Friday, May 30, 2014

For Francis, The Synod "Makes Good"... and Other June Notes

Once upon a time – read: until a year ago – June in the Vatican was a time of dotting "i"s, crossing "t"s and a steady, happy stream of desk-clearing as the Curia prepared for its two-month hiatus.

Now, the start of summer is anything but the "end of school." With Francis, the traditional September-to-June action cycle is no more, and as opposed to winding down, next month's calendar just got heavier over the last week with the Pope's "peace prayer" alongside the Israeli and Palestinian presidents now confirmed for June 8, and Papa Bergoglio's first encounter with victim-survivors of clergy sex-abuse taking place around the same time.

All told, it doesn't mean the Curia lacks a break: for this Pope, the fewer bureaucrats around, the better....

That is, with one exception. And fittingly, that's where the next round sees its start.

Late this afternoon in St Peter's, Francis will personally ordain the recently-named #2 of the Synod of Bishops, Fabio Fabene, a bishop in his own right. As the under-secretary of the Synod has never previously known the rank, the move only further underscores the Pope's concept of the assembly as the linchpin of his governing model (a shift which, as relayed earlier in the week, has deeply positive ramifications for the Catholic world's ever-warming ties with the Orthodox).

Along those lines, while the new edition of the Annuario Pontificio – the Vatican's annual "Yellow Pages" – shows no increase in staff to date to handle the larger workload, an expansion of the Synod's office-space on the Via della Conciliazione (where the Pope is a regular visitor) has reportedly been completed over recent weeks. That said, perhaps it remains the most telling sign of all that, on making the Synod's Secretary-General, Lorenzo Baldisseri, a cardinal at February's Consistory, the Pope placed the longtime diplomat second on the slate, right behind the Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and ahead of the CDF prefect Gerhard Ludwig Müller, thus upending a Curial pecking-order that stretches back to the 16th century.

With the recent formation of the Secretariat of the Economy under Cardinal George Pell – whose successor in Sydney is tipped to be named in June – the three Secretariats (State, Synod, Economy) now rank atop the evolving flow-chart, with the onetime "Holy Office of the Inquisition," the eldest of the congregations founded in 1542, now placed fourth. The dominant topic over his soon to be five meetings with the eight-man Council of Cardinals, though the complete shape of Francis' reconstitution of the Curia isn't expected to roll out until this time next year – and, to be sure, no shortage of aspects remain to be decided – when it comes to what has, the hints just keep on coming.

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As for Fabene, meanwhile, the story is one you'd expect Francis to smile on (and top with a hat). A native of Rome who left town to be ordained for the outlying diocese of Montefiascone, the 55 year-old Italian served under Baldisseri at the Congregation for Bishops before the new Synod chief took him along to aid in Francis' mandate for a bulked-up body with an amplified emphasis on meaningful consultation and discussion.

Before entering into the service of the Holy See in 1998, however, Fabene spent 14 years as pastor of the same parish alongside Chancery work and teaching in the local seminary. Alongside his day work, the bishop-to-be has delved into another key governing item of the Pope's by serving as a chaplain to the Italian church's national forum for women. As Francis pursues ways to better integrate the feminine presence in Vatican roles, the latter aspect comes especially in handy.

On another front, almost a year since the Pope's unscripted call for the church to "go forward on the path of synodality" on the feast celebrating his papal authority rattled much of the Old Guard he inherited, beyond voicing his general expectations for episcopal ministry, today's homily will allow Francis another opportunity to sketch out his hopes and expectations for "Synod 2.0," especially as October's assembly on the pastoral challenges of the family – the first of two on the topic – draws ever nearer. Yet even that would only build upon the unusual letter Papa Bergoglio sent Baldisseri to explain his decision to make Fabene a bishop, which the Vatican released alongside the news of the elevation.

Emphasizing that it was the union of "the bishop of Rome with the bishops" which "the Holy Spirit has constituted to govern the church" (emphases original), Francis wrote of his drive to "seek ever more profound and authentic forms of the exercise of synodal collegiality, to better realize ecclesial communion and to promote [the church's] ceaseless mission."

Comparing himself to the Synod's founder – the soon-to-be Blessed Paul VI, who founded the body shortly after Vatican II's close – the Pope wrote that, "having likewise discerned the signs of the times and in the awareness that my exercise of the Petrine Ministry, however long, will serve to revive ever more its close link with all the church's shepherds, I wish to value this precious inheritance of the Council." In keeping with that, he advanced Fabene's elevation as a means of "making more manifest the appreciated service [the Synod Office] is giving to help the collegiality of bishops with the bishop of Rome."

While Francis himself took to swatting down the oft-circulated hysteria in the press 
(and again warned church-folk against the dangers of "casuistry"surrounding the October gathering on his flight home from the Holy Land, it bears noting that the all-important Instrumentum Laboris – the extensive text which sets the scene (and the foul-posts) for the fall meeting – remains to be released. Its preparation guided by the responses to the questionnaire Baldisseri urged to be circulated in the local churches of the world, a draft of the Instrumentum was critiqued by the 15-prelate Synod Council over a two-day meeting in mid-May, with the Pope present for the discussion. As the document was initially expected to publish earlier this month, the delay is ostensibly owed to the torrent of input that poured in, and the seriousness with which it's been received.

Elsewhere on the Synod scene, at its last meeting the aforementioned Council was introduced to what was termed "a new methodology" for how the meetings are carried out. Being the Synod's President, though Francis is free to dispense from the assembly's established rules however he wishes, it is likely that a reboot of the sessions' protocols will be enacted and published before the October assembly. Accordingly, while the present norms limit an "Extraordinary Synod" to the heads of the Eastern churches, the presidents of all the episcopal conferences and representatives of the "clerical religious orders," it's a pretty safe bet that a major ecclesial discussion on the situations faced by families won't be restricted to the ordained.

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Returning to the schedule in general, while both Francis' "Camp Domus Summit" with Presidents Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres and his two-day hosting of abuse victims will be heavily watched both within and beyond the church, two other commitments of internal significance in June's first half were likewise announced this week.

First, on Sunday night – in keeping with a years-long closeness to the movement (extending across denominational lines), and his own keen focus on the Holy Spirit – Francis will attend a major gathering of some 50,000 members of the Charismatic Renewal in Rome's Olympic Stadium. Then, on June 16th, the pontiff will have his second meeting in a year with Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the global Anglican Communion.

Heavily influenced in his formation by the Benedictine tradition, the 104th successor of Augustine – who came to the post at the same time as Francis did his (under almost equally surprising circumstances) – seems to have made a running start with the 265th successor of Peter... so much so that, as London's Daily Telegraph floated back in April, Welby's entourage this time might just include Nicky Gumbel – the primate's own spiritual mentor and the formidable vicar of the Church of England's largest parish, whose Alpha Course of evangelization is said to have engaged some 20 million people in over 100 languages while recently getting off the ground in a Catholic format.