ROME – Despite Pope Francis’s insistence on a media ‘fast’ during this month’s Synod of Bishops, Vatican officials have said that engagement with the press is a personal decision, and participants who choose to give interviews will not be “punished.”

The clarification came after German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a former head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office and a figure seen as a critical of the synod, gave an Oct. 5 interview to EWTN.

Speaking to journalists during an Oct. 6 press briefing on the second day of the synod, Italian layman Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communications, told journalists that papal indications notwithstanding, “Every member of the synod makes their own discernment” in terms of whether to speak with the media.

Asked about Pope Francis’s insistence on “fasting” from publicity and the decision of some synod participants to grant interviews regardless, Ruffini said the synod is “a time of discernment in silence, it’s not that there’s a gendarme that punishes” members for a perceived violation of the rules.

“It’s an assembly of brothers and sisters who have been given this time” to pray and reflect together, “then there is personal discernment in all of this. We are not speaking of punishment or not, but a personal discernment the pope asked of the members, and the discernment is left to each individual person,” Ruffini said.

The Oct. 4-29 assembly, titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” was formally opened by the pope with an inaugural Mass Wednesday morning, concelebrated by the new cardinals he elevated during his Sept. 30 consistory.

It comes as part of a multi-year process initiated by Pope Francis in October 2021 with a phase of local, diocesan consultation, and which continued through both national and continental stages. This month’s Rome gathering is the first of two such discussions, which will culminate with a second in October 2024.

For months, Pope Francis has indicated that he wanted the synod’s 464 participants to refrain from media engagement, with rumors circulating that he was contemplating enforcing pontifical secrecy on the discussion, the breaking of which incurs automatic excommunication.

In his Oct. 4 opening speech for the synod, Francis stressed the “priority of listening” and the need for “a certain fasting from publicity to safeguard this.”

The official Regolamento, or guidelines, for the synod, stopped short of imposing pontifical secrecy, but insisted that “each of the participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants” for the duration of the month-long gathering.

In Friday’s briefing, Ruffini said initial small circle discussions had concluded, and some 18 reports summarizing those discussions were reported to the general congregation, after which there were 22 individual interventions.

In addition to an applause for the people of Ukraine, there was also applause for the birthday of a religious sister participating in the synod and for the anniversary of the episcopal ordination of Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who is also among the synod participants.

Ruffini, while not providing any details, said that several topics were addressed in both the small circle discussions and the individual interventions, ranging from better faith and seminary formation programs to ordained ministry and the roles of the laity and of women, to the liturgy, the need for the church to be welcoming to everyone, and the need to prioritize the poor.

According to Ruffini, “great attention” was paid to the issue of seminary formation, with concern about not only the dropping number of men entering the seminary in some parts of the world, but some participants noting that “at times the selection (of candidates) has created problems,” and pointing to the “radicalization” of seminarians

Better organization within seminaries was also highlighted, “without going backward and without ideology,” he said.

Some topics mentioned were the common baptism of all faithful, the ability of a common identity in Christ to overcome “barriers,” and dialogue with others as both a risk, and an opportunity, he said.

Ruffini said many of the interventions mentioned the role “of the church as a family, and the role of families in the church,” referring to the church as both a family and “a community of families” that welcomes everyone.

The role and status of young people and the participation of women in the church were also discussed, with mention made of the need to find more space for women “in decision-making roles.”

Concern was also voiced, Ruffini said, over the problem of clericalism and the temptation to be corrupted by power, with one participant stressing the need to prioritize service and “purify” certain attitudes that “don’t conform to the Gospel.”

The topic of co-responsibility between a pastor and his people was also addressed, with mention made that clericalism makes this co-responsibility “difficult,” as pastors must have both a maternal and paternal attitude toward their people.

Clerical abuse and the care of victim-survivors was also mentioned, as well as the idea that the church is not a “home for the perfect,” but is rather a home where everyone ought to feel welcome, “especially those on the margins.

In terms of the topic of synodality itself, Ruffini said interventions mentioned synodality as “part of the church’s DNA,” and calling for a “non-passive synodality” in which the pastor and people collaborate together.

It was also asked if something needed to change in order to make the church more welcoming, and if so, what, with some interventions saying synodality is a response to the diversity of the church and the need for the church to rediscover itself as one entity, “moved by the spirit.”

Some participants, according to Ruffini, said that “communion” is an easier concept to explain to those outside of the church than synodality.

Migration, closeness to the poor and persecuted Christians, the dangers of the internet and the need of the church to have a stronger presence online, were also mentioned, as well as the influence of Catholic Tradition in the church and the need for the church to be “open” and moving forward, with nuances understood “little by little along the way.”

Sheila Pires, communications office for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference and secretary of the synod’s communications commission, told journalists Friday that the internal atmosphere is “more synodal,” and that people are getting to know one another.”

“We’re really journeying together,” she said, saying, “we are already on this synodal journey. This atmosphere of joy, as well as some tensions here and there, but really an atmosphere of joy” is dominating the discussion.

According to Ruffini, at the opening of Friday afternoon’s session, a book called Holy, Not Worldly: God’s Grace Saves Us from Internal Corruption was distributed to all synod participants containing two texts from Pope Francis, one of which is an article titled “corruption and sin” he penned in 1991 while still the Cardinal of Buenos Aires, with the other being his letter to the priests of Rome published on Aug. 5 of this year.

The booklet, focusing largely on the corruption of the soul due to the “spiritual worldliness” Pope Francis has frequently condemned, is published by the Vatican Publishing House and available in Italian, Spanish and English.

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