Well, the two-year Synod on the Family closed yesterday with somewhat mixed results that should give us a hint that Pope Francis, his agenda more or less thwarted by the conservative block of bishops in the Synod, will take matters into his own hands. I think it also gives a hint that all things being equal—and they never really are—Francis may not step down from the papacy as early as he has previously hinted.
The final Synod document isn’t bad, it just isn’t good. To get what he needed to justify taking the Church in some new directions, the document had to be more ambiguous than Francis and the liberal block would have liked. For example, there could be no explicit mention of giving Holy Communion to those who had been divorced and remarried without a Church annulment. Even with the vague ambiguities of the final document, some of the more controversial passages barely received the required two-thirds majority needed. The two-thirds rule, while necessary for a measure of consensus, is a huge part of the problem. A simple majority of bishops would probably have gone further along with the Holy Father’s desire to create a more open and welcoming Church.
Francis could let the document stand as it is or he can use it as a basis for a document—perhaps an encyclical—he will write and give the more concrete norms on how the Synod statements should be interpreted. Francis is probably going to go that route. He also will probably delegate to the various Episcopal Conferences the task of providing the concrete guidelines for better pastoral care of those Catholics in irregular unions. In such a case I would not expect the American bishops to be as open to changing pastoral practice as might be the Canadian or German Bishops, or even the English bishops. The American hierarchy is still infested with John Paul and Benedict appointees who are strong on canon law but short on theology and pastoral experience. And this is why I think Francis may hold on to the See of Peter for a few more years than the next two or three of which he has spoken. He has made inroads in changing the College of Cardinal Electors but he still needs at least two more “classes” of his appointees to secure a succession that will continue his direction. Even more important, he needs to fill key Sees with bishops who understand and are onboard with his agenda. There are many archbishops and bishops who will, given normal lifespans, outlast Francis. They days are ticking down for Myers of Newark who recently drew his line in the stand that there will be no change in policy as long as his caboose is parked on his marble throne in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, but Myers goes off to the Jacuzzi in his retirement home next summer and his successor is someone who at least cultivates the appearances of being in the Francis style. Lori of Baltimore has ten more years as does Aquila of Denver and Gomez of Los Angeles. Chaput of Philadelphia, on the other hand, has only four more years to go—Francis might be able to change that See if he holds on just a little longer than he had been thinking about. Cordileone—a problematic prelate by any account—has sixteen more years before mandatory retirement. Francis could move him to a desk job in Rome where he could be neutralized and he certainly would not be missed by the City on the Bay, but he will almost certainly be at Francis’ funeral and, along with his mentor Cardinal Raymond Burke, do a happy dance on Francis’ grave. I suspect that Francis will have a “come to Jesus” talk with Dolan and DiNardo after the behavior at the Synod—behavior which frankly surprised me. Most of the more obstinate bishops—Morlino, Slattery, Paprocki, Sheridan, Lennon, Olmstead, Dewane, O’Connell etc.—are non-entities beyond their respective Sees—or even within them—but collectively can do great damage as a sort of Episcopal Tea Party within the Conference. Restructuring the American hierarchy in the Francis model would be an immense task and hard to do in even a ten-year period.
I would like to look at two paragraphs from the homily at the Mass with which Pope Francis closed the Synod:
There are, however, some temptations for those who follow Jesus. Today’s Gospel shows at least two of them. None of the disciples stopped, as Jesus did. They continued to walk, going on as if nothing were happening. If Bartimaeus was blind, they were deaf: his problem was not their problem. This can be a danger for us: in the face of constant problems, it is better to move on, instead of letting ourselves be bothered. In this way, just like the disciples, we are with Jesus but we do not think like him. We are in his group, but our hearts are not open. We lose wonder, gratitude and enthusiasm, and risk becoming habitually unmoved by grace. We are able to speak about him and work for him, but we live far from his heart, which is reaching out to those who are wounded. This is the temptation: a “spirituality of illusion”: we can walk through the deserts of humanity without seeing what is really there; instead, we see what we want to see. We are capable of developing views of the world, but we do not accept what the Lord places before our eyes. A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts.
There is a second temptation, that of falling into a “scheduled faith”. We are able to walk with the People of God, but we already have our schedule for the journey, where everything is listed: we know where to go and how long it will take; everyone must respect our rhythm and every problem is a bother. We run the risk of becoming the “many” of the Gospel who lose patience and rebuke Bartimaeus. Just a short time before, they scolded the children (cf. 10:13), and now the blind beggar: whoever bothers us or is not of our stature is excluded. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to include, above all those kept on the fringes who are crying out to him. They, like Bartimaeus, have faith, because awareness of the need for salvation is the best way of encountering Jesus.
I think that Pope Francis was giving a less than subtle criticism of those bishops who are resisting a change in pastoral approach, pointing out that they are deaf to the people whom they are ordained to serve. They live in an isolation in which the concrete pain and alienation of so many has become invisible to them. They see the rules and laws and regulations but they do not see with compassion the realities of the lives of ordinary people who are struggling to be faithful to Jesus and his Gospel in a very complex world. There are none so blind as those who will not see; none so deaf as those who will not hear. To effectively change the Church and put it back on track with its mission to bring people to Christ, we need new leadership. Let’s pray that Pope Francis will be able to give us bishops who have that Shepherd’s Heart that is on fire for going and searching out those who are lost rather than gathering as much wool as possible from the docile sheep in the pen.