by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to the childlike.” (Matthew 11:25, Gospel reading for Sunday, July 9, 2023, 14th week in Ordinary Time)
As we continue hearing about the far-reaching aims and hopes for Pope Francis’s synod — its final step, the universal phase, begins this October — it becomes increasingly clear that he is relying on these words of Jesus as the basis for this revolutionary process. It is quite amazing to read, especially in the official Instrumentum Laboris (working document), about the pope’s absolute confidence in the working of the Holy Spirit in and through “the childlike,” that is, through the simple faith of the People of God.
A few of the topics which have emerged from the listening sessions which began at the local levels of Church life include issues that affect those hurt by the Church, such as divorced and remarried Catholics and LGBTQ+ Catholics. The listening sessions raised the importance of training candidates for ministry (seminarians, catechists, chaplains) in synodal style and mentality, with special attention given to seminary life. Listening session participants stated that the selection of bishops should have wider participation of the Church community. Other issues raised include priestly celibacy and the ordination of women to the priesthood.
As innovating as these issues may be, it is important not to “lose the forest for the trees” so to speak, much as the secular media often do. What is already beyond remarkable is Pope Francis’s serene conviction that the Holy Spirit is guiding this entire process, perhaps taking it where no one believed it could ever go. Once again, this attitude replicates that of Pope John XXIII nearly 70 years ago.
In this regard, those who are closest to the synodal processes in Rome have mentioned that this entire enterprise is being driven by the pope’s desire to push the life of the Church outward from the clerical enclave which has enveloped it for too long.
One striking example of this mindset of the Holy Father came this week as he named Argentine Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez to lead the Dicastery (Office) for the Doctrine of the Faith. Formerly known as the Holy Office, it has had a reputation for stifling orthodoxy. Vatican watchers called the appointment “an earthquake.” Some of what Francis said in naming Fernandez to this all-important ministry deserves mention. He said that this Dicastery has at times used immoral methods, pursuing “doctrinal errors over promoting theological knowledge.” These words call to mind what Karl Rahner once said: There is always the possibility of “wrapping a shroud around Christ, obscuring the love of Christ in our world.”
“Errors,” the pope continued, “are not corrected by going after [the perceived heretics] but by making faith and wisdom grow.” Then to Archbishop Fernandez, he said, “What I expect from you is certainly something very different. I ask you as prefect to dedicate your personal commitment in a more direct way to the main purpose of the Dicastery, which is ‘guarding the faith.’”
Not especially prominent in the announcement of Archbishop Fernandez’s important appointment is his role as a close collaborator with then-Cardinal Bergoglio at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean. Named the “Aparecida Conference,” referring to the Marian shrine in the Brazilian city where the conference took place, it stands as another of those outstanding gatherings of the Church in that region following the Second Vatican Council.
At Aparecida, Bergoglio came to the attention of many in the Catholic world, especially as principal author of the conference’s final document. It surely put him forward as “papable.” The document is a reflection and call to all levels of the Catholic Church there – hierarchy, clergy, religious and laity – as bearers of Christ’s liberating message, as missionaries. It appears that Archbishop Fernandez was at the right hand of Bergoglio helping him with this early synodal process.
We all need to stay tuned.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.