I was in Rome during the Synod on the Family. On the final Saturday morning I visited the ancient church of Santa Maria in Trastevere during a Nuptial Mass. As the couple knelt below the dome with its shimmering mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin, I thought how beautifully that image evoked the sacrament of marriage, which constitutes the earthly participation of baptized Catholics in the heavenly wedding feast.
Metaphors of marriage and parenthood recur throughout scripture. These relationships offer us our most intimate glimpses of the unconditional love of God for creation and of Christ for the Church, but they are also the relationships that are most vulnerable to sin and alienation.
At the Synod, the Church’s leaders spoke openly, not only about the ideals and consolations of marriage but about its failures and tragedies, its struggles and complexities, putting the vast and unruly diversity of global Catholicism on display before the eyes of the world. The western media tended to focus almost exclusively on homosexuality and divorce and remarriage, but the Synod also addressed issues such as polygamy, forced marriages and child marriages, mixed marriages, and the impact of poverty, violence and migration on family life.
There were some gaping omissions, not least in the absence of any significant female presence. Pope Francis has repeatedly acknowledged the need to give women a greater role in the Church, and in this respect the Synod was a missed opportunity. We heard nothing about HIV/AIDS, nor does there seem to have been any searching debate about contraception, despite evidence that the vast majority of Catholics ignore the Church’s prohibition of artificial birth control. Nevertheless, my concern here is not to analyse the Synod’s successes and failures, but to ask what kind of theology informs Pope Francis’s vision for the Church so that he was inspired to call not one but two successive Synods on the Family.
Francis repeatedly used the metaphor of a journey during the Synod. In a prayer vigil before it started, he offered a moving description of people travelling home at the end of the day – some to the comfort and warmth of a family meal, others to loneliness and broken dreams. In his closing speech he spoke of having been on a journey that involved moments of great enthusiasm and also of desolation.
Critics of Pope Francis sometimes compare him unfavourably with his more scholarly predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Yet I believe that we are witnessing a papacy rooted in profound theological wisdom, informed by three related principles: Ignatian discernment which comes from Francis’s Jesuit roots, a privileging of narrative and story-telling (a theology of the people) over dogmatics and systematics (a theology of the scholars), which comes from his Argentinian background, and an appreciation of the temporal and historical nature of the Church’s earthly pilgrimage, which can be seen as continuing the interrupted process of implementing Vatican II in the life of the Church.
In a section towards the end of his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Francis appeals for an ethos of transformation and growth that privileges time over space. A spatial model is one of occupation and crystallization, of immediate results and short term goals. It seeks to achieve everything in the here and now, by way of power and possession. A temporal model allows for ‘processes of people building’ by embracing the tension between fullness and limitation. It accommodates frustration, finitude and failure without losing sight of its horizon of hope. This leads to two other factors – the dialectical need to accept that conflict is a necessary aspect of the quest for ‘a diversified and life-giving unity’, and the need to recognise that realities are more important than ideas.
These three related insights offer a key to understanding not only the Synod but the whole style of Francis’s papacy. He is setting the Church free from her captivity to doctrinal stasis, from a unity imposed through the suppression and silencing of conflict and the privileging of ideas over realities, so that she can continue her earthly, temporal pilgrimage informed by the struggles and experiences of life in motion.
Dogmas and teachings that were frozen in the context of spatial absolutes as eternal, unchanging truths are gradually thawing, warmed by the bodies and breath of human experience and allowed to flow with the currents of time. It remains to be seen what will emerge from this process, but that is the point. We do not and cannot control the future. The Second Vatican Council pointed to the contextual and the historical as the road along which the pilgrim people of God must travel, and Pope Francis has told us we must resume the journey. Our guiding light and final destination is the mystery of the Trinity, the ultimate object of all our desire. The Holy Spirit animates and guides us towards what Francis has described as the untamed frontiers of faith, but in travelling towards that mystical destination we must put on our walking boots, learn the virtue of patience, and struggle to read the maps together.
This is the context in which we should interpret the principle of gradualness referred to in the interim document, the Relatio post disceptationem, published after the first week. Some have equated gradualism with relativism, but perhaps that is because they are working with a spatial rather than a temporal model. Relativism suggests that there are many paths to follow which are all simultaneously valid and equal, which clearly is not compatible with the self-understanding of the Church’s mission. However, a temporal model would allow us to interpret gradualism in terms of personal growth and development in the context of each individual’s journey along the pathway of truth.
So back to that Nuptial Mass. Into the vast space between the couple kneeling on the altar and the mosaic far above their heads, the priest raises the host. My heart is filled with a longing so delicate and impossible that there are no words for it. We know that the couple may or may not stay faithfully together until death. Even if they do, they will face many challenges, struggles and failures. Yet the desire that their love arouses swirls in the space between the hope that unites the newly weds, and the promise of fulfilment that shimmers down from the golden mosaic high above them.
At last, the Church is asking what that desire and love might mean in the face of many different lives and loves, many cultures and contexts, many obstacles and failures. Our desire is for union with the relational, Trinitarian God in whose image we are made. That desire finds inadequate expression in the relationships that touch our humanity most deeply – relationships of erotic love and sexuality, of marriage and commitment, of motherhood and fatherhood. But all these are imperfect analogies through which we obscurely glimpse that eternity of love towards which we are travelling, at the heavenly wedding feast where God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Until then, Francis is appealing to the Church to accompany the human family along the rocky path of mourning and tears, which is also the pilgrim path of faith, hope and love.