“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through the mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter. . . .So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine [Christianity] tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”
The Venerable Bede records this remark by the Christian Paulinus, seeking to convert the seventh-century Northumbrian King Edwin. But the image of life as a bird of passage through a small lit room at night goes back to the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who knew, even without the benefit of Biblical revelation, that our human life on earth is infinitesimal compared with the vast ages before and after. Even pagan reason at its best grasps this truth and it used to be a commonplace in Catholic – indeed, all Christian – thought that we learn to properly value the things of this life when we see them against the backdrop of eternity.
If there is one thing that has been conspicuous by it absence from the Synod on the Family, it is this wisdom dimension and the many practical consequences it has given rise to in Catholic culture. Critics of Christianity often accuse believers of neglecting the earth for pie-in the-sky. Where that happens, it’s a failure to appreciate the fullness of and incarnational faith like Christianity, to be sure. But to grasp the brevity of life is not escapism, but realism, and to live our lives aware of that truth changes our perspectives on everything. In our time, if there’s a characteristic failure of Christian thought – and it’s partly been the case at the Synod as much as anywhere – it’s not that we undervalue our material existence. It’s that we find it difficult to lift up our gaze to the things that are going to transcend, always and forever, our hopes and fears, satisfactions and disappointments.
You can’t help but feel that some of the things we cannot solve at the rather superficial level of a large public discussion, would get put into proper perspective when we rediscover the older pagan and Christian wisdom about the brevity and incompleteness of earthly life. It was already an old debate, for example, in Plato that there had to be rewards and punishments after death, otherwise the obvious and irresolvable sufferings and injustices in this life would mean the world was founded in injustice. The Book of Revelation (21:4) puts it even more forcefully: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.”
When the Synod Fathers observe, as some have, that there are not always answers for situations that arise in this life, we might wish that they would highlight as part of the “accompaniment” that they are seeking, not just ordinary human fellowship, but the sapiential side of reason and the greater promises of faith. As we come to the difficult questions we have all been anticipating in this final week of the Synod on the Family, we can hope that those perspectives will be more in evidence for the sake of the final resolutions, but also for the sake of God’s people.
But they’ll have to move fast this week. To help orient us in what we’ll be seeing over coming days, it’s worth reviewing carefully how things will unfold:
The work that will be done this week has, to a great degree, already been started (as we’ve reported, several bishops thought Part Three of the text, the one with the most controversial material, such as Communion for the divorced and remarried and how to deal with those experiencing same-sex attraction, could not be sufficiently considered if treatment was not begun earlier than planned). This work will mostly be completed in a very few days (if the schedule holds), too few in light of how, precisely, all the prior talk and editing will be translated into concrete paragraphs in the Final Report.
Thursday and Friday of last week were devoted to discussion in the General Congregation, on the Third Part of the Working Document, or Instrumentum Laboris (IL). The weekend was mostly divided between two other matters: the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Synod of Bishops, and the canonizations of St. Vincent Grossi, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, and Sts. Louis Martin and Zelie Guerin.
But all day today (Monday) and tomorrow morning (Tuesday), there will be a return to the small group discussions – nine and a half hours total, quite a lot of close reading and rewriting. Late in the afternoon Tuesday, the thirteen small group reports will be read out to the entire Synod, the written modifications (modi) to Part III will be given to the drafting committee, and a first round of votes will be taken for the Synod Council. That’s a lot in only two and a half hours, especially after such intensive days. But most of the Synod Fathers will have all Wednesday off, while the Commission for the reworking of the Final Report is busy all that day.
Then the real crunch begins. Early Thursday, the Commission will present what amounts to a draft of the Final Report to the whole Synod (and final votes for the Synod Council will be held.). This will be the first time anyone sees how much – or how little – the work of the Synod Fathers will have changed the IL. There may be large and small surprises – though it would be a very great surprise indeed if, with so many people involved in the process and watching from outside, anything as radical as last year’s Interim Report emerges at that point.
That’s when the organizational structure, however, may play a major role. On the schedule, the Synod Assembly breaks up at 10:30 AM Thursday and reconvenes later in the day, 4:30-7:00 PM. This means that the bishops will have only six hours (including lunch) to look over, in private, a lengthy document, which may have many new and crucial points. They then come together for only two and a half hours to speak in the presence of one another about what they have found, though written interventions will also be allowed. In essence, about one working day to respond to what the drafting committee has wrought.
Friday, the bishops are on vacation again, while the drafting committee incorporates their reactions to the first draft.
Saturday, another tight day of reaction: the “final” text is read out in the morning, 9-12:30 AM. The bishops take a break for four hours and then between 4:30 and 7PM are expected to vote, paragraph by paragraph, what to accept and what to reject in this text.
When that’s done – and few expect it will be done exactly by 7PM – they will sing the Te Deum and the Holy Father will have the advice, and let us hope wisdom, of his Synod of Bishops on the Vocation and Mission of the Family.