ROME, October 2nd, 2018 — The curtain goes up Wednesday, on the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. More than two hundred sixty bishops from every habitable continent will be gathered in Rome for the coming three weeks and more, to discuss Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment. At least, that’s what it says on paper.
The Synod Assembly opening on Wednesday is the first to take place under a new set of rules, released just last month — rules that are to be implemented according to an instruction published only on Monday of this week — and against the backdrop of major crisis in the Church over episcopal leadership — including papal leadership — especially regarding the coverup of clerical sex abuse, general corruption, and systemic rot in clerical culture high and low.
The new rules are written in typically complex Vaticanese, but the sense of them boils down to something fairly simple: The General Secretary’s near-total control over virtually the whole process, from soup to nuts. In addition to his presiding over the preparatory phase of the Synod Assembly, the General Secretary is responsible for setting the agenda, determining the speaking order and time allotments during floor debates, making procedural rules and communicating changes to them, enforcing the norms of the Assembly, establishing the composition of small groups and the themes for small-group discussion, giving the opening relatio and making progress reports, and curating the Assembly’s archive.
The General Secretary also sits on the final document’s drafting committee, along with the Relator-General (whose work is essentially to frame and facilitate discussion, and is overseen by the General Secretary), the Special Secretary (who assists the Relator-General), one member from each continent, and “some” members appointed directly by the Pope.
The General Secretary answers directly to the Roman Pontiff.
The new rules and procedures will get their first field test as a major worldwide crisis over clerical sex abuse, episcopal coverup, corruption, and general decay in clerical moral culture continues to unfold. The crisis has reached the highest echelons of Church governance. At present, it is at the Pope’s own doorstep. Analysists and commentators across the spectrum of Catholic and secular opinion have described the crisis as the worst since the Protestant reformation.
On Monday, the General Secretary, Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, described the circumstances as, “[a] providential opportunity,” with which, “to show to young people and everyone else what the Church is.” Baldisseri also said, “[T]he Church is not represented by some who make mistakes. The Church is not known only because of some who have fallen or caused scandal.” Cardinal Baldisseri received significant pushback from participants and observers during the Synod Assembly’s preparatory phase, with much of the criticism focusing on perceived heavy-handedness and over-management of the process.
It remains to be seen how official news coming out of the Synod Hall will be controlled.
According to the Instruction issued Monday — at press time available only in Italian, as is the Apostolic Constitution on the Synod, issued early last month — there is to be a Commission for Information, which will be responsible for establishing “criteria and methods for disseminating news.” The Commission is to be composed of: President and Secretary, appointed by the Roman Pontiff; the General Secretary; the Undersecretary; the Special Secretary; the Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication; the Director of the Press Office; five Members elected by the Assembly, according to the Synod Assembly Rules.
The Instruction also says, “On individual topics, press conferences can be held by the Synod Fathers appointed by the President of the Commission.”
The list of bishops taking part in the gathering includes two late additions — from China — who are joining the others already named: John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, Bishop of Yan’an; and Joseph Guo Jincai, Bishop of Chengde. A note from the Press Office of the Holy See sent to journalists on Tuesday afternoon announced the news.