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November 3, 2014

What a refreshing synod of bishops! Say what you want about the final report adopted – at least in large part – by the bishops in Rome, this synod has ushered in a huge culture change at the highest levels of the Church. When Pope Francis decided to make the synod's final report public, along with the vote totals for each paragraph in the document, it brought a level of transparency never before seen.

For too long and in too many ways, the Church has been tight with information because of the supposed fear of scandalizing the faithful. Oh, how ever would people react if they saw that bishops and other Church leaders sometimes disagreed over substantive issues! Indeed, the real scandal was that episcopal deliberations had to be held under lock and key with only sanitized communiques issued at the conclusion.

Some will no doubt be scandalized that some leading prelates have delivered not-so-veiled criticisms of the pope himself. Yet Pope Francis is clearly comfortable with the free-flowing debate which is a normal part of any collegial process.

This genie will not be easily stuffed back in the bottle. Indeed, we should expect and call for future synods to not only make the texts of bishops' talks public, but also to broadcast the synod itself.

The culture shift goes beyond transparency. It also includes, first, real collegiality. Pope Francis asked that dioceses discuss the synodal issues prior to the event, and, by holding back-to-back synods on the same topic, ensured that the issues raised would not be easily buried or conveniently forgotten.

Also part of the culture shift is an increased emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, an emphasis which need not undermine Church doctrine. As some prelates rightly pointed out, Jesus himself was unequivocal about the indissolubility of marriage.

Jesus also happened to be unequivocal about welcoming sinners and eating with them. For Church leaders who sup regularly with large donors, eating with sinners and those on society's periphery may be a hard bite to swallow.

Pope Francis' image of the Church as a field hospital has implications for where we all stand. Where you stand determines what you see, and what you see determines what you say and do. If the pope is meeting with opposition from some of those who elected him, is it because they are comfortable with where they have been standing and not interested in gaining a different perspective?

Pope Francis is challenging us – the leaders first, but ultimately all of us, to be bearers of mercy and justice. The Gospel is not just good bedtime reading. It calls on us to get up and move. In a Church that is transparent, the call to live as Jesus lived takes on a personal urgency. There is no longer any place to hide.