Damian Thompson

‘Farce’ and ‘verbiage’ behind the scenes at the Pope’s synod: an Aussie archbishop spills the beans...

'Farce' and 'verbiage' behind the scenes at the Pope's synod: an Aussie archbishop spills the beans...
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Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane is one of the bishops who'll be voting on the final report of the Synod on the Family at the Vatican tomorrow. He's 'quite a character', I'm told by a priest who knows him. But anyone who's been reading his startlingly frank and witty diary of the Synod, published on his diocesan website, will have already worked that out.

There are cardinals and bishops who, after a few jars, will let slip what really goes on at these occasions. And then there's Archbishop Mark, who – although no doubt great company in the pub – doesn't need any prompting to spill the beans.

He hasn't broken any rules, mind. There are no leaks in his dispatches. But let's just say that it's lucky for him that Pope Francis doesn't read English.

Coleridge's latest entry, published today, is a gem. It's a refreshing corrective to our mental image of cardinals wringing their hands in pious despair as they debate whether to give Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried. (They've decided against, by the way.)

Over to you, Archbishop:

We settled into the second round of voting for the Post-Synod Council which turned out to be a hoot. The first round of voting had been inconclusive, with votes scattering in all directions. This time we were given the names of the 10 bishops who had got the most votes in the first round in each of the four continental sections (Africa, America, Europe and Asia-Oceania). Of these we had to choose three.

Off we went, pressing our little voting machines at the seats. The trouble started when the technology failed in one of the three sections of the Hall. We were voting for Europe. We all agreed that Europe had always been a problem. Technicians were called and ran from all directions. I didn’t realise we had so many technicians looking after a system that is so erratic. It might be better to have a new system and fewer technicians … but the union mightn’t like that.

Enter the Secretary General of the Synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, whose finest hour this has not been. He handed the Fathers the draft of the final report:

The Secretary General then told us that it was our solemn duty to read the text carefully so that we could present proposed amendments the following morning. This was OK for those who know Italian. But the fact is that many of the bishops (and even some of the cardinals!) don’t know Italian ... It would have taken a bit of money to hire professional translators to turn it into other languages quickly; but surely that would have been money well spent.

The fun and games started again when Cardinal Baldisseri told us that the draft document was so sensitive and super-secret that we couldn’t even take it home. At this, there were serious rumblings in the Hall. Boos were looming. Sensing mutiny, the Secretary General changed his mind: we could take it home but it was strictly for our eyes only. Not a whisper to anyone else. They weren’t even to know we had the document.

The Synod Fathers were instructed to submit proposed amendments in writing or save them for three-minute speeches. 'I decided to put mine in writing and save on the verbiage in the Hall,' says Coleridge. Good choice of word, Your Grace (if that's how you address archbishops in Australia). Having once worked in the Secretariat of State, he's all too familiar with Vatican waffle – though if you want to hear true virtuoso verbiage you need to listen to one of our dear English bishops.

Archbishop Mark continues:

At one stage in the procession of proposed amendments, we had more synodal farce, which was actually quite refreshing. Can’t beat a laugh at a Synod. The president for the day, Cardinal Tagle of Manila, kept announcing names of bishops to speak who kept replying that they hadn’t asked to speak. This became hilarious – but the best bit was when one of the cardinals who hadn’t asked to speak was called and decided to speak anyway. That brought the house down. Another cardinal protested that he was regularly being called by the name of another cardinal and loudly protested that he was who he was. More good-natured guffaws ensued.

It's nice to be reminded that most of the Synod Fathers actually get on with each other, though slightly hair-raising to reflect that such historic proceedings rely on Vatican technology. They'd better get it right next time or the Fathers could find themselves pushing the wrong button and abolishing papal infallibility by mistake.

I haven't bother to check whether Coleridge is a liberal or a conservative (and it is possible, despite the impression given by assorted hacks including me, to be neither). He just sounds thoroughly good fun – even jollier, dare I suggest, than our own Cardinal Nichols, solemn in public but an irrepressible prankster behind closed doors.

Coleridge finishes with some splendidly dry wit. He pictures the scene tomorrow, after the Synod's final document has been voted on, paragraph by paragraph:

Pope Francis will be sitting poker-faced up the front, taking it all in and wondering what to do with all this. I don’t doubt for a moment that he already has some thoughts. He’s nothing if not a strategist.