In his homily at the opening of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops held at the St. Peter’s Square on October 4, 2023, Pope Francis meditated on “difficult moment in Jesus’ mission.”
In the Gospel of Matthew (11:2-24), the Holy Father cites what he calls “pastoral desolation” in Jesus’ life: “John the Baptist doubts that Jesus is really the Messiah; so many cities he passed through, despite the wonders he performed, were not converted; people accuse him of being a glutton and drunkard, whereas they had just complained about the Baptist because he was too austere.”
One immediately perceives that the Pope has been engulfed in those moments of anguish given a 10-year Petrine ministry that had been characteristically riddled with criticisms. The so-called “dubia” or, literally, questions or doubts, sent to him in July 2023, or barely two months before the Synod, by five Cardinals (Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, Robert Sarah, and Joseph Zen Ze-kiun) are neither new nor surprising. In 2016 five questions or dubia were also sent to his direction by Cardinals Carlo Caffara, Raymund Burke, Walter Brandmüller and Joachim Meisner regarding certain ambiguities that had been allowed to hover particularly in paragraphs 300-305 in Chapter 8 of the Post-Synodal Pastoral Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Although, on the other hand, one gets curious of the “theological agenda” of some names of Cardinals that keep consistently appearing in all these criticisms. The same could be observed in the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in 2019.
In the face of these moments of desolation, Pope Francis in his homily says, “Jesus has a gaze capable of seeing beyond, he praises the wisdom of the Father and is able to discern the good that grows unseen, the seed of the Word welcomed by the simple, the light of the Kingdom of God that shows the way even in the night.” And along that vein of thought, he enlightens in an earlier quote in Vatican News, “I prefer them, because it means there is freedom of speech…Some of them have come here and yes, I have discussed things—normally, as one speaks among mature people. I did not argue with anyone, but I expressed my opinion and they expressed theirs. Otherwise, you create a dictatorship of distance, as I call it, where the emperor is there and nobody can say anything to him. No, let them say because the companionship, the criticism, helps us to grow and make things go well.”
Translating that to the halls of the Synod on Synodality, the Pontiff enjoins the general assembly to proceed “from the gaze of Jesus, which is a blessing and welcoming gaze.” And certainly one that “do not need a purely natural vision, made up of human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles. If the Synod allows this to happen, the ‘other one’ will open the door to it. This we do not need. We are not here to carry out a parliamentary meeting or a plan of reformation. The Synod, dear brothers and sisters, is not a parliament. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist. We are not here to form a parliament but to walk together with the gaze of Jesus, who blesses the Father and welcomes those who are weary and oppressed.”
In the midst of the persistent doubts of some faithful who looks confidently settled in the far right of the ecclesiastical spectrum, Pope Francis brings out an assurance from the address of St. John XXIII at the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1962, “It is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate” And again, he goes back to that “gaze of the Lord” so that in the midst of “sometimes agitated waves of our time, (the Church) does not lose heart, does not seek ideological loopholes, does not barricade itself behind preconceived notions, does not give in to convenient solutions, does not let the world dictate its agenda.”
While Pope Francis did not openly respond to those dubia sent by four cardinals in a bid to clear up doubts surrounding the documents on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia, he immediately and openly replied to these latest dubia, which he deemed appropriate given the proximity to the Synod. If only because he has always wanted to open the doors of the Church to everyone, as their home, as their field hospital. And that makes the “pastoral desolation” certainly worth it.
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