Pope Francis announces global synod meeting will occur over two years

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 16, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis is extending the church’s global synod by announcing that a summit of bishops, due to take place in October 2023, will be spread over two years.

In a surprise move, the pope told the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Oct. 16 that the synod assembly would occur Oct. 4-29, 2023, and again in October 2024, which he stressed would allow for a longer discernment. The rules governing the synod permit this possibility, while the synod on the family also took place in two parts, in 2014 and 2015.

So what does it all mean? Three points are worth noting as this unprecedented event in the life of the church continues to evolve.

First, the pope’s decision emphasizes that the synod is a process rather than an event. “The church is either synodal or it is not church,” says Francis. Becoming a synodal church is not primarily about holding summits or producing documents, but developing listening and discernment processes from parish communities upward.

Contrary to some assertions, the synod is not something that is going to be “over” soon, but rather it is a long-term attempt at renewal, likely to outlast this pontificate. Rediscovering the practice of collective discernment through synods is still relatively new for the Western church. The pope said his decision to extend the synod is designed to “promote the understanding of synodality as a constitutive dimension of the church.”

Second, Francis wants to ensure the synod in October 2023 does not turn into a clash of ideas. Without the extension, there was a danger that next fall would be seen as a “make-or-break” moment, with groups seeking to ensure their vision of the church wins the day. It would also play into the hands of those who want to stop the synod process in its tracks and see the October gathering as an opportunity to push that agenda.

Rather than groups fighting over their competing visions, the pope wants the synod to be lived as a “journey of brothers and sisters who proclaim the joy of the Gospel.”

Third, it is likely that those taking part in the synod gatherings of 2023 and 2024 will be tasked with looking at some of the “contested” topics emerging during the synod. These include questions on the role of women in the church, the priesthood, sexuality and the inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics. It is impossible for one three-week gathering to resolve them.

Spreading out the synod gatherings over two years allows the church to develop methods and processes to navigate the tensions without falling into irreconcilable divisions. The process is as important as the outcome, and, as Francis has said, “Time is greater than space,” and the synod fruits need time to reach “full maturity.”

The pope’s extension to the synod “for a more synodal church” comes a year after the process launched with the greatest consultation effort in human history by trying to listen to the world’s 1.36 billion Catholics. This was the synod’s first “local” phase, which took place in Catholic communities worldwide. It also sought to listen to other Christians and non-believers.

Later this month, a document that will give an extraordinary glimpse into “the sense of the faithful” in the early 21st century will be published, a synthesis of the discernment and discussions that have taken place and was drafted by a group of around 30 theologians, church workers and bishops.

They went through reports from 112 bishops conferences, religious orders worldwide, 150 lay groups and Vatican departments. There were also around 1,000 submissions from individuals or other groups.

Although participation has varied, it is estimated that around 8%-10% of Mass-going Catholics have engaged in the process. In the United States, 700,000 took part; in Spain, it was around 200,000; in England and Wales, 30,000. These numbers are without precedent in a Catholic context.

Once the synthesis document is published, it returns to the people for the “continental” phase of the synod, where the discernment continues in regional assemblies on different continents. 

All of this must be read in the context of the church marking the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. The synod is seen by many as one of the significant fruits of the council. Like Vatican II, the underlying vision is that the church, as the people of God, laypeople in communion with the priests and bishops, seeks to listen to the Holy Spirit as it forges its mission to the world.

“For the past 60 years or so, we have, for the most part, paid only lip service to that theology [of the council],” said Father Vimal Tirimanna, a theologian from Sri Lanka and one of those who helped synthesize the synod document. “Why? The necessary ecclesial structures were not there. It was new wine being put into old skins. But thanks to Pope Francis, an ecclesiological structure that would contain the conciliar ecclesiology is being provided in the form of synodality.”

The church is still only at the beginning of this journey.


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  • synod

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