When it comes to Roman Synods, the 1985 one is singular in a number of ways. First of all: it was an Extraordinary Synod, falling between the schedule for the Ordinary Synods, on average held every three to four years. Secondly: it was specifically focused on the Second Vatican Council and was orchestrated to occur on the twentieth anniversary of the Council’s conclusion. Thirdly: it was the platform for many intriguing ecclesiological struggles aching for expression and validation on a global stage.
It was also singular for me in that it was the first of several synods that I would attend as a credentialed and approved journalist, an admittedly unusual status for someone who is primarily an academic but a requirement of the Press Office of the Holy See. My colleague, Douglas R. Letson, a medievalist and senior academic administrator, and I would spend many an hour poring over the documents, trying to make sense of the subtexts, deciphering the politics of composition, unearthing background information.
We attended daily press briefings that proved no more than an extended exercise in obfuscation, worked closely with the professional journalists and Vaticanisti, whose job was to fathom the Byzantine depths of Roman discourse and maneuverings, and spent time at the best trattoria in town with papal insiders, informed editors, and the occasional renegade reporter. Not the customary terrain of the conventionally trained academic. But we learned.
And what we learned: the synod agenda was inflexibly scripted; the interventions by the bishops (their 2.5-3.0 mins. of fame); the redacted English translations of the circuli minores or small language-based discussion groups; the pathetic press meetings with the Relator and other synod presiders who clearly had no conception of how the media works and demonstrated no desire to know; the episcopal self-editing that prevented any topic of consequence for the universal or even particular church from reaching the floor; the benign indifference of the Supreme Pontiff (on one occasion we were invited to the synod hall to watch a session in progress and Pope John Paul II was occupied reading his breviary, or perhaps editing his post-synod document, while the bishops were delivering their safe and anodyne addresses—not an edifying moment).
The synod process was not enacted in a way that reflected a genuinely consultative body. The bishops were scripted. Everything was controlled. The media was a potential problem best kept at bay. All of this resulted in deference from the pious and career-ambitious and in cynicism from the others.
And that was too bad in many ways because the Extraordinary Synod had more than a little electricity about it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s controversial interview—The Ratzinger Report consisting of a series of interviews with the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori—appeared a couple of months before the synod began, thereby influencing its agenda and direction; certain prelates would rise to media prominence during the proceedings, including the eventually disgraced Bernard Law of Boston and the Dominican Christoph Schonborn of Vienna; the work for a universal and updated catechism for the Catholic Church began in earnest; the synod was the public genesis of a fiery and divisive debate that would unfold in subsequent decades, specifically during the pontificate of Benedict XVI around a hermeneutic of continuity.
Lots to munch on.
Subsequent synods were an improvement—a slightly more efficient and open press office; more public, if still generally muted, griping by novice bishops shocked by anti-collegial operations; and a modest increase in staff.
But the machinery of the synod remained intact.
And then Francis arrived: the process opened up dramatically. Participating bishops were enjoined to speak their minds (parrhesia); collision of Catholic intellects, as John Henry Newman would have it, was seen as a desirable feature of the synodal process; there was no overarching papal agenda corralling conformity over genuine unity; the number of advisors, periti, and interested parties expanded; and the pope not only welcomed the cut and thrust of debate, he ensured it.
But with episcopal conferences accustomed to being cowed by the curial offices, with bishops schooled in being timid rather than temerarious, it took Francis and his allies quite some time to get them comfortable in their skin, fear-free in the expression of their opinions and driven by a new energy of empowerment.
Of course, there were the critics and resisters, but that is fine. Meaningful dialogue and openness to the Spirit does not consist in eliminating all tension.
And now for the piece de resistance: the planned 2023 synod on synodality with comprehensive involvement by all the members of the People of God. We have come a long way from that moment in the 1960s when Pope Paul VI re-introduced the synod as a continuation of the collegiality of the Second Vatican Council.
Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s and president of Corpus Christi Colleges, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.