Papal Aspirations: Day One

Weighing official communications about a Synod – unofficial sources are usually known quantities with greater or lesser degrees of reliability – has always been a guessing game. The past few synods on the family took guessing to a whole new level as various intermediaries in various languages with various agendas (not always Catholic) tried to put their mark on each day’s proceedings, often with little connection to what the bishops had actually discussed.

Yesterday, day one of the Synod on Young People, there was – after some back and forth – no official briefing.

But there were two major texts from Pope Francis, which lay out his hopes for the next four weeks – and the future of the Church. Francis’ language is notoriously ambiguous, and, even when you get the large lines of what he’s saying, he’s never easy to interpret. But his homily at the inaugural Mass and his Opening Address to the synod participants are of interest for what they say – and don’t say.

Two-third of Americans have lost confidence in Pope Francis, according to recent surveys, because of his handling of the abuse crisis. And many traditional Catholics have, unfortunately, become skeptical about almost anything he says. It’s worth the effort, however, to understand at least what he said yesterday that he’s hoping to achieve.

I’m going to take the two texts in reverse temporal order. The address to the Synod participants came late in the afternoon yesterday, the homily at the morning Mass.

Much of the address to synod participants encourages young people to new ways of using their energy and enthusiasm in efforts to preach the Gospel. But it also sounds some notes that we’ve often heard in the past:

The Synod we are living is a moment of sharing. I wish, therefore, at the beginning of the Synod Assembly, to invite everyone to speak with courage and frankness (parrhesia), namely to integrate freedom, truth and charity. Only dialogue can help us grow. An honest, transparent critique is constructive and helpful, and does not engage in useless chatter, rumours, conjectures or prejudices.

And humility in listening must correspond to courage in speaking. I told the young people in the pre-Synod Meeting: “If you say something I do not like, I have to listen even more, because everyone has the right to be heard, just as everyone has the right to speak.”

Any conversation, of course, requires mutual speaking and listening. But it’s difficult not to think that in many current (and endless) “dialogues,” listening has all but obliterated the Church’s obligation to speak the truth of the Gospel. Further, the “listening” seems to be only open to certain voices. Towards the end of the address, Francis remarks, “Do not let yourselves be tempted, therefore, by the ‘prophets of doom,’ do not spend your energy on ‘keeping score of failures and holding on to reproaches,’ keep your gaze fixed on the good that ‘often makes no sound; it is neither a topic for blogs, nor front page news.’”

Fair enough, but this might also be regarded as an excuse not to listen to those of us – say the tens of thousands of subscribers to this site and similar ones – who believe things are approaching a critical moment. These too are “bold” voices that deserve a hearing.

Photo: Tony Gentile/Reuters

The morning homily – to a skimpy crowd – took a different tack. Probably the most noteworthy passage came near the end, when the pope quoted a line by the visionary German poet Hölderlin, who is almost unknown in the English-speaking world: “May the man hold fast to what the child has promised.”

This comes from a poem about grandmothers (a frequent reference point for Francis) and expresses the desire to remain faithful to what we loved in the warmth of grandmotherly security as children.

But Pope Francis situates that line in an unusual context: the Second Vatican Council. He tells the Synod Fathers: “Many of us were young or taking our first steps in the religious life while the Second Vatican Council was drawing to a close.” It’s often pointed out that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after that council (1969). He seems here to feel some sort of desire to recapture the hopes and dreams of a renewed Church that eclipsed nearly everything else in the 1960s.

For many people – the present writer included – those dreams were mostly illusions. Thousands left the priesthood and religious orders (Jorge Bergoglio’s own Jesuits declined sharply): the liturgy was not “renewed” but wrecked (and people in large numbers stopped going to Mass); the world was not converted; instead, large numbers of Catholics were converted by the world; and the Church receded in importance as a sure moral and spiritual guide.

Whatever possibilities for renewal existed in the 1960s – and there were many better roads not taken – the empirical results are clear beyond dispute.

Pope Francis seems to believe that a return to that spirit will produce a different outcome now. By any objective measure, the Church experienced improvements during the papacies of his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But as we’ve seen from his clear efforts to reverse much of their magisterial teaching, Francis seems to believe that they took a wrong turn, some sort of flight backwards, rather than making an effort to do well what the Church, in the decades after the Council, did badly.

You get the impression that he believes the Church didn’t go far enough after Vatican II. That dogma, canon law, tradition, are a drag on the immediate operation and inspirations of the Holy Spirit – and outreach to young people.

Any thinking person knows that rules and habits can be stifling, but it’s hard to see “clericalism,” traditionalism, or conservatism as the main problems affecting the Church at the moment and preventing the evangelization of the young. If anything, people – including young people – seem to come to the Church, if they come at all, precisely because they’ve had enough of empty dialogue, endless questioning, the seeking that never finds.

These are all themes that will be very much in play in coming weeks. Hope is one of the theological virtues, and we cannot predict what God has planned. But it seems as clear as anything can be in the rough and tumble of human existence that what we need is a truly new inspiration by the Spirit, not an echo of a failed agenda now a half-century old.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.