Pope Francis’ decision to establish ten working groups whose task goes beyond the Synod is worth considering. The individual groups are interesting when considered in terms of their subject-matter, both for what they include and for what they don’t. The players are also interesting to consider. Who gets a seat at one of the tables (and who doesn’t) is at least suggestive and likely telling.

On the one hand, Pope Francis wants to continue the synodal path to guarantee its continuation even after his pontificate is over. On the other hand, the most attentive observers have noticed that these ten working groups do not include the most controversial topics.

There is no space allotted to consideration of women in the priesthood, for example, nor any for the pastoral care of LGBT+ couples.

The Byzantine Rite Churches, which have a great synodal experience to their credit, however requested a dialogue table with the Eastern Churches during the synodal assembly. Parish priests are also included in the working groups.

Pope Francis continues the synodal path by looking at the contents that find the most consensus in the debate. The synod meeting rejected the proposal to mention LGBTQ people in the summary document explicitly. It was the synod meeting that tempered, with over a thousand amendments, the text of around forty pages approved at the beginning of the week, including a form of control of the nuncios.

Furthermore, Pope Francis finds himself carrying forward this synodal path through an initiative to bring the synodal modality back to the center. It was not lost on us that the Synod was, as usual, the victim of pressure groups, especially the media, and that the system of moderators and facilitators, rather than helping the debate, allowed a few drafters to define the drafts of the text which would later become the final statement.

The question, however, is whether synodality can be considered the legacy of Pope Francis and whether Pope Francis believes in it. Transforming the Synod from an event into a process was the great challenge entrusted by the Pope to Cardinal Mario Grech. This is a substantial change of mentality. Yet, with this change of attitude, we quickly find ourselves victims of lobbies and pressure groups. For example, when it was announced that, for the first time, there would also be a quota of lay people to participate in the 2023 Synod. Various Catholic groups, even with good intentions, immediately moved to have someone to represent them within the assembly.

The significant risk is considering the synodal assembly as a parliament, with the right to vote but without the right to decide. Thus, the synodal path risks stopping before the finish line, leaving everyone disappointed: those who wanted a traditional synod and those who wanted the synod to represent a real change for the Church.

The establishment of the working groups was requested precisely to resume the synodal spirit. It aimed to bring some imbalances into equilibrium by allowing everyone to speak and take a position. However, real change will take a lot of work.

Pope Francis always remains the one who decides. The risk is that the Synod will have a sort of Humanae Vitae 2.0 effect (or 3.0, if Querida Amazonia was the 2.0). That is, that the media will load it with expectations, thus setting it and everyone up for disappointment. Perhaps the Pope’s choice to have working groups that go beyond the synod assembly serves precisely to avoid the Humanae Vitae effect. Nothing can be finally criticized because everything is still a work in progress.

We wonder, however, to what extent the rhetoric of perpetual reform can continue to have purchase. If the synod finds a balance thanks to the continuing work of its secretariat, other decisions of the Pope create further imbalances: from the internal reform of the Vicariate of Rome to the new Statutes of the Chapter of Saint Mary Major, even those resulting from a difficult balance between the will of the Pope and need to adhere to reality; and again, from the somewhat reckless words on the war in Ukraine, which forced Cardinal Parolin to explain the Pope in an interview, to the desire for dialogue at all costs even when this dialogue would be inappropriate.

In the last week, Pope Francis has worked relatively little, yet his declarations and decisions have generated many contradictions. Everything, however, seems to be temporary. No one—apart perhaps from Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith—can be sure of enjoying the Pope’s trust.

The men of the Curia cannot even make long-term plans. They are limited to a fixed-term assignment (five years renewable for only another five) and have no prospects of actually staying. Aspiring diplomats see their cursus honorum interrupted by a missionary year, which slows down entry into the diplomatic ranks—a problem because fewer and fewer are sent to study to work in the Pope’s diplomacy.

In short, there are a series of critical issues in the system created during Pope Francis’s pontificate that must be addressed with a view to the future. At the moment, everything passes through the Pope’s hands. It will be different for a while, but if there isn’t a well-defined structure, the next Pope will have to rebuild everything from scratch, which won’t be easy.

What legacy, then, is Pope Francis leaving to his successor? There is a strong media impact, centered, however, on the person of this Pope, and the idea of a Pope who has come for people with low incomes and the peripheries, also centered on this Pope. There is a curial institution in crisis, a priestly class with wounded pride, and a series of decisions that certainly changed the course of history, but every change has been in a direction that leads to Francis, who will be gone.

Pope Francis looks to the global south; his words (including those on peace) represent the thoughts of a world that finally feels redeemed by this Pope. But now, there is a need to find a new balance, regain institutionality, and give the Church a structure that can be valid for the future.

From here arise papers such as those of Demos II and Demos (aka Cardinal Pell) first, the discussions between the cardinals, the debates among priests, and even the polarization between Pope enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts. This may be the legacy that this Pope leaves. However, it remains to be seen who wants to pick it up.


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