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Let the Holy Spirit be heard


An American Sister working for Vatican News has told Australian Catholic journalists that media coverage of the First Session of the Synod on Synodality needs to be balanced to respect the freedom of Synod participants to discern contentious issues and listen to the Holy Spirit.

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Sr Bernadette Reis FSP currently serves as Coordinating Multimedia editor for Vatican News and Vatican Radio. She covered three of the continental synodal assemblies and will be following this month’s synodal proceedings closely with other Vatican media personnel.

Pope Francis told journalists during an informal press conference on his return from Mongolia that there would be a Commission chaired by layman Paolo Ruffini, the prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, that “will issue press releases concerning the Synod’s progress” and “will provide information on the progress of the Synod”.

“In a Synod, it is necessary to safeguard religiosity and the freedom of those who speak. For this there will be a commission, chaired by Dr Ruffini, which will provide information on the progress of the Synod,” the Pope said.

Addressing the Australasian Catholic Press Association Conference via video link last month, Sr Bernadette (pictured) said while the Church has been promoting transparency and accountability, there needs to be a balance.

Discussions will be taking place about issues that have been “simmering for I don’t know how many years that Synod participants will be able to talk about”.

She referred to a matter raised at one of the continental assemblies relating to prisoners dying without the sacraments because of the absence of Catholic priest chaplains.

“So the question that arises is, would it be possible for lay prison chaplains to perform the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, including viaticum and also absolution,” she said.

“One bishop’s reaction was quite adamant that he could never agree to this because it’s against doctrine.

“Some of us were taken aback by that response,” she continued, “but it’s a very common one because we’re just not used to some of these suggestions. Another bishop got up and reminded the assembly that they were not there to approve or disapprove the suggestions, but to discern what questions to pass on to Rome that needed to be answered.”

To explain how this might happen, Sr Bernadette reflected, “Let’s take the example of the sacrament of the sick. We already have the precedent of extraordinary ministers. So why can’t we extend that to…someone at the point of death, with no access to a priest…that any baptised person might be able to administer that sacrament in that case,” she said. “These are areas that the Church needs to move forward with theologically. But we need to do it together to preserve the unity of the faith”.

Sr Bernadette said the Church is “still trying to move from ways that we’ve been used to in the past to ways of really engaging where people are living now”.

“We’re catching up; it’s been 50 years since Vatican II and the Synod is a way of implementing Vatican II. Like any organisation, it takes a long time to change,” she said.

“There is a kind of a tension now in the Church which also came out at the press conference introducing Praedicate Evangelium through which Pope Francis reformed the Roman Curia. In it, lay people can be prefects of Vatican dicasteries.”

She said the question was raised how the Pope, as a bishop, could delegate authority to “anyone who doesn’t have the same episcopal dignity that he has”.

The response provided is that “on the basis of our baptism” a pope can delegate authority, expressing the minority opinion among canonists.

“We really need to put established doctrine regarding the role of the laity and priests under scrutiny again because that doctrine was developed in an age when there were tonnes of priests, and they were the only ones who were being educated,” she said.

“We’re not living in that world anymore. These doctrines were established in Europe, but now we’re spread out all over the world and are grappling with the mystery that we live. How we are meant to continually embody that mystery in the world stopped at a certain point.

“Vatican II asked for that reflection to continue and the Vatican documents are incredible. But I think many in the Church thought, ‘oh we’ve got it now because we have those documents’.

“After that it seems like all of the forward momentum was halted by various Curial offices. But now the Pope is saying ‘No we’ve got to move beyond, we need to listen to the questions being raised’, and one of those questions regards who can be involved in decision making.

“Is it only those who have been ordained or all of us who have been baptised, who have the gift of being inspired by the Holy Spirit in regard to our faith?

“We need to listen to that voice because the Holy Spirit is speaking in ways that are different in every one of us. We need to put all of this together to know what he is saying to all of us.”

Sr Bernadette said the Church needed to “walk together” as it grapples with such issues.

“This is why the Synod has to be a place where this can happen freely. It’s going to be difficult at times. How it’s going to unfold, I don’t know.”

She described Pope Francis as “heroic” for being willing to hear the voices of “those who are in agreement and those who are not”.

“It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, so Pope Francis is heroic in what he’s doing.”

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