For those of us who covered a Synod of Bishops at the Vatican during the John Paul II and Benedict years, there was always a slightly surreal “Emperor has no clothes” dynamic about the experience.

An all-star cast of bishops from around the world would gather in Rome for a month to debate some critical issue, often pouring considerable time and effort into their speeches, a handful of which were memorable. (The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s “I have a dream” speech at the 1999 Synod for Europe, for instance, still makes the rounds.) Working groups would assiduously go over the final propositions, which for a long time were considered a state secret – making their inevitable leak 24 hours later a cherished guilty pleasure.

Reporters would describe the synod’s fault lines, document the push for compromise, and speculate about the final result, sometimes giving the impression that we were covering the Congress of Vienna.

In other words, everybody acted as if the synod mattered. The unspoken truth, however, was that all the cards were in the hands of the pope, and in most cases the big-picture decisions were already made.

When John Paul II used to attend sessions of the synod, he would sit in the front and read his breviary, the book of daily prayers for Catholic priests. Wags would quip it wasn’t actually a breviary but the final conclusions of the synod, which had already been written.

To be fair, the Synod of Bishops has always been a fascinating window on the realities of Catholic life around the world, as bishops from Africa, or Asia, or the Middle East, had a chance to explain just how different their challenges and priorities often are.

In that sense, as the Rev. Tom Rosica puts it, the synod is like an “MRI” into the global church. (Rosica has handled English-language media for several synods.) From personal experience, I’ve long noted a difference between bishops who have been to a synod and those who haven’t, because the former tend to think more globally.

To be fair, too, both John Paul II and Benedict XVI took synods seriously, genuinely wanting to hear what bishops had to say.

Still, the impression of high drama was always a little fake, because everyone knew that no synod was ever going to alter Catholic teaching or practice unless the pope wanted it to, and in that case he didn’t really need a synod to do it.

All of which brings us to the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, the first edition of the synod in the Francis era. It looms as the biggest Vatican story of the fall, in part because for the first time in recent memory, something may actually hinge on the result.

The novelty is both substantive and procedural.

Substantively, perhaps the single most burning question facing the bishops is whether Catholics who divorce and remarry without obtaining an annulment, a declaration from a church court that their first union was invalid, should be able to take Communion at Mass and receive the other sacraments of the Church.

Currently they’re barred from doing so, but some bishops, including a handful of cardinals close to the pope, have argued for change.

Francis has signaled that he’s open to relaxing the ban, but wants to hear from the world’s bishops first. As a result, there’s genuine uncertainty about what might happen. (That’s true even though there will be no immediate decision in October, since this synod will prepare for a bigger meeting on the same subject next year.)

The tug-of-war over divorced and remarried Catholics won’t be the only issue; others range from contraception and gay marriage to cohabitation and the church’s practice of granting annulments, as well as how to support couples in difficulty and how to express a positive vision of married life.

Procedurally, Francis has overhauled the process to encourage give-and-take and to invest the synod with greater importance. He’s personally taken part in meetings of a council of bishops from around the world that makes decisions about the synod, an unprecedented step a bit akin to the president of the United States walking into the halls of Congress to join a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee.

Francis seems to want these gatherings to be more like synods in the early centuries of Catholicism, or in Orthodox Christianity today, with a decision-making role. Francis also wants the synod to have an independent profile not subservient to the Vatican bureaucracy, but reporting to him and the bishops of the world.

Given all that, for the first time in a long time it’s possible to cover a Synod of Bishops without feeling obligated to play down its importance. This time, no apologies necessary – it really will be “Must-See TV.”

Starting tomorrow, Crux, the Globe’s new website devoted to Catholic coverage, is running a “Countdown to the Synod” series, profiling the issues and the personalities that will define its drama.

Vietnam and Vatican criticism from the right

Stereotypically, the Vatican is regarded as a “conservative” institution, so the assumption is usually that its critics are on the left. It’s always a surprise for some people to discover that there are plenty of arenas in which the most ferocious complaints actually come from the right, and, over the years, foreign policy has generally been near the top of the list.

The vast majority of Vatican diplomats are Europeans, mostly Italians, and they tend to have the same biases as European diplomats generally – suspicious of the United States for being overly bellicose, in favor of negotiated settlements to almost everything, hostile on principle to anything that smacks of unilateralism and thus deeply committed to the UN, seeing prudence, discretion, and patience as the core of diplomatic tradecraft.

Phrased that way, it’s easy to see why Vatican foreign policy often drives hawks in the Catholic fold to distraction.

The observation is relevant again this week, in light of an announcement on Friday that the fifth meeting of a working group on bilateral relations between the Vatican and the government of Vietnam will take place in Hanoi Sept. 10-11.

Vietnam, officially an atheistic Marxist state, is one of a handful of countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The working group that will meet in September was established in 2009 to prepare for formal ties, and Vatican sources say on background that the group is close to a deal.

The Vatican takes its diplomatic ties extremely seriously, seeing them as a unique opportunity to act as a voice of conscience in global affairs. Nonetheless, critics – mostly from the political and ecclesiastical right – often grouse that in its lust to get states to sign on the bottom line, Rome stays appallingly silent about their bad behavior, including persecution of Catholics in their midst.

Although Vietnam ostensibly recognizes religious freedom, authorities keep religious activities under tight control, often charging Christian leaders with causing “social disturbances” and “subversion.” Any sort of public religious activity is subject to surveillance, and religious leaders are routinely detained for interrogations. Members of ethnic minorities who are largely Christian, such as the Hmong, are frequent targets for harassment and armed assaults.

In late December 2011, for instance, a campaign of arrests of young Christians broke out in northern Vietnam. A young Catholic named Pierre Nguyen Dinh Cuong was abducted on Christmas Eve, one of at least 16 Christians who disappeared during the period.

Local sources said that many of the kidnapping victims had been active in a “John Paul II Center” which speaks out against violations of human rights and the repression of political dissent.

In July 2012, a missionary chapel in Con Cuong, a rural area of the Nghe An province, was shut down by authorities, following raids on local worshippers by armed gangs. Dozens of Catholic worshippers were injured.

On July 1, 2012, thugs and plainclothes police tried to prevent the Rev. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc from entering the chapel to say Mass, beating him when he refused. One of the laity who tried to come to the priest’s rescue, Mrs. Maria Thi Than Ngho, suffered a fractured skull and was hospitalized, while several others were arrested. The mob also desecrated a statue of the Virgin Mary while shouting abuse at the congregation.

The priest injured during the assault vowed not to back down. Nguyen said at the time that to die for his faith “would be such a blessing to me.”

Obviously, the Vatican’s calculation is that over time, establishing diplomatic relations will provide it leverage to promote reform so that Catholics such as Nguyen won’t have to make that sacrifice.

Equally obvious, people outraged by such abuses, who tend to be especially prominent on the political and cultural right, will insist that the Vatican ought to be willing to speak out, even at the price of delaying an agreement. The same criticism is often leveled at the Vatican with regard to China and other places where the church is at risk.

Whatever one makes of the debate, it illustrates the folly of thinking that only liberals have a bone to pick with the Holy See. It just ain’t so, and never has been.

Christian voices of the Middle East

This week Crux ran a three-part interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, a former president of the US bishops’ conference and, at just 64, a man poised to be a force in the Church for some time to come.

Among other things, we talked about ISIS and the broader issue of anti-Christian persecution, with Dolan suggesting that Pope Francis ought to use his moral authority to call on moderate Muslim leaders to speak out in defense of religious freedom. He also called on American Catholics to get engaged in the defense of fellow believers around the world, shaking off what he called the notoriously “short attention span” of most Americans for foreign affairs.

To that end, one voice Americans might consider listening to more carefully belongs to Fouad Twal, a Jordanian who serves as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and also as president of an assembly of Catholic bishops in the region.

Of late, Twal has been offering a forceful and independent take on the drama playing out in the Middle East, one that challenges all sorts of conventional wisdom. He’s broken with the Church’s usual opposition to armed force to endorse anti-ISIS strikes by the United States in Iraq, even more forcefully than Pope Francis, but he’s certainly no shill for American foreign policy.

In an interview on Friday with Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Twal essentially blamed the United States and other foreign powers for creating ISIS in the first place.

“In an effort to bring down the Assad regime in Syria, the international community supported these extremist groups,” Twal said.

“The international community, and America in particular, gave a gift to these extremists,” he said, “including lunatics from Europe who found refuge in Syria to fight a regime that America didn’t like, that Israel didn’t like, and that the international community didn’t like.”

What’s the result, according to Twal?

“The regime is still in good health, and the number of dead keeps going up. It’s a politics of blindness,” he said.

If they want to promote positive change in the Middle East, Twal insisted, Western powers “have to intervene in a logical way, not just when their interests are threatened.”

Twal also complained that in making foreign policy choices, the world’s major centers of power don’t listen to the voices of Christians on the ground.

“It’s a policy that ignores the cries of the pastors,” he said. “Our presence here, or our absence here, seems to make very little difference to the international community.”

One can debate Twal’s diagnosis, which anyway is a political judgment rather than a matter of faith.

However, it’s an example of the kind of perspective American Catholics probably ought to get ready to hear more often, especially in a church in which the 70 million Catholics in this country represent only 6 percent of the global Catholic population, and in which non-Western voices will increasingly set the tone.

A non-sexy kind of reform

If life is what happens while you’re making other plans, maybe reform is what happens while you’re paying attention to something else.

In terms of public interest, this week’s big Vatican happening was Pope Francis’ Google Hangout on Thursday with high school students from five schools around the world, including Australia, Israel, Turkey, South Africa, and El Salvador.

The pope urged the youth to have both “wings and roots,” daring to try new things but never forgetting who they are and where they come from. It was another papal first, the maiden voyage of a pontiff in a Hangout.

Off-line, however, Thursday also brought another event of importance — the third meeting of the pope’s new Council for the Economy, a body created in February to oversee the process of financial reform. It drew precious little media interest, mostly because the Vatican told us almost nothing about what happened.

There were three agenda items:

  • An official Vatican legal document setting out the powers of the council, as well as a similar document for the new Secretariat for the Economy, set up by Francis to actually manage the Vatican’s money, and for the new position of auditor general.
  • Details for the transfer of a chunk of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), traditionally one of the Vatican’s primary financial centers, to the new secretariat run by Australian Cardinal George Pell.
  • Plans for implementing annual budgets for all Vatican departments.

What anodyne Vatican communiques didn’t say is that each one of those things, if they actually work, would amount to a revolution.

The new auditor general builds in checks and balances, reporting directly to the pope with the power to review the work of the secretariat and other departments. In effect, it’s an answer to the time-honored question of, “Who will guard the guardians?”

The transfer of authority from APSA to the Secretariat for the Economy ratifies just how quickly Pell has consolidated his control over all the Vatican’s money centers, and makes it clear that from here on out, the success or failure of the pope’s reform rests largely on his shoulders.

Requiring all Vatican departments to have an explicit annual budget, with accountability for over-spending, is an utter novelty. In the past when you asked most Vatican officials what their budget was, they would just shrug.

Eliminating that nonchalance may not make for the world’s sexiest headline, but it’s the kind of nut and bolt from which real reform is built.

It’s still too early to say if this clean-up operation will succeed, but there’s no doubt it’s worth tracking — even if you’ll probably never see it unfold in real time on Google.