ROME – For sheer theater, the Synods of Bishops on the family called by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2015 were two of the best shows the Vatican has put on in a long time – full of open clashes of ideas, personal and regional tensions, and even accusations of plots, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and stacking of the deck.
After the first synod, that drama led to a book with the deliberately provocative title, The Rigging of a Vatican Synod: An Investigation into Alleged Manipulation at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, written by Rome-based journalist Edward Pentin.
Yet the man behind the scenes at both events, Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, appointed by Francis in 2013 to run these gatherings of bishops from around the world, insisted to Crux that conspiracy theories about the synod are sound and fury signifying nothing.
“I can say, as clearly as possible, that there was no maneuvering. Please!” he said, his voice rising and becoming more emphatic with every word. “I want to say this with as much force as I can: There was no maneuver, please!”
“Unfortunately, there’s a group of people who say that, but there’s nothing to it,” Baldisseri said, whose formal title is Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.
“If there had been a maneuver, we wouldn’t be where we are,” he said. “It’s a point of fact that this never happened … never, never!”
Asked if he could assure the public that conclusions from the upcoming Synod of Bishops on youth and discernment in October have not yet been determined, Baldisseri was emphatic.
“No, nothing at all [has been determined]!” he said.
“There has to be absolute liberty of discussion, certainly,” Baldisseri said. “The pope has said that clearly. Naturally, the Holy Father convoked these two synods on the family, and he left the greatest space possible for an ample discussion.”
In September 2013, Baldisseri struck many Vatican-watchers as a somewhat curious choice to take over the top job at the synod office, since he’s a career Vatican diplomat who’d never attended a synod. He told Crux, however, that’s what Francis liked about his background.
“I told the Holy Father, ‘You’re giving me a job in which I don’t know the dynamics of the thing’,” he said. “I knew about the synod, of course. I was an apostolic nuncio for my whole life, and doing that job means lots of contacts with Rome, the Holy See, and the local episcopacy, and lots of documents pass back and forth. However, I never was able to participate personally in a synod.”
“The pope said, ‘That’s exactly why I chose you … let’s start over!’” Baldisseri recalled.
According to the 77-year-native of Italy’s Tuscany region, who’s served in Vatican embassies in such diverse settings as Guatemala, Haiti, Paraguay, India and Brazil, Francis wanted to offer a new “impulse” to the Synod of Bishops.
“The synod as an institution is now more than 50 years old, and it’s become for the Holy Father a fundamental instrument of evangelization,” Baldisseri said. “He’s interested in synodality at all levels, in collegiality among the bishops and also in other arenas, such as religious institutes. It’s about participation by the people, the People of God.”
Baldisseri said that emphasis on participation is part of a broader ambition to, essentially, turn the Church upside down.
“There’s the idea in Evangelii Gaudium that up to now, the Church could be represented as a pyramid,” he said. “Today’s it’s an inverted pyramid. The idea is that the top part is placed at the base, and vice-versa.”
“It’s taking the People of God seriously, involving them directly, in order to walk together. It’s not that this didn’t happen in the past, of course, but the approach is different. That’s why the pope is always saying to go to the peripheries, because it means going out to where the people are,” Baldisseri said.
“You can’t just expect that the people are going to come to you in the Church,” he said. “The idea is to go out and be with the people, to listen to them.”
Baldisseri said that approach can induce anxiety.
“This impulse can make some people afraid, because the worry is that if I make myself too available, I’ll lose my identity,” he said. “I might put my faith at risk.”
Francis, he said, is determined that those fears must not “paralyze” the Church.
One new form of outreach for the forthcoming Synod of Bishops on youth in October is an aggressive social media operation, including inviting young people from around the world to deliver input both to a pre-synodal gathering and, eventually, to the synod itself, using Facebook.
(As a footnote, 2018 thus marks the very first time Facebook has been a point of entry into a Synod of Bishops.)
Baldisseri said the idea is to try to meet young people where they are and speak in a language they understand.
“In the first place, it was born because Pope Francis today wants to use a language that’s adequate for evangelization, because language is fundamental,” he said. “In Evangelii Gaudium [a 2013 apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis], there’s a section on the homily and how it should be done today, and it makes the point that the language and the means of transmitting the Word of God have to be adequate.”
“Obviously, one of those means today is social media,” Baldiserri said. “Even the pope himself is on Twitter.”
The synod chief conceded that some find the whole world of social media puzzling and even alarming, but argued that pretending it doesn’t exist won’t do the trick either.
“This phenomenon is new, it has to be studied and considered to be able to interpret this new world,” he said.
“When we talk about hashtags, or WhatsApp, or tweets, or Youtube, we’re talking about a different world from that of adults, that’s a fact. We’ll often complain that youth today are constantly using their telephones and live in a virtual world,” he said.
“That’s true, it’s true, but what do we do? Do we try to take them away, to put up barriers? It doesn’t work,” he said.