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Pope's Synod on Synodality envisioned as transformative process

Pope gathers Synod on Synodality at the Vatican. Photo courtesy of Vatican.


By Catherine Ferguson, SNJM

When in 2020 Pope Francis announced that the next Synod of Bishops would be a Synod on Synodality, he envisioned a transformative process for the Catholic Church akin to the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

At that Ecumenical Council with 3,058 council fathers, only bishops, cardinals and the major superiors of men's religious congregations, which included priests, were allowed to vote.

It ushered in major reforms in the areas of liturgy—with Mass in the language of the people instead of Latin and the priest facing the people—in its affirmation of the ecumenical movement, in relations with Jews, relations with other religions, on democracy and religious liberty, in refocusing of religious life and in the authorization for a revision of Canon Law.

A synod, however, is not an ecumenical council. Historically it has been described as coming from two Greek words syn and hodosj—"together" and "path"—meaning to walk together the path of Jesus. The phrase evokes the Risen Lord's accompaniment of his two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Pope Francis talks about it saying, "synodality is a way of communicating and relating."

It is the way the three parts of the Church—the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, whom Catholics affirm as the Vicar of Christ—are "in constant exchange together, all three parts listening."

It has been described as conversations in the Holy Spirit.

There have been 30 synods since Vatican II. This Synod is unique because it is not focused on one topic but rather on the process of synodality, and it is the first where women and lay people are among the 350 voting members.

The process for this Synod began in October 2020 and continues until a second synodal assembly in October 2024.

Implemention of "listening in the Spirit" envisioned by the Pope began at the local level worldwide with an invitation to ordinary people in the pews to share their joys, concerns and hopes for the Catholic Church.

In Spokane, Bishop Thomas Daly appointed Father Darrin Connall, his vicar general, to direct the listening process from October 2020 to March 2021.

In his communication inviting participation in the synod process, Father Connall said, "Synodality is the way a group makes decisions, the model includes listening to a broad range of people, discussing issues, to hear the Holy Spirit guiding the Church."

He outlined 10 themes with key questions to be answered by local Catholics.

The following are some of the questions: Who are listened to in our parish? Are women listened to? Are youth listened to? How does our parish (or diocese) deal with differences in visions and/or conflict?

What are some of the relationships we have with members of other Christian denominations? What have we learned from these relationships?

How is authority exercised within our parish? How does our parish promote and practice teamwork and co-responsibility and how does the parish promote participation in decision-making?

Father Connall indicated that information was gathered from parish groups where parishes from a particular regional group (deanery) were invited to talk, from groups of people with a common role in the church like deacons or Sisters and from an online survey.

"What was striking to me," he said, "was that it was primarily older parishioners who participated.  Even though we did reach out particularly to younger people through an online survey, it was still primarily older people who responded."

Brian Kraut, who managed the online survey, was surprised that 51 percent of the people who responded to the online survey were 65 and over.

"Among the 800 who responded at least partially to the survey, 93 percent said they felt there was a place for them in the church. The majority indicated they felt safe sharing their opinions."

Experts estimate about 1 percent of Catholics provided input. Father Connall estimates that about the same percentage of Spokane Catholics participated.

When asked what hopes he had for the Synod, Father Connall replied, "We don't always listen well to each other. My hope is that by listening to one another guided by the Spirit, the Church will be more united and that we will have more respect for each other. We can disagree but be respectful and be friends."

After completing similar processes worldwide, bishops sent their responses to regional committees for synthesis. This led to national-level responses, which were sent to continental assemblies that were tasked with reflecting on what the Church had learned from local experiences. Then, a working document was created for the Synod Assembly, focusing on three key themes: communion, mission and participation.

Each theme featured a central question and sub-questions to identify the priorities on which to continue the discernment following the first Synodal Assembly, which began on Oct. 4.

At the Synod Assembly itself, participants were assigned to 35 round tables so men and women, lay and cleric, people from various parts of the world with diverse perspectives were part of each group.

The first module for discussion, "Communion," was described as a communion that radiates and focuses on the question "How can we more fully be a sign of unity with God and all humanity?"

With its emphasis on inclusion, this question fostered a discussion on how in the light of truth and love people who identify as LGBT should be included in the Catholic Church, and how polygamous people and poor people are also to be included. It also included questions about ecumenism.

This module also included conversation on migration and migrants and what it means for the church they came from and the place they go to. For example, Filipinos are migrants practically everywhere and are sometimes called the Pauls of our era.

There is the sense that the movement of peoples is a sign of the times of the 21st century.

At the end of each module, the 35 tables submitted a report to be used for a synthesis document. The summaries had to include four points: convergence where they agreed, divergence where they disagreed, points of tension in the group and any questions the group had.

A commentator for America Media, Gerard O'Connell said: "Reporting like this gets beyond polarization. You are respecting what is being said. All of it."

At this writing, the synod assembly was only half finished, and the delegates were discussing the second module on "Co-Responsibility and Mission," with its key question: How can we better share gifts and tasks in the service of the Gospel?

In his opening remarks for this part, the Assembly's general relator, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, framed the context.

"Most of us here are men. I have never read anywhere that the baptism of women is inferior to the baptism of men. How can we ensure that women feel they are a part of this missionary church?" he asked.

Group discussions focused on the role of women in the church's mission. Because of confidentiality, the press has found it hard to access information, but informally they learned participants have been discussing the female diaconate, not the female priesthood.

Ahead is discussion of the "Third Module on Participation," which is governance and authority: What processes, structures and institutions should there be in a missionary synodal church?

Then comes the draft presentation of the synthesis document with amendments and voting on a final document, which identifies the key issues in the church today that need more exploration, reflection and understanding.

Between the end of the current Synod Assembly and the start of the second assembly in October 2024, the local diocese will carry out this process and bring it to the next session for further conversation and decision-making.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November 2023