Perhaps the word that will most be associated with Francis’ pontificate is “synodality,” said Lexington, Kentucky, Bishop John Stowe, a Conventual Franciscan.
Pope Francis has convened synods on the family, on youth and on the Pan-Amazon region, and now the worldwide church is in the midst of a three-year “Synod on Synodality,” which will include two meetings of the Synod of Bishops in October 2023 and 2024.
Bishop Stowe addressed “The Common Good and Synodality: The Vision of Pope Francis” April 11 at Loyola University Chicago during the 2023 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Common Cause Lecture hosted by the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage and co-sponsored by Commonweal Magazine.
Anyone who thinks they know where the “synodal path” will lead, the bishop suggested, is missing the point.
“This pope, who is a man of deep prayer, who is schooled in the Ignatian spiritual tradition of discernment, who bears witness to the freedom of the Holy Spirit, is content to convene the bishops and the whole people of God to learn again to walk together, which he reminds is the foundational meaning of ‘synod,’” Bishop Stowe said.
Pope Francis, he added, has changed the idea of synods from periodic events for convening bishops to becoming “the new way of being the church at every level. If this attempt is successful, its impact will be comparable to that of the Second Vatican Council.”
The Synod on Synodality opened with a diocesan phase, in which all dioceses were asked to hold listening sessions, sessions that would invite the participation not only of parishioners but those who see themselves as outsiders to the church.
Such sessions were not to be parliamentary in nature, Bishop Stowe said. Rather than argument and debate — however civil — the synod relies on silence, prayer, processing and discernment, he said.
“The recent diocesan phase of the universal Synod on Synodality was meant to be an exercise in teaching this method to the whole church,” the bishop said. “Indeed, it was a start. There’s a long way to go. … Real synodality should not have winners and losers. If people are not open to a change of heart through dialogue, they have yet to learn the synodal method.”
In evaluating the response to the synod in the United States, Bishop Stowe said that there was an initial grasp of the concept and an “enthusiasm for the process of listening and consultation, but also a well-founded weariness and wariness about whether anything will come of it.”
There also have been critiques of the process, suspicion about its agenda and attempts to discredit it, he said, noting that reception by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been “lukewarm at best.”
Some dioceses have eagerly embraced it, while others have made minimal efforts, Bishop Stowe said. As a member of the USCCB team working on the national synthesis of the synod after the diocesan process, he saw dioceses that went to great lengths to listen to people, and others that limited their efforts to online surveys.
“The dominant cultural pragmatism in North America was evident in the desire to know where this is going,” he said. “Bishops frequently stated that they do not know how to lead a process when the desired outcome of that process is unclear. I think the pope’s response to that complaint would be that the bishops are not meant to lead the process but to facilitate the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”
He contrasted the response to the synod to the USCCB’s response to the National Eucharistic Revival, which, he said, has received more energy, resources and attention.
“There’s a plan, there’s marketing, there’s a beginning and endpoint, there’s substantial funding, there’s a problem to be addressed — namely a concern that Catholics do not believe sufficiently in the Real Presence — but instead of insisting and ensuring that there was a eucharistic centrality to the synodal process, allowing for an organic discernment about our eucharistic understanding, plans for a mega-event featuring plenty of pre-conciliar piety and theology has replaced the focus on the synod or a synodal church in the USCCB. It doesn’t strike me as coincidental that much of the eucharistic revival focuses on eucharistic adoration, passive in nature, and so offers an easy alternative to the active engagement of walking together, synodally.”
Still, Bishop Stowe said, the national document that synthesized responses to diocesan phase in the United States emphasized the joy participants found in the sessions, and their gratitude for being listened to.
That document was released April 12.
Common themes included the harm done by the clergy sexual abuse crisis, mismanagement and loss of respect for the hierarchy; fear of the faith not being passed on to the next generation; and concern about the role of women and members of the LGBTQ community, he said.
“There was a great desire expressed to be a more welcoming church and to offer accompaniment to people at every stage of faith development,” the bishop said.
Those issues were also prominent in the synthesis documents from other nations, he said.
Several of the questions after his presentation came from students who were in the in-person audience, with another 1,000 people watching online. Among the questions from the young people were those expressing what they see as cynicism among members of their generation about the synod.
Matthew McKenna, a second-year student, said young people who would like to see changes in church teaching around, for example, sexuality or the role of women, suspect the church won’t actually change anything, and young people who consider themselves traditional Catholics don’t see the point of stirring up discussion about things that shouldn’t change. Then at the end of the process, he said, no one is happy.
To that, Bishop Stowe counseled patience, and attentiveness to the Holy Spirit.
“It’s not going to be an instant solution to our problems, and that’s going to be frustrating to those of us who are impatient,” he said.
The Catholic Church’s current Synod of Bishops should not be a “parliament for demanding rights,” but a “journey in accordance with the Spirit,” Pope Francis said.
The church’s synod process is stepping up a gear. Pope Francis has authorized a landmark change which, for the first time, gives women the right to vote in the synod assembly in the Vatican in October. At least 70 members of the fall gathering will be non-bishops, and half of them must be women.
In their discussions about the life of the church and “synodality,” or walking together, Catholics in United States and Canada noted the negative impact “polarization” is having on the church, said Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas.