An unmistakable air of expectation mixed with uncertainty pervaded the atmosphere here as Pope Francis prepared to open in early October his global meeting of Catholic bishops to discuss issues of contemporary family life.
As of now, nearly every aspect of how the event will unfold is unclear — from how delicate questions like divorce and remarriage will be handled, to how much discussion will be allowed, to even if it will be known who is speaking each day inside the closed-door Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops.
But the one prelate who is chiefly responsible for shepherding the process said Wednesday that at least one thing is clear: The coming days would see an “opportunity to deal with existential issues,” both for individual families and for the Catholic church at large.
The theme is “the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization,” and synod members will be called upon to find ways to improve the pastoral application of church teachings, ways to explain it, and ways to help Catholics live it.
During their discussions, the bishops are going to attempt “to respond to the new challenges of the family, starting from the family as the main cell of society and the domestic church for Christians,” said Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri.
Baldisseri, the secretary general of the Vatican’s office for the synod, spoke Wednesday at an event at LUMSA University, a private university in Rome located just east of the Vatican.
The event, one of many hosted in early October by diverse interest groups hoping to have impact on the synod discussions, focused on presenting viewpoints of accomplished women of faith from around the globe regarding struggles stemming from changes in family life.
But it will likely be largely unknown what impact, if any, those groups — or even the petitions of Catholics around the world — will have on the bishops gathered in synod. The Vatican press office announced Monday that no texts from the synod discussions would be released. And unlike in previous synods, no printed summaries of the daily discussions are to be issued, either.
Instead, the press office will host daily briefings with Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, who will be present during the synod meetings and is expected to brief reporters in Italian on general themes discussed each day. He is to be assisted in those briefings by three priests and one woman who will summarize the events from inside the synod room* in English, Spanish, French and German.
In a short interview following the event Wednesday, Baldisseri said one of the reasons for the decision not to publish the texts was that it would be too difficult for the synod office to prepare five or six translations of each day’s expected 30 to 40 interventions by bishops speaking in diverse languages.
Another reason, Baldisseri said, is that the synod office wants to give the bishops an opportunity to speak openly without fear that their discussions will be seen or heard by all.
The office, he said, wants to provide “liberty without [making] suspects” of any of the bishops.
The synod, called by Francis last year, is one of two global meetings called by the pope for 2014 and 2015. The first synod, known as an extraordinary synod, is to involve about 250 people, mainly the bishop presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences. Next year’s synod is expected to involve wider participation, mainly from several elected bishop representatives of each conference.
Baldisseri’s reticence to subject the bishops to public scrutiny during the first synod may be in part due to the unusual level of disagreement already voiced among the church’s prelates about the issues expected to be discussed, especially regarding the church’s ban on giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics who do not have annulments of their first unions.
In one example, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is attending the synod in his role as the prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, was direct in his criticism of German Cardinal Walter Kasper on a conference call with press Tuesday.