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Vatican II document and encyclical of Pope Francis lay the groundwork for synod, Cardinal Gregory says

In a March 13 reflection at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, Cardinal Wilton Gregory told an audience that the ongoing Synod on Synodality is part of Pope Francis’s continuing development of Gaudium et Spes, the 1965 Vatican II document known in English as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World

The address by Cardinal Gregory, archbishop of Washington, was part of the Bergoglio Lecture Series, named after Pope Francis, and sponsored by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies.

Cardinal Gregory called Gaudium et Spes “a groundbreaking document that helped shape Pope Francis’s vision of the modern world.” He described it as envisioning a “more outward looking and engaged Church, responsive to the signs of the time, and committed to the well-being of the human family.” Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, (also known as On Fraternity and Social Friendship) built upon Gaudium et Spes and the pope uses both those documents in shaping the current synod, as a way of living out the reception of the Vatican II in our modern world, the cardinal said. 

Gaudium et Spes “has one of the most poetic and moving introductory paragraphs of any Church document,” said Cardinal Gregory. “It begins by saying ‘The joys and the hopes, the griefs, and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.’”

That opening paragraph rings true today, he said, and echoes through Pope Francis’s writings and his philosophies about the synod.

Gaudium et Spes emphasized the Church’s engagement with the modern world, urging Catholics to actively participate in the social, cultural, and political realities of their time. Similarly, in Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis consistently calls for a Church that is attentive to the signs of the time, one that is actively involved in addressing current challenges, and open to dialogue with people of all backgrounds,” Cardinal Gregory said.

“Gaudium et Spes underscored the dignity of human beings, who have inestimable value,” he continued. “Throughout Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis reaffirms the dignity of every person. He asserts that every individual, regardless of their background, status, or circumstance, possesses inherent worth and is deserving of respect. This recognition of human dignity serves as the very foundation for Pope Francis' call to fraternity and social friendship in Fratelli Tutti.”

The cardinal said the 1965 document called for greater participation of the laity in the life and mission of the church. Although Pope Francis did not explicitly echo that call in Fratelli Tutti, the call for participation is thoroughly embraced by the pope in the synod, which gathers clergy and laity together, he said. 

“Overall, the enduring legacy of Gaudium et Spes on the writings of Pope Francis is reflected in his commitment to a Church that is involved with the world, compassionate toward the marginalized, open to civil dialogue and encounter, and characterized by synodality and missionary zeal,” said Cardinal Gregory. 

In a question session following his prepared remarks, Cardinal Gregory described a recent synod process that differed from the three previous synods in which he participated. In those, he explained, “each bishop was expected to have an intervention on the theme…. of three to four minutes. You just listened to one speech after another after another, after another.”

In this synod, which convened in Rome in October, participants included laity, clergy and religious, sitting at round tables according to language groups. 

“It was delightful to hear people from different perspectives,” he said. “We listened to each other and had, I think, a wonderful experience of friendship, Fratelli Tutti and openness to hear what the other person had to offer.”

Over the course of four weeks, the synod participants changed table groups every four or five days, which meant participants regularly were meeting new people and learning about them as people. “We put aside formal titles,” Cardinal Gregory explained. “You became Maryann. I became Wilton.”

The table mates “began to speak with each other in a casual, personal way,” he said. The Holy Father was not in the room the whole time, but when he came into the synod, “he’d kind of poke around. People would come up to him to chat.” Such casual moments made for many grace-filled encounters, he said.

In response to questions, Cardinal Gregory discussed other echoes of Gaudium et Spes and Fratelli Tutti, such as in suggesting how to encourage young people to engage in the Church and its social teachings. One step, he said, lies in recognizing the limits of what social media can do. “Social media is here to stay,” he said, but people need to recognize its limits. He gave the example of violent online gaming, which teaches players that the way to solve a problem is “just blow it away.”

Another question, about how language is used in the secular world and the Church, led the cardinal to reflect on how historical terminology can be useful or confusing to the modern world. He gave the example of St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Dominican friar and philosopher, who used the language of Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C., to explain Christian doctrine. “He chose language that originated in another environment to help articulate the mystery of faith.”

Today, he said, “we are using language that can change in the twinkling of an eye. We have to be prudent in adopting language and acknowledge that what we say on Monday may be influenced by what happens on Thursday on a social media platform.”

The social justice teachings of the Church have to use contemporary language, because that’s the world in which the teachings are being employed. He said word choices need to consider contemporary context, not just theological accuracy. For instance, “some of the language that theologically we have used to describe the sexual revolution uses language that is appropriate but it’s not contextualized. ‘Disordered.’ That fits in the Aristotlean world. Things are ordered to their proper end. But ‘disorder’ now in our world suggests it is sick. We have to use language that people understand but can’t put all the emphasis on language that is so subtly and drastically changed in its usage.”

Link to livestreams of Bergoglio Lecture Series at Sacred Heart University