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Cardinal Oswald shares his experience at the Synod on the Family in Rome

Dec. 17, 2015

The Synod on the family from October 4 – 25, 2015 was the 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. Although technically it was “Ordinary” it was certainly “extraordinary” in many ways. A few weeks have lapsed since the Synod and the delegates are all back in their dioceses now preparing for the Jubilee of Mercy, but we are still close enough to the event to look back and reflect on it.  

It was Blessed Paul VI who instituted the Synod of Bishops by his DecreeApostolica Solicitudo of 1965 in response to the desire expressed by the Council Fathers to continue the conciliar experience even after the Second Vatican Council had ended. Technically an Ordinary Synod is celebrated when the Pope convokes a Synod of Bishops to discuss some pastoral topic of universal relevance that he judges to be important for the Church. Delegates for an Ordinary Synod are elected by Episcopal Conferences according to the size of the Conference; since Indian has over 100 Bishops we are entitled to elect four delegates. The heads of the Eastern Churches (Syro Malabar, Syro Malankara) attend ex-officio, and delegates are elected again depending on the size of the episcopal body. This time we had eight bishop delegates from India: four of us elected by the Latin Church; the Syro Malabar Church had Cardinal George Alencherry and two delegates, Archbishop Andrew Thazhath of Trichur and Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt of Palai; and the Syro Malankara Church had just its head, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis. Besides,Heads of Roman Dicasteries, representatives of the Union of Superior Generals and others nominated by the Holy Father participated in the Synod. In all there were 270 voting delegates at the Synod this time.

An Extraordinary Synod, on the other hand, as what took place last year, is generally convened for some urgent discussions and the members are Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences, Heads of the Eastern Churches, the Roman Dicastery Heads, representatives of the Superior Generals and some nominees of the Holy Father, thus a much smaller number: this does not need an election and hence never can be convoked at short notice.

As usual our Synod began with a meaningful prayer vigil on the theme of the family at St. Peter’s Piazza organized by the Italian Bishops Conference. There was a very big attendance which must have run into hundreds of thousands. We heard testimonies of families, we had prayers and hymns, and the Holy Father joined us for the final hour giving as usual a very inspiring message.

The next day, October 4, was the solemn opening Eucharist of the Synod at St. Peter’s Basilica, with the Synodal delegates concelebrating with the Holy Father. All the Papal Masses at the Vatican are organized with military precision. Every detail is attended into, every liturgical norm is observed, and the atmosphere is dignified, reverential, solemn yet simple. It is a privilege to be able to attend a liturgical service at the Vatican.

The three weeks of work of the Synod began in the usual way. Each delegate is assigned a seat according to seniority. For the last several meetings, I have had Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, Archbishop of Genoa and President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference seated next to me. We were created Cardinals together and both of us have been attending the same meetings. The Cardinal on my left, however, has changed each time. This time it was Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera from Mexico.

Unlike in the previous Synods, when we would listen to speeches from the Synod Fathers for over a week before we began the group discussions, this time the group discussions began already in the first week after just three days of official interventions. The advantage is that one is not exhausted after hearing around 250 speeches and only then begin the discussions. The disadvantage is that we had heard just 80 speeches or so and hence did not have the panorama of a world view before we began the workshop discussions. The workshops were language wise (13 groups). We had four English groups, two Italian, three French, three Spanish and one German and each group had around 30 members.

This new system also meant that we did not have to wait till the last week of the Synod to start preparing the final report. The working paper was divided into three sections and so the interventions were also divided into three parts. The group discussions were allotted more time than previously almost double! The speeches were shorter, from the five minutes permitted last time, for this Synod it was restricted to just three minutes. It was amazing how much one is able to pack in just three minutes. Because it was concentrated, one had to pay close attention to what was said. It was great input and one learnt the situation of the Church in the whole world.

We four delegates of the CCBI met earlier to co-ordinate our interventions. Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão of Goa spoke of the meaning and importance of conjugal love in marriage. Archbishop Dominic Jala of Shillong spoke of the significance of the marriage rite and Bishop Selvister Ponnumuthan of Punalur spoke of the role of the Small Christian Communities in helping married life. I spoke of the need of accompaniment of families by priests and experienced couples, specially in the first years of marriage. Aware of the preoccupation of many of the Bishops I had concluded,“For all the Church should be an accompanying mother, who does not reject anyone but reaches out to all, remaining firm on theological principles and yet making our ecclesiastical discipline flexible enough to suit pastorally diverse and difficult situations.”

A couple from Bombay, Mr. and Mrs. Ishwar Bajaj, who were nominated by the Holy Father as Auditors made a much appreciated intervention on the challenges faced by marriages of Disparity of Cult. It was well written, faith filled and a valuable contribution to the discussions on the family apostolate.

A week before the Synod, I received a message from the Synod Secretariat that the Holy Father had appointed me on the Commission to draft the Final Report of the Synod. This meant that I would have to miss several of the general sessions, group discussions and also all free days the other Synod delegates had.

It was hard work for our Commission but also very interesting. We generally met together to discuss the text but for matters of less importance we divided ourselves into teams. My constant team companion was our affable Fr. Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, the Jesuit General. I discovered that the two of us had also worked together on the Drafting Commission for the FABC Plenary Meeting in Bangkok in the year 2000!

Our system of work was this. The Synod Secretariat collected all the written amendments on the Working Document that were presented from the group discussions:  there were about 1400 in all. I took copious notes of the comments on the floor during the general discussions but I realized that everything was already in the written amendments. The experts evaluated these amendments and gave their assessment. Our Commission of ten then reviewed the assessment of the experts and decided what should be accepted and how much. We generally chose the best amendment as the base and then added or subtracted something. We gave all this to a team of writers who sometimes worked right through the night to prepare a text for us. We reviewed this text before we put it to the house for discussions.

The Synod rules required 2/3rd majority for any text to be approved and we tried our best to ensure we were able to get that. We were very contented when we managed to get a 2/3rd majority for each of the 94 paragraphs of the Final Statement: two paragraphs barely scraped though but the rest got a very comprehensive acceptance with over 95% approval. There was a general satisfaction and I have not heard criticism of the Final Statement. Our hard work had paid off.

And so the Synod is over and all of us are back in our dioceses. I had said it was an extraordinary Synod and I share why I felt it was special.

1. The Pope’s presence. Pope Francis was present for all the sessions except once when a General Audience was on. Like a good host, on the first day he came early to the Synod Hall and welcomed each delegate. During the interventions he listened very intently. He preached the homilies at the Papal Mass, and also gave the introductory and concluding remarks at the Synod. All his speeches were well prepared, an elder brother teaching the Bishops, guiding them, cautioning them, and encouraging them. After every speech of his, my brother Cardinals staying at Santa Marta’s would be discussing the depth of his Addresses.

2. At the Synod – which is almost like the United Nations General Assembly where so many countries are represented – one senses the world situation of the Church. The cultural differences came out very clearly. Africa’s concerns are not North America’s, Europe’s are not South America’s and we Asians have our own special context and concern.

3. I was struck by the intensity of emotion of some of the interventions specially at the group discussions. These were expressions of anxiety of a pastor suffering with his people, struggling to find a way to help them. Then we heard the calls of the suffering and persecuted Church in Syria, other parts of the Middle East and Ukraine and sometimes we felt helpless. We realized how much we must pray. We issued Statements of support and assured them of our prayers.

4. This was the first time we had two Synods on the same theme. I had some reservations on how it would work. But here we have the final product and very valuable. The Final Statement of the previous Synod became the discussion outline for this Synod. The responses to this from the diocese around the world became the working document of the 2015 Synod, on which the discussions were based. The working document of this Synod was amended to form the Final Report of our Synod. Will this come to be the pattern of the future? I don’t know. The Holy Spirit is clearly guiding the Church and will show us the way.

5. As widely reports in the international press, there were a few hiccups at the initial stages of the Synod. At the very beginning, a middle-level Official of a Roman Congregation resigned from Office and caused a stir. Then there was talk of letters written by some senior prelates to the Holy Father expressing reservations on the Synodal process. In the middle of the Synod there were rumours that the Holy Father had serious health issues. This had to be denied through an official Press Statement. But all this did not disturb the Synod process at all. The focus on the topic being studied was not affected.  

6. The anxiety of the Synod Fathers was a swing between two big poles: fidelity to doctrine and answering the cry of the people. Several interventions spoke of the tension between truth and mercy. Of course, we know that both truth and mercy come from God and there cannot be conflict. The Synod Fathers were struggling to find the way forward.

7. Our big concern was how to give pastoral care to our people especially those suffering. We know we had to be compassionate but these seem to be difficult situations, objectively disordered. We have to reach out to these people. We had to examine how this could be done without causing any scandal.

And so after three weeks of intense work we came to the end of the Synod. We overwhelmingly voted in favour of a text, handed our conclusions to the Holy Father for him to study and decide what pastoral directives he should give us.

Much will be written about this Synod. The Holy Father called the Synod for the world’s bishops to share our pastoral concerns with each other and with him. That we have done as best we could. The Pope probably wanted advice on how he should proceed but we could give only very broad guidelines. As for the Synod itself, both Blessed Paul VI and John Paul II had said the Synodal process must be ameliorated over the years and this process has already begun. What is certain is that this process of exchange will continue and, that the apostolate of the family is back to centre stage. Interestingly, this was also the priority in the CCBI National Pastoral Plan and at the Consultation in our Archdiocese of Bombay.

The Synod of Bishops will slowly bear fruit and give direction to our pastoral apostolate. The Eucharistic Congress that we are celebrating will help us make our families Eucharistic families. In the year of Mercy may we experience an abundance of the Father’s loving mercy.  May all our families experience God’s loving mercy and become effective agents to bring His mercy to others.


November 23, 2015                                                  + Oswald Cardinal Gracias

                                                                                   Archbishop of Bombay

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