My first report from Rome on the Synod on synodality.
I am in Rome and ensconced in a reasonably decent hotel near the Vatican. Sorry for the delay in posting on the Synod but it took me longer than usual to get over my jet lag and I had some social commitments I had to keep during my first two days here. I am, pending approval from my editors, publishing an essay in The National Catholic Register and in Catholic World Report in the coming days on the Synod, but also on the response from Pope Francis on the dubia presented to him by five Cardinals in July.
The first thing I want to comment on is the fact that the opening Mass for the Synod, which was open to the public in St. Peter’s square,was very sparsely attended. That goes along with the attendance at the expensive waste of time (700,000 Euro) known as the world meeting on human fraternity that was held at the Vatican in June. I was here for that event and saw first-hand that it was even less well attended. My takeaway from the attendance at both events is that these grand ventures of Pope Francis have not captured the attention or interest of the vast, vast majority of lay people.
Of course, this does not surprise me at all since I have been saying for over a year now, in various venues, that the worldwide participation in the synodal listening sessions was around a paltry 1-2% of Catholics worldwide. Even Pope Francis, in an interview of just about a month ago acknowledged that the Synod probably holds very little interest for most Catholics. But he went on to say that the Synod is important nevertheless as an ecclesial event.
But that is actually a damning admission of failure in my view. Because the Synodal process has been pitched by the Vatican apparatchiks and many of this pope’s biggest supporters, as this watershed moment in the history of the modern Church where the unfulfilled promise of Vatican II to be a truly “listening Church” is finally being realized. We have been told that the Holy Spirit has been at work in these sessions and that the synodal listening sessions showed us a “Church on the move” filled with a new bounce in its step and a renewed energy for reform. We have been told that the “people of God” have now spoken out and that the Synod thus represents a worldwide rising-up of a newly empowered laity, and so on. “The Church is finally listening to us!” What bunk.
Therefore, the admission from the Pope that “nobody really cares” (paraphrasing a bit) means that the stated purpose behind the listening sessions – gauging the “sense of the faithful” on important issues – has been an abject failure. And no amount of spinning and clever wordsmith in press releases can change that fact. The Synod has largely been greeted by a huge collective yawn from the faithful who are probably far more content with their Church than the current leadership wants to admit. The image of a restless laity, oppressed by centuries of clericalism, ready and chomping at the bit to “finally” have their voices heard is a pure media concoction of the Vatican spin meisters.
Right now Rome is more crowded and busier than I have ever seen it. I had great difficulty finding an open room to stay in since everything is booked up. And the airport was jammed and it took me three times longer to get through passport control and to get my luggage than at any other time I have been here. That is because there is a large soccer event going on in Rome that has brought tourists from all over the world into the city. But that makes the sparse attendance at the Synod Mass all the more embarrassing. Granted, most people did not come here for the Synod. Nevertheless, assuming that there are hundreds of thousands of Catholics in this grand throng of people, one would assume that if the Synod was an event of great importance to the laity that folks would attend the soccer matches and still take the time to meander over to St. Peter’s for the opening liturgy.
I have been in the piazzas and trattorias of Rome for the past few days and made a point of asking the folks around me what they thought of the Synod. And among the Catholics I met there was only one person (!), an elderly fellow from Canada, who even knew what I was talking about. Everyone else (about twenty or so people I asked) had no clue what in the hell I was asking them. The typical response was, “What’s a Synod?” And when I explained it to them they just smiled and said “oh, that is nice”. I know that this polling of mine is purely anecdotal and is in no way scientific, but it does reinforce my impressions of the non-importance of this event from Catholics I have spoken to in the United States before coming here.
Why is all of this important? Because there are powerful forces at work here who want to use the Synod as a useful tool for changing Church doctrine on such issues as homosexuality and women’s ordination. But they do not want to just come right out and say that this is just a raw power move on their part and that the Synod is just a convenience to that end. They do not want to admit that they really do not care one fig for what the listening sessions found out. They do not want to admit that the whole thing is a monumental sham. And therefore, they have weaved this elaborate narrative of a democratic uprising from the laity for the changes that they want. For them, the Synod is a conclusion in search of a cover story and the narrative of a Church listening to the “People of God” is just too juicy for them to pass up.
Cardinal Zen sent a letter to some bishops which has now become public. And in that letter he condemned the Synod as an exercise in faux democracy meant to mask over the true agenda at play from the progressives. And with great passion he made the claim that it all reminded him of the mendacious methods of the Chinese communists to create public relations narratives about the wonderful democratic revolution they were bringing about, even as they worked behind the scenes to repress all dissent and to manipulate public opinion to their desired ends. Damning stuff from the holy Cardinal. And I think he is right.
We will see how this all plays out in the coming weeks. Information will be hard to come by since the Vatican is going to be very sparse in the information it disseminates to reporters. But Rome, and the Vatican in particular, is a gossip factory and leaks are inevitable. And the more things are leaked, the more it will be apparent that a lot of political maneuvering is in process, since one of the points to leaking things is to influence the public media narrative about what is going on in the Synod.
Please pray for our Church. I am not worried that the Church is about to overhaul everything and fall into heresy. But there is a lot of damage that can still be done to the Church short of that. And so we should all pray for a holy outcome.
Dorothy Day, pray for us.