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Inside Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican for the opening of the final module of this phase of the Synod Diarmuid Pepper/The Journal
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Hope, fear and change: Inside the Vatican's historic Synod as the first phase comes to an end

‘Often people have told me: “This Synod will not change anything.” Some with hope and some with fear.’

Diarmuid Pepper reporting from the Vatican

“YOU ARE DISCUSSING the tensions without the tension,” said Estela Padilla, a theologian from the Philippines to the Synod this morning.

Now in its third week, the Synod today moved onto its fourth and final module of this phase at the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican.

The final document is on participation, governance and authority within the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis opened the historic Synod on 4 October and it will run until 29 October.

It’s an arduous process, and it will happen all over again this time next year.

After this second phase, a final document on the Synod will be given to Pope Francis and this document will probably be ready in early 2025.

Pope Francis will then decide whether or not to incorporate its findings into a papal document known as an apostolic exhortation.

If approved by the Pope, it will become part of the Church’s official teaching.

‘Demanding’

“I think we all agree when I say that we are tired,” said Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich to laughs this morning as he presented the final module to be discussed.

However, he urged members to refrain from letting this “become a reason to lessen our commitment to our work, as if it were the last week of school”.

Hollerich added: “It is understandable, after the work we have done together, beautiful, exciting, but also demanding.”

IMG_2642 Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, second to left, presenting the final module at the Paul VI Audience Hall this morning

It is indeed demanding. The more than 400 members have had to make themselves free to travel to Rome for a month in October.

The days are quite long too, beginning from 8.30am with a break at around 12.30pm.

Members then gather again from around 4pm to 7.30pm.

Most days begin with an opening prayer which the media is invited to.

The morning prayer is followed by things like birthday greetings, acknowledgements of wedding anniversaries, condolences for bereavements (some of which have forced Synod members to leave the assembly).

Following this, the roundtable discussions begin away from the media glare.

This general session presenting the fourth and final module of the Synod was open to journalists, as were the opening of the other modules. 

Before being introduced to the final module, we heard a special message for a young girl who is celebrating her birthday without her father present for the first time because he is at the Synod. 

A Cardinal also kickstarted this session by trying to reunite a lost phone with its owner.

F8tXohhXMAARCIe A Cardinal attempts to reunite a lost phone with its owner at the Synod Vatican Media Vatican Media

However, once people began the serious business of their roundtable discussions, the media were swiftly made to exist.

Indeed, journalists were prompted five minutes before the private discussions began to have their belongings ready in order to make a quick exit.

While the discussions within the Synod are private to allow for frank discussions, they are not secret and can be discussed as long as participants use “discernment” when speaking to the media.

This call to “discernment” has been viewed by some members as a media blackout.

“I think most of the delegates are remaining mum,” said one participant when asked by The Journal to speak about their experience of the Synod so far.

It has been reported that the first time applause broke out in the private discussions was when someone spoke about the experiences of LGBTQ+ Catholics. 

But some Bishops were said to have taken issue with the use of the LGBTQ+ acronym, despite the Vatican using this acronym in official documents for many years.

All of this takes place in Paul VI Audience Hall, just steps from St Peter’s Basilica and under the watchful eye of a sculpture called ‘The Resurrection’.

rome-italy-16th-june-2014-pope-francis-meets-the-dioceses-of-rome-16-june-2014-credit-realy-easy-staralamy-live-news File image of Pope Francis seated beneath 'The Resurrection' in Paul VI Audience Hall on 16 June, 2014 Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The sculpture is intended to capture the fear of living under the threat of nuclear war by depicting Christ rising from a nuclear crater.

Symbol of the roundtable

Much has been made of the roundtables and it is felt by some that the Church has overemphasised how important this layout change is.

At a daily press briefing yesterday, a reporter put it to the panel that the symbol of the roundtable is not as innovative as the Church may think it is.

“This idea of, ‘well look at our roundtables,’ I don’t think that is going to satisfy people who have invested in this process and are not in the room and are not being able to see the results of the small group work,” said Cindy Wooden of the National Catholic Reporter to applause from other journalists present.

The symbol of the roundtable was once again brought up at today’s press briefing.

IMG_2472 (1) Roundtable discussions at the Synod in Paul VI Audience Hall

Filipino Bishop Pablo Virgilio Siongco David told the briefing: “I was surprised when I joined this Synod because it’s totally different.

“My first Synod was in 2008 and my gosh, it was super formal. There was a presidential table for the Holy Father, then you had the cardinals, and the arch-bishops, and the bishops, and since I was still an auxiliary bishop back then, I was way, way at the back.

“So when I came to this Synod, I was pleasantly surprised to find roundtables where we are all equal. No matter if you are cardinal or arch-bishop or whoever, we are all a community of disciples, equal.”

He added that “much of the Synod happens over the coffee break”.

‘Mission impossible’

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich presented the new module and what it would contain to participants and to the media this morning at Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican.

He hit out at clericalism in his remarks introducing this module on participation, governance and authority within the Church.

A Bishop once described clericalism as “an exaggeration of the role of the clergy to the detriment of the laity”.

“Where clericalism reigns, there is a Church that does not move, a Church without mission,” said Cardinal Hollerich.

“Clericals only want to maintain the ‘status quo’, because only the ‘status quo’ cements their power. Mission… impossible!”

He added that these are “delicate issues, which require careful discernment”.

This need for “careful discernment” was underscored by members being invited to partake in a reflective silence after each speaker, with a giant screen counting down from four minutes.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio Siongco David gave journalists at today’s press briefing an insight into how this countdown clock spills over into the private discussions.

When he began to speak at the press conference today, the bishop set a timer.

IMG_2632 (1) Bishop Pablo Virgilio Siongco David Vatican Media Vatican Media

“I got used to being timed, so I hope you don’t mind that I have set my timer. That’s how it is in the Synod when we ask for a free intervention, the timer goes off, you have to be conscious of it.”

‘All are welcomed’

The topics to be addressed across the Synod include the place of LGBTQ+ people within the Church, whether women should be ordained, and whether married men can serve as priests in regions with insufficient clergy.

While the possibility of real change on previously taboo topics has given hope to many women and progressive Catholics, it has sparked alarm among conservatives who warn it could lead to a split in the Church.

English priest Timothy Radcliffe has often publicly challenged the Church’s teaching on LGBTQ+ issues and he raised the issue this morning in a Gospel reflection on the final module.

IMG_2621 Father Timothy Radcliffe addressing the Synod from the Paul VI Audience Hall in the Vatican this morning Vatican Media Vatican Media

While the discussions within the synod are private to allow for frank discussions, they are not secret, and the inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community often comes up in media briefings.

Referencing something that came up in private Synod discussions, Fr Radcliffe told the public part this morning’s forum: “Many of us wept when we heard of that young woman who [died by] suicide because she was bisexual and did not feel welcomed.

“I hope it changed us,” he added.

“The Holy Father reminded us that all are welcomed: todos, todos, todos (Spanish for ‘everyone’).”

Several Synod members have told reporters that the above testimony was extremely emotional.

Fr Radcliffe also questioned how the Church can make room for the “prophetic voice of women, still often seen as guests in their own house”.

The Catholic Church often boasts of its more than 2,000 years of tradition but Fr Radcliffe hit out at those who let tradition bar “progress”.

“The new is always an unexpected renewal of the old,” said Fr Radcliffe in Paul VI Audience Hall.

“This is why any opposition between tradition and progress is utterly alien to Catholicism.”

He also stated that the Catholic Church is already a Church in which “women are assuming responsibility and are renewing our theology and spirituality”.

Some within the Church are hopeful that tangible change will come from the conclusion of the Synod, when the final document is presented in early 2025.

But others fear it could signal a break away from more than 2,000 years of Church tradition and a conforming with secular standards.

This tension was outlined this morning by Fr Radcliffe, who said: “Often people have told me: ‘This Synod will not change anything.’

“Some with hope and some with fear.”

Fear

Father Radcliffe’s remarks this morning were then somewhat counterbalanced by a Latvian bishop at the afternoon press conference.

In a loaded question from a journalist, Bishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs was asked how he could “reassure” people after Pope Francis’ comments which appeared to open the way for blessings for same-sex couples.

IMG_2633 Bishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs at today's press briefing Vatican Media Vatican Media

The journalist added that some view the Synod as a “Synod of homosexuals” for the inclusion of people like Fr Radcliffe.

Pope Francis recently said that “pastoral charity” requires patience and understanding and that priests cannot become judges “who only deny, reject and exclude” when asked about blessing same-sex couples.

“We need to be faithful to Holy Scripture and to what the Church for 2,000 years has discovered by interpreting Holy Scripture,” said Bishop Stankevičs.

“The official attitude of the Church towards homosexuals was expressed in Catechism of Church, they are called upon to live in chastity and here we need to specify that the orientation is not a sin but sexual relations, it is a sin.”

He added that “every sexual relation outside of marriage is a sin and this goes for heterosexuals too”.

On the prospect of blessing a same-sex couple, he said: “If two come and say they want to live in chastity and faith, well then we can pray with them and bless them to help them live in chastity.

“But if two come and say ‘we live together and want to receive a blessing’, here I see that there is a big problem because we would bless them living in sin.”

He went on to say: “We are all sinners and it means we must welcome persons with love, without judging them, we must respect human dignity and must not discriminate unfairly and unjustly.

“But true love cannot be separated from truth because if truth is separated, it is no longer real love and is just permissive.

“If there is a person who lives in sin and we tell them they can go on doing this, they will be in spiritual danger.”

Bishop Stankevičs then said that in the past he “judged” others and was encouraged by the words of Pope Francis when he said: “If a person is gay and seeks out the Lord and is willing, who am I to judge that person?”

“Little by little I began to understand that Jesus says we must love our neighbour,” remarked Bishop Stankevičs.

“So I was enlightened in a sense and homosexuals are my neighbour and I must love them but how?”

‘New directions’

Speaking this morning, Fr Radcliffe said: “Already young people all over the world are taking us in new directions.”

At the afternoon press briefing, the panel included 19-year-old Wyatt Olivas from the US state of Wyoming, who is the youngest member of the Synod.

IMG_2634 19-year-old Wyatt Olivas at today's press briefing Vatican Media Vatican Media

He said his presence was testament to the fact that Pope Francis “wants to listen to everyone”.

“It’s been an amazing experience to truly be listened to and then hear these different perspectives from all around the world,” said Olivas.

When asked by The Journal what direction he would like to see the Church move in, Olivas said Pope Francis has emphasised “sacred silence”.

“I could have an idea but I truly think that the Holy Spirit is going to guide us and so I don’t think I can have this agenda.

“If you go into the Synod in conversation and spirit, it crushes that personal agenda. I truly think the Holy Spirit will guide us, and I don’t know where that is, but I fully trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us.

“I’m just here for the ride and I know the Holy Spirit will take us to good places.”

The future

Olivas is confident that the Synod will take the Church to “good places” but others are not so sure.

At the presentation of the final module from the Synod this morning, Cardinal Hollerich emphasised the word “concrete” and added that there will be “concrete proposals for moving forward” from this Synod.

But when asked about the prospect of concrete proposals at the press briefings this afternoon, journalists were reminded that this phase of the Synod “will not lead to conclusions or determinations”.

Paolo Ruffini, commission head for the Synod, told journalists “this is not what this phase of the Synod is about”.

cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422 Paolo Ruffini at a Synod press briefing Vatican Media Vatican Media

“It is the wish of the Pope that the next year’s session will look to that.

“Pope Francis has said that the church is for everyone, all of us have listened to interventions and we shall have to wait until later for concrete outcomes.”

- Diarmuid Pepper is reporting on the Synod from Rome and you can follow on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @Diarmuid_9

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