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The Indelible Mark of Vatican II at the Synod: Part 1

The Synod on the Family is now well underway in Rome as the Synod fathers prepare to finish their first week of work. As I read the pope’s messages on the matter and follows the proceedings from the deliberations themselves, my mind cannot help but return to one of the greatest, yet often forgotten, text of the Second Vatican Council. On October 11, 1962 Pope John XXIII delivered in St. Peter’s Basilica one of the greatest speeches of his entire life, “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” (Mother Church Rejoices), which established the foundations for the council and set its direction. The wisdom found in this speech to the world’s bishops is timeless and speaks, I think, so profoundly to the current gathering of bishops in the Eternal City.

In part one of this synod series, I mentioned Pope Francis and the importance of remaining faithful to the deposit of faith even while evangelizing a culture which rejects many parts of it. This deposit of faith provides the springboard for John XXIII to begin his reflections. He writes:

“[T]here have always been in the Church, and there are still today, those who, while seeking the practice of evangelical perfection with all their might, do not fail to make themselves useful to society…[I]t is from their constant example of life…that all is highest and noblest in human society takes its strength…In order, however, that this doctrine may influence the numerous fields of human activity, with reference to individuals, to families and to social life, it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers.”

Throughout the ages, the Church acknowledges the noble efforts of the men and women who have lived their whole lives for the salvation of souls and the building up of the Kingdom of God. In all that is done and said, Pope John sets as the first criteria of evangelization the guarding and upholding of that “sacred patrimony of truth” (aka the deposit of faith) which we have received from the Fathers of the Church and from Christ himself. At the same time, though, John says the Church also must feel the need to look “to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.” With this, John XXIII was not issuing a condemnation of the Church in the modern world but an invitation to engage it. This is exactly what the Synod is trying to do now in Rome; like I said last time, this is the Church looking out of its windows and saying, “Ah, see here the world of which we are very much a part. See here the sufferings of our people. See here the joys of their lives. See here the challenges and opportunities presented to us by the cultures in which we live…..In all of this, how can we serve?”

While following these developments, John says, the Church “does not neglect to admonish men so that, over and above sense-perceived things, they may raise their eyes to God.” The Church, in looking out at the world to examine it and looking at herself with respect to how she is meeting the challenges, does not wish to encourage people to “settle in” to the ways of the world. Rather, she knows that we are merely pilgrims, journeying together as the Body of Christ to the Heavenly City. That said, the Church isn’t afraid to admonish men and call them on. The trouble, though, is that men today do not wish to be admonished or called on toward better and higher things because it would mean leaving themselves behind and taking up a cross-burdened way to a place they do not know.

The deposit of faith is “a patrimony not well received by all, but [is] always a rich treasure available to men of good will.” In other words, our message is not always received well by the world……but so what? Just because it’s not received well, doesn’t mean it should cease to be taught well, transmitted “pure and integral, without any…distortion.” No, the work of this Synod echoes the work of the Council which was undertaken “with an earnest will and without fear” because it is the “work which our era demands of us.”

Since it is evident that the “truth of the Lord will remain forever”, there should not be so much concern over the outcome of the current Synod of Bishops. It is one thing for the secular media to make predictions and discuss what it would like to see changed in the deposit of faith, but so-called Catholic media sources should know better than this! Or for a Synod father to approach this task with a personal agenda rather than a “renewed, serene and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety” certainly cannot be encouraged.

On the other side, those men and women, many of good will, who jump to conclusions about the outcome of the Synod because of the words or opinions of a particular Synod father or media outlet should remember the words of Pope John XXIII, that “[t]he substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” The presentation is often just as important as the content, and “must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary” because it is coming from and is supported by “a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”

The magisterium of the Church is predominantly pastoral in character! It exists to shepherd souls through the narrow gate and into the House of the Father. Perhaps in the days of the Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation a more severe approach was necessary, but “[n]owadays…the spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” In his keynote address at the World Meeting of Families, prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (and a Synod father!) Cardinal Robert Sarah said the secret to a happy family is the same as the secret to happy Church: “love until the end, and mercy!”

Part 2 of this reflection will be posted next week.

NB: all quoted text is from the official English translation of “Gaudet Mater Ecclesia” unless otherwise noted.