The Synod and the Spirit



AS I wrote in my daily Mass meditation today (see here), there is a certain panic in some quarters of the Church on the heels of the Synod’s somewhat abstract post discussion report (relatio post disceptationem). People are asking, “What are the bishops doing in Rome? What is the Pope doing?” But the real question is what is the Holy Spirit doing? For the Spirit is the one Jesus sent to “teach you all truth.” [1]John 16:13 The Spirit is our advocate, our help, our consoler, our strength, our wisdom… but also the one who convicts, enlightens, and exposes our hearts so that we have the opportunity to always move deeper toward the truth that sets us free.

My spiritual director asked me to begin sharing thoughts on the Synod. And so, I want to reflect in a broader sense on what is happening, touching on various themes that I will address more specifically in the days ahead. There are so many nuances that it is impossible to speak of them in one place without writing a book. So I am going to do this in bits and bites, and more frequently, since I know you don’t have time to read long treatises. But I pray you take a few minutes each day to reflect with me now on what the Spirit is saying to the Church at this hour, asking the Lord to give us the wisdom we need to be faithful to His voice.

The perfect place to begin is in today’s Gospel…


There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops. (Luke 12:2-3)



The Synod in Rome was called to address how to deal with the pastoral challenges facing the family and the shepherds charged with guiding them. Indeed, who cannot see that the family is under tremendous strain today? Divorce, drugs, alcohol, pornography, rebellion, division, financial burdens, etc…. they have greatly affected nearly every family on earth, especially in the Western world.

In many ways, we are much like the people again of Christ’s time, “a people in darkness.” [2]cf. Matt 4:16 But not just families… clergy too. And I say this with love, because these men are an alter Christus, “another Christ.” But they are also our brothers, and we must help them too by our prayers and love to enter the Kingdom of God. We have all been overshadowed by a terrible darkness that has billowed and grown over several hundred years.

The special peril of the time before us is the spread of that plague of infidelity, that the Apostles and our Lord Himself have predicted as the worst calamity of the last times of the Church. And at least a shadow, a typical image of the last times is coming over the world. —John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), sermon at opening of St. Bernard’s Seminary, October 2, 1873, The Infidelity of the Future

It was Pius X who really put in concrete terms what his predecessors were already seeing: signs of that dreadful spiritual sickness prophesied by St. Paul:

You understand, Venerable Brethren, what this disease is—apostasy from God. —POPE ST. PIUS X, E Supremi, Encyclical On the Restoration of All Things in Christ, n. 3, 5; October 4th, 1903

That is essentially the context in which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 265th pontiff. Pope Francis seems to see that we are living in a time where, as Pope Pius XII put it, “The sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” [3]1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress Thus, the Synod in Rome is essentially bringing to the forefront the question of how to deal with people/couples who are living in an objective state of mortal sin. I say objectively because in order for someone’s soul to be in a state of mortal sin, not only must the matter be grave, but it must also be committed “with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” [4]Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1857

Here I pose a question. When the vast majority of Catholic couples are using contraception, when a great number of young Catholics are living together before marriage, when divorce rates are nearly as high as secular couples, and when there has been little to no faithful catechesis on morality from the pulpit… how culpable really are people today in terms of being in a state of actual mortal sin? How culpable are pastors who were formed and fashioned in liberal seminaries where many a soul’s faith was shipwrecked?

I am not saying that people are not responsible nor that not being entirely culpable in grave sin is not a serious pastoral issue. No, it is really the issue when you consider why. (In another writing, I want to address specifically how much we do know when we are in sin.) So when the people are in such darkness, are we perhaps not in an hour similar to when Jesus came the first time? A time when the lost sheep of Israel desperately needed the Good Shepherd to find them? Isn’t this precisely why Jesus appeared to St. Faustina, dictating to her the incredible message of Divine Mercy at this very hour of this “plague of infidelity” and “apostasy”?

In the Old Covenant I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people. Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to My Merciful Heart. I use punishment when they themselves force Me to do so; My hand is reluctant to take hold of the sword of justice. Before the Day of Justice I am sending the Day of Mercy. —Jesus to St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 1588

But mercy does not mean accommodating sin, but rather, being the face of this love and mercy to the sinner (and it’s a distinction that is apparently lost on some elements of the Church.) The Pope does not believe that we are showing that Face enough, hence, everything he has said and done to this point is to bring all of us back to the heart of the Gospel, to encounter again that unconditional love of God and to be that love to others.

But it is late, probably too late. The sword of justice seems poised again. But just when we think that God has had enough… He so often surprises us by His Mercy. I believe He will do so again—albeit as a “last call” to humanity to awaken the consciences of this people in darkness.

Am I able to understand the signs of the times and be faithful to the voice of the Lord that is manifested in them? We should ask ourselves these questions today and ask the Lord for a heart that loves the law – because the law belongs to God – but which also loves God’s surprises and the ability to understand that this holy law is not an end in itself. —POPE FRANCIS, Homily, October 13th, 2014;

Union with God is the end. He is thirsting for it… and demonstrates it this very moment by His patience.



Yet, what we hear coming out of the Synod is, at times, misplaced mercy. I will write more about this too. At the same time, what Pope Francis asked for was a free and open discussion. He told the bishops:

Speak clearly. Don’t tell anyone, ‘you can’t say that’… don’t be afraid to offend me. Catholic Herald, October 6th, 2014

Because that’s what families do when in a crisis—they listen to one another (or else the “family crisis” deepens). Knowing that he has both “liberal” and “conservative” bishops gathering, the Pope has opened the floor so that the spirit of collegiality and fraternity can hopefully begin to dissolve the bitter tensions that do exist and move the episcopacy, and thus the whole Church, toward greater unity.

In a prayer vigil before the opening of the Synod, the Pope offered this prayer:

Besides listening, we invoke an openness toward a sincere discussion, open and fraternal, which leads us to carry with pastoral responsibility the questions that this change in epoch brings. We let it flow back into our hearts, without ever losing peace, but with serene trust which in his own time the Lord will not fail to bring into unity…

May the Wind of Pentecost blow upon the Synod’s work, on the Church, and on all of humanity. Undo the knots which prevent people from encountering one another, heal the wounds that bleed, rekindle hope. — POPE FRANCIS, Prayer Vigil, Vatican Radio, October 5th, 2014;

Is the Synod a plot to undermine the Church or an opportunity to examine our pastoral approaches in the midst of the culture of death? Is it the basis for turning the Church more into a “field hospital”? There are many opinions on how to do this, and so it should not surprise anyone that some Synodal presentations have been theologically off-base in a spirit of open dialogue and exploration.

However, might I add, it has been bewildering as to why the contents of these discussions have been disclosed to the public unfiltered. What family broadcasts their internal “family talks” to their neighbors? But this is precisely what has been done, to the confusion of many Synod Fathers. The problem is this: the mass media does not wait for apostolic exhortations. They look for “leaks”, juicy gossip, dysfunction, division… and the recent Synod report handed those opportunities on a platter.

…the message has gone out: This is what the synod is saying, this is what the Catholic Church is saying. No matter how we try correcting that, whatever we say hereafter is going to be as if we’re doing some damage control. —Cardinal Wilfrid Napier,, October 15th, 2014

Whether intended or not, people have already begun assuming that the Church has changed her position. Neither the Synod nor the Pope, however, have rewritten a single letter of the law, let alone changed any pastoral practices. And if they were to, it would be a long time coming yet. So panic at this point is completely misplaced. Frustration is not.

Regardless—and we need to pay attention to this—what is happening now is that the Synod is acting like a sieve. It is beginning to expose where cardinals, bishops, priests and laymen alike stand on the immutable faith and morals of Catholicism. It is revealing, perhaps, the good and the bad branches before the pruning. It is exposing the fears and loyalties of laymen. It is revealing ultimately how much any of us trust Christ and His promise to remain with His Church “until the end of the age.” [5]Matt 28:20 There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed. Everything that has been hidden in the darkness is coming to light.

And that, I believe, is what the Spirit is doing.

For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)




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1 John 16:13
2 cf. Matt 4:16
3 1946 address to the United States Catechetical Congress
4 Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1857
5 Matt 28:20

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