The season of Advent 2023 was supposed to be a rather calm time in Rome. “Silence and sobriety – in words, in the use of things, media and social networks – are not only “pious wishes” or virtues, but essential elements of Christian life”, recalled Pope Francis during a meditation given for the Angelus. And then, December 18th arrived. That day, without firing a shot, a document published by the dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith shook an entire part of the Catholic planet.
Approved by the Pope, this declaration on the “pastoral meaning of blessings” (Fiducia supplicans) surprised everyone, both in the corridors of the Vatican and in the dioceses. The document is however clear on its ambition – to reaffirm the traditional form of marriage while recalling the pastoral urgency of welcoming all people. It makes simple pastoral blessings possible for irregular couples – remarried or of the same sex – outside the liturgical framework and without confusion with the sacrament of marriage. Many saw it as a confusing text at best, and at worst as a first step toward officially welcoming homosexual couples into the Catholic Church. Since then, on social networks, a certain number of bishops and officials have expressed their incomprehension, or even their opposition to this declaration. In fact, the text invited each local Church to translate these calls according to regional cultural and religious realities. But did he foresee such strong knee-jerk reactions? In Africa in particular, where the question of homosexuality remains a social taboo, the incomprehension is real. “Why this fixation?, wonders Father François Euvé, Jesuit theologian and editor-in-chief of the journal Études. Nobody seems to react to the consequences of this text for the divorced and remarried, for example.”
Under the sign of prayer
2024 thus opens under strange auspices. Unless the Argentine pope preferred to take this pastoral risk well before the end of the synodal process to light a counter-fire? To avoid the synod being just an opportunity to respond to specific requests from progressive or traditionalist circles, the pope insists on the process of discernment – the awareness brought about by the Holy Spirit. We will have to see if this new way of doing things will have a lasting impact on practices in Rome and elsewhere. There is no doubt that the trip planned for 2024 to Belgium, on the occasion of the 600th anniversary of the Catholic University of Louvain, will be an opportunity to take stock. Especially since two years ago, Flemish bishops published a liturgy of prayer for the commitment of certain homosexual couples. A practice that the December 18 declaration disapproves of.
It is therefore not surprising that Pope Francis has asked that this year 2024 be placed particularly under the sign of prayer. A way of inviting everyone not to lock themselves into divisive postures. And also to prepare for the Jubilee Year which will begin at the end of 2024. A year which will also celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. An opportunity for new ecumenical advances? “Given the current tensions in Ukraine and the Holy Land,” underlines François Euvé, “it is unlikely that Patriarchs Kyrill (Russian) and Bartholomew (Greek) will want to seize the opportunity.”
A major reform
Will the Pope participate in the International Eucharistic Congress which will take place in Ecuador in early September? Will he then also go to his country, Argentina? Nothing is clear at the moment. The man is almost 88 years old. But if his state of health allows him, he is sure that he will be strong enough to close, the following month, the second session of the Synod on synodality. Because this is one of the major reforms of his pontificate, along with that of the Vatican administrative structures – curia, financial system – and the intransigent management of the child abuse scandals in the Church. All things that his two predecessors had not managed to carry so far.
There is undeniable pastoral know-how on the part of this Jesuit pope who, without fleeing obstacles, prefers to broaden the approach to return to the spiritual heart of the Catholic experience. In this sense, it is very unlikely that the pontiff will respond to the invitation for the inauguration, in December, of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral; because, as we will have understood, it is not so much the historical restoration – always ambiguous – of the Church that interests him as its renewal.