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Robert MickensJanuary 23, 2017 - 11:28am0 comments
Pope Francis is a man of discernment. And he believes all Christians should be, too.
This is essential to understanding what motivates him and how it affects the decisions he makes.
“This discernment takes time,” he said in the lengthy interview he gave to La Civiltà Cattolica (then reproduced by other Jesuit publications) just months after his election as Bishop of Rome.
“For example, many think that changes and reforms can take place in a
short time. I believe that we always need time to lay the foundations
for real, effective change. And this is the time of discernment,” the
new pope said.
“Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at
the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the
people, especially the poor,” he continued.
And then he added, “The wisdom of discernment redeems the necessary
ambiguity of life and helps us find the most appropriate means, which do
not always coincide with what looks great and strong.”
When it comes to discerning the big picture—that is, the road the
church is being called to travel at this time in history—Francis has no
doubts. He believes it is the path of synodality.
“It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the
church of the third millennium,” he said in a major address in October
“A synodal church is a church which listens, which realizes that
listening is more than simply hearing. It is a mutual listening in which
everyone has something to learn,” he said.
The occasion for that talk was the fiftieth anniversary of Blessed
Paul VI’s institution of the Synod of Bishops, which he decreed at the
very start of the fourth and final period of the Second Vatican Council
The commemoration took place while the Synod was actually in session.
For the second time in two years Francis had called the bishops
together to openly and frankly discuss issues related to marriage,
family, and human sexuality.
In his extraordinary address, he told them he was convinced that the
Synod of Bishops and synodality at every level needed to be further
“enhanced.” The goal is to better develop episcopal collegiality,
soundly decentralize governance and connect more effectively with the
“The Pope is not, by himself, above the church; but within it as one
of the baptized, and within the College of Bishops as a Bishop among
Bishops, called at the same time—as Successor of Peter—to lead the
church of Rome which presides in charity over all the churches,” Francis
And he believes his leadership is more genuinely in conformity with
the Gospel and the design of authority Jesus granted to the apostles
when he exercises leadership with all the bishops.
But will he be able to institutionalize this form of collegial governance through a reform of the Synod of Bishops?
If that is his goal, he has a very long way to go.
The first thing he has to do is wash some people’s mouths out,
because right now the language being used by too many church folk belies
either extreme carelessness or utter ignorance of the Synod’s true
nature. Paul VI decreed that the Synod of Bishops would be a Rome-based “permanent Council of bishops for the universal church.”
Note the term permanent council.
“The Synod of Bishops is directly and immediately subject to the
authority of the Roman Pontiff, whose responsibility is… to call the
Synod into session… in General Session, in Extraordinary Session, and in
Special Session,” the papal documents says.
Called into session.
Thus, the Synod—like a country’s parliament—is a permanent institution. It always exists, whether or not it is in session.
It is just as incorrect to say the pope has called a synod for 2018
as it would be to say that the U.S. president has called a senate for
next month. The only difference is that—at least up to now—parliaments
and congresses are more permanently in session than the Synod of
It is not a good sign when even the Synod’s secretary general
constantly refers to “last year’s synod” or “the two synods on the
family,” as Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri did last week when he unveiled
preparations for the next session of the Synod in 2018.
Words shape reality. The men of the Holy See know this better than
anyone. St. Thomas Aquinas knew it, too, insisting that we use words
carefully and precisely to define our terms.
If the pope wants to transform, enhance and reform the Synod of
Bishops he might start by insisting that people clean up their language.
Are we currently witnessing a “golden age” of Holy See diplomacy?
That was basically the question Cardinal Pietro Parolin was asked
this week at the forty-seventh World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos,
The Vatican’s Secretary of State blushed a bit before then admitting
that the church’s diplomatic activity had certainly “increased a lot” in
the current pontificate.
“First of all, because of the personality of Pope Francis—this is
clear! He’s a taken on a very great role of leadership concerning the
global issues of the present world,” the cardinal said.
As just one instance, he pointed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to
combat climate change, but without going into the extensive background
of how the pope—through his encyclical, Laudato si’, and his various
envoys—helped influence the accord.
What Cardinal Parolin did not say was that he, as the number-one
papal envoy, is also one of the major reasons why the Holy See has
become much more engaged in international diplomacy than it was during
the eight years when Benedict XVI was pope.
Parolin, who just turned sixty-two last Tuesday, was appointed
Secretary of State by Pope Francis in October 2013 precisely in order to
revive the world’s oldest diplomatic corps and bolster its efforts at
peacemaking and human development.
But the cardinal, self-effacing as ever, attributed all this to the
pope. He noted that shortly after Francis became Bishop of Rome he told
Vatican diplomats their main priorities must be fighting poverty,
building bridges through dialogue, and working for peace.
Cardinal Parolin made his comments in an extensive interview
(in English) with WEF’s Philipp Rösler, a Vietnamese-born German
politician who was Angela Merkel’s vice-chancellor from 2011-2013.
The interview is not riveting, as far as entertainment value goes.
But it’s definitely worth having a look for a number of reasons.
Firstly, because the Secretary of State offers some important
insights into the underlying principles that are currently driving the
Holy See’s efforts in the field of international diplomacy.
For example, he said the main point of Vatican diplomacy is to defend
the human person based on the centrality of the person, the
multi-faceted dimension of the person (especially transcendence), and
the notion of solidarity/fraternity.
“If we do not understand clearly that we are brothers and sisters and
that we are responsible for each other, I think other objectives will
prevail and we will end up destroying the person and the community,” he
Then he revealed (at least to those with eyes to see) perhaps the
most important difference that distinguishes the current pontificate
from the one that immediately preceded it—and not only in the field
diplomacy, but also in the most basic approach to life, faith, and all
“I also want to say”—the cardinal began—“that, as Pope Francis has
said, it is important not to talk about mankind in general, as an
abstraction, but to look into the eyes of every person and to be a
spokesman for the individual person, especially the poor and most
vulnerable. And so I think Holy See diplomacy should be very concrete
Astonishingly, the man who preceded Parolin as Secretary of
State—Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB—had zero diplomatic experience or
(It is still a mystery why Benedict XVI appointed someone so
unqualified to such a sensitive and important position. And even more
mysterious is why the professor-pope did not replace Bertone when he
turned out to be such a disaster.)
Bertone, under instructions of his boss in white, systematically
disengaged the Holy See from cooperating with any international or state
entities—on any topic—if they did not obey the Vatican’s line (directly
from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) on the so-called
“non negotiable” issues such as abortion, euthanasia, same-sex unions,
and artificial insemination.
The Holy See stood aloof, in self-righteousness and with clean hands,
leaving the messy and fallen “world” to sort out its mess all on its
But there is also another reason to have a look at Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s recent interview in Davos.
He stands to be a major figure at the next conclave when there will
surely be a hotly contested debate over the future direction of the
church and who is best suited to lead it.
The northern Italian, who is a native of the Veneto Region, has been
one of Pope Francis’s most essential collaborators in his effort to
renew and reform the Vatican and the entire church.
But the cardinal has done so in a quieter and less exuberant way than
the charismatic pope. And that is much appreciated by those who find
Francis a bit “out of control.” And, yet, Parolin completely shares
Francis’s vision for a transformed church, as the pope outlined clearly
in his blueprint document, Evangelii gaudium.
The cardinal also has been uniquely prepared, at least academically,
to carry forward the most foundational reform that Francis has tried to
set in motion.
When the young Fr. Pietro Parolin did his doctoral thesis at the
Gregorian University in 1986 he focused on… the Synod of Bishops.