ROSARIO, Argentina – When it comes to the private notes of a pontiff, the world usually has to wait until they’ve died to have access to them, but Pope Francis this week made some of his personal notes public.
They were about last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon region and the debate over the ordination of married men into the priesthood, the so called viri probati.
“There was a discussion…a rich discussion…a well-founded discussion, but no discernment, which is something other than arriving at a good and justified consent or relative majorities,” he wrote.
“We must understand that the Synod is more than a Parliament; and in this specific case [the synod] could not escape this dynamic,” Francis wrote. “On this subject there was a rich, productive and even necessary Parliament; but no more than that. For me this was decisive in the final discernment, when I thought about how to do the Exhortation.”
The exhortation is Querida Amazonia, the synod’s final document, penned by Pope Francis and published in February.
Francis argues that “one of the riches” of the synodal pedagogy is leaving this parliamentary logic to “learn to listen, in community, to what the Spirit says to the Church.” This, he explained, is why he’s changed the dynamic of the synods, so that after a certain amount of speeches by participants, there is time for silent reflection.
The note regarding the viri probati and Francis’s decision not to include them in as a possibility to address the priests’ shortage in the rain forest region was published by the Jesuit run La Civilta Cattilica, in an article written by Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, who took part in the synod and is considered a close adviser to the pontiff. The article is titled “The government of Francis: Is the driving force of the pontificate still active?”
Spadaro argues that Francis’s way of governing the universal Church is marked by his formation as a Jesuit priest, giving much importance to a conversion process, understood not as a “ineffective pious spiritual reference, but an act of radical government.”
The Amazon basin, often labeled as one of the world’s lungs, occupies parts of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and French Guyana. Last October, hundreds of bishops, but also priests, experts, and indigenous leaders, gathered in Rome to talk about how can the Catholic Church best fulfill its mission in the region.
On of the proposals that was most heatedly debated, both inside and outside the synod hall, was the possibility of ordaining married men into the priesthood to try to address the shortage of priests in the region.
In the note published by Spadaro, Francis writes that sometimes the “bad spirit” ends up “conditioning discernment, favoring ideological positions (on both sides), favoring exhausting conflicts between sectors and, what is worse, weakening the freedom of spirit so important for a synodal journey.”
When this happens, the pope continues, an atmosphere is created that ends up “distorting, reducing and dividing the synodal hall into dialectical and antagonistic positions that do not help in any way the mission of the Church.”
This means that everyone ends up “entrenched in ‘his truth,’ becoming a prisoner of himself and his positions, projecting his own confusions and dissatisfactions into many situations. Thus, walking together becomes impossible.”
Walking together, the pope wrote, means to dedicate time for honest listening, “capable of making us reveal and unmask (or at least to be sincere) the apparent purity of our positions and to help us discern the wheat that – up to the Parousia – always grows among the weeds.”
“Whoever has not realized this evangelical vision of reality exposes themselves to useless bitterness. Sincere and prayerful listening shows us the ‘hidden agendas’ called to conversion,” the pope added.
In Querida Amazonia, Francis’s open-ended language seemed to leave open the possibility that in the future married men who have had a “fruitful permanent diaconate” could be ordained as priests in the region, as outlined in the final Synod document — although he does not address the issue directly. Instead, he writes that “every effort should be made” to ensure people in the region, some of whom only see a priest once or twice a year, have regular access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and confession.
Spadaro argues in his article that this is not a question of resolving “who is right and who is wrong, nor of saying whether the pope agrees with the issue of priestly ordination of viri probati or not.” The Jesuit writes that the pope’s note is about how decisions are made, and the need for a discernment that is “truly free.”
The synod, he writes, is a place of discernment in which proposals emerge, and the papal teaching that comes from it in Querida Amazonia is one of listening to proposals, but also “of discerning the spirit that expresses them, beyond any media pressure or referendum majorities.”
If the conditions are not there for true discernment, Spadaro writes, then the pope doesn’t proceed, without denying the validity of the proposals, but instead asking for a continued discernment and discussions.