Global church prepares for synod process beginning next month

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Cardinals and bishop watch Pope Francis arrive to celebrate the concluding Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican in this Oct. 27, 2019, file photo. The Vatican will soon launch the diocesan phase for the 2023 Synod of Bishops on synodality, which every diocese in the world will be asked to participate in. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In about a month, Pope Francis will open a synod process for the entire church in what has been described as the most ambitious project for Catholic renewal since the Second Vatican Council. 

Each diocese has been asked to hold a synod: a listening and discernment exercise involving everyone in the church, which will then feed into a national and continental-wide process. Finally, in the fall of 2023, the process will culminate with a three-week gathering in Rome.

Although there has been a lot of talk about “synodality” in the church, the understandings of synods vary widely, while many Catholics have little experience of what they can be in practice. This is what Francis wants to change. The pope is encouraging each local church to embark on a journey. It is not about imposing a one-size-fits-all synodal approach from Rome, but giving each diocese and community the authority to find new ways to witness to the Gospel.

The work of renewal comes from the bottom up, with the voices of ordinary Catholics informing the final part of the discussions in Rome, not vice-versa. It is similar to what happened in the run-up to Vatican II, when the work of theologians and the experience of Catholics on the ground fed into what became the blueprint for the contemporary church. 

For Francis, the synodal journey is aimed at implementing the vision of the council, but the pope does not see synodality as the creation of lots of committees. Instead, he wants it to put the model of a field-hospital church into practice, something that has become urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a church that throws open its doors, ends the squabbling in the sacristies and pitches its tent among the suffering and marginalized. All of this requires a leap of faith given that no one, including the pope, can know what the end result of the process is going to look like.

What is evident, however, is that the success or failure of the synod will depend on an ability to listen. The deepening polarization across society, fueled by the algorithm-driven information echo chambers of social media, has infected the church, and it’s something that synodality can combat.

“Synods depend both on having the confidence to speak and the humility to listen,” Father Timothy Radcliffe, former leader of the Dominican Order, said in a video released for the forthcoming synod last weekend. “Listening is daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own. Views with which you disagree strongly.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the synod office in Rome, has written to monastic communities asking them to assist the forthcoming process with their expertise in listening and discernment. The Rule of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, offers some ancient wisdom that can be applied to synods. It is a rule that starts with the words “listen carefully” and encourages wide consultation within the community, including hearing the views of its youngest members.

Listening will be crucial, given the patchy response to the pope’s call for a more synodal church. On the one hand, there are those opposed to synods either because they fear them as a Trojan horse for unpalatable reforms or for upending the status quo. Others see the synod as an opportunity to impose certain changes, and will brand the whole process a failure until their preferred outcome happens.

In reality, the synod is countercultural, as it demands people lay down preconceived assumptions of what the church should or should not do, and prayerfully open themselves to the direction of the Holy Spirit. No item can be off the table for discussion, and the synods are likely to tackle issues involving women in the church, governance, the priesthood and human sexuality.

Yet the pope wants the discussions to take place in a spirit of genuine discernment, and by building consensus. As St. Benedict writes, an abbot should ensure “the strong have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from.”

Meanwhile, the pope is continuing to push forward with reforms of the Roman Curia. On Aug. 29, the Vatican announced Francis had chosen his master of ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, to become the Bishop of Tortona, in Northern Italy. Bishop-elect Marini has served in his role for 14 years with professionalism.

The pope has recently issued restrictions on the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and revamped the leadership of his liturgy office to ensure everyone is full square behind implementing the council’s reforms. We can expect this direction of travel to continue.



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