said Bishop Rhoades, leader of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, “that we get to know each other, but that prayer is such an integral part of it.”

Bishop Rhoades is one of 14 U.S. bishops participating in the synod’s Oct. 4-29 general assembly meeting. Ten other voting nonbishop delegates appointed by Pope Francis also are attending from the United States and Canada, including four U.S. laypeople: Richard Coll, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development; Cynthia Bailey Manns, adult learning director at St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis; Wyatt Olivas, an undergraduate at the University of Wyoming; and Julia Oseka, an international student from Poland at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Additional nonbishop delegates from the United States are Father Ivan Montelongo of the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, and Sister Leticia Salazar, a member of the Order of the Company of Mary Our Lady and chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino, California. All nonbishop members participated in North America’s continental-level pre-synod meetings.

Prayer has been an important part of delegates’ synod preparation. Prior to leaving Minnesota for Rome, Bailey Manns asked her community for prayers — for good health, as well as “prayers for patience, prayers for clarity, compassionate empathy, to make sure I’m open,” she told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Asked if the appointment weighs heavily on her, Bailey Manns said yes and no.

“It’s not heavy in terms of it’s too much responsibility,” said Bailey Manns, who holds a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. “I’ve always been a person who is very comfortable in being one of the few at the very beginning of anything. And so that space is not the piece that challenges me. It’s wanting to make sure that I’m doing this well and that I’m paying attention to God in all of this.”

She said prayer runs through the preparatory documents for the synod and will be important all the way through.

“They have a wonderful phrase in there, that the protagonist of this is the Holy Spirit,” she said. “And so, how do we all try to embody that in a way that’s compassionate and deliberative and with empathy, and also with a great deal of self-awareness in terms of where our issues are, things that are important to us? And so that is the grounding of it.”

In a video posted Sept. 29, Oseka told Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia that being chosen was “a humbling experience” with both universal and personal aspects.

“I felt that there is a huge mission ahead of us as a Church, but also this desire to grow in my prayer as well, to truly be a delegate, not only Julia going to the synod,” she said.

“I hope to bring the experience of the young Church, not only here in the United States or greater North America, but also my experience of the young Church in Poland,” said Oseka, who is studying physics and theology. “Those two are very interwoven, and there’s no generalization happening. It’s a mosaic of experiences of my friends and people I’ve met.”

Ahead of the synod, the USCCB organized several opportunities for the U.S. delegates to build community and reflect on their role, including a virtual and in-person meeting at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary near Chicago Aug. 28-29. Part of that meeting was “creating a spiritual plan for our delegates to sustain themselves in October,” Julia McStravog, senior adviser on synodal matters for the USCCB, said.

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