Pope Francis maintains momentum for renewal as synodal journey continues

By Christopher Lamb | Correspondent
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Pope Francis and Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi attend a welcome ceremony at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa, Congo, Jan. 31, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The first weeks of 2023 have been a turbulent time in the Vatican. The death of Benedict XVI opened the door to a flurry of articles and books criticizing Pope Francis and his vision for the church. What makes these different is that they have been written by people who held senior positions in the Roman Curia and had worked closely with the pope. The few-holds-barred nature of the publications has surprised many in Rome, given the culture of discretion and loyalty to the papacy supposedly built into the DNA of the church’s central government. 

Despite such efforts, we can expect the 86-year-old pontiff to maintain the momentum for efforts at renewal and reform. Top of the agenda is the move to a more synodal church. Regional assemblies are now taking place worldwide, during which bishops and lay delegates will reflect on a document synthesizing the syntheses of the synodal consultations written up by the world’s bishops conferences.

Since the beginning of the synod process in October 2021, there has been an unprecedented level of listening and discernment across the global church. It represents an attempt to put flesh on the bones of the Second Vatican Council’s vision of the church as the people of God, in which each baptized member shares in the ministry of Christ. The aim is not to set laity against hierarchy, but rather to ensure that ordinary believers and ordained ministers both take responsibility for the mission of the church, albeit in different ways.

The synodal dialogues have included contested topics. What came through from many nations is an urgent call to address the role of women in the church and to include them more in decision-making processes. The synod’s Oct. 4-29 assembly in the Vatican will see likely see strong debate and disagreement around such issues. While some may find this disconcerting, the synod takes place under the authority of the pope and the bishops. Francis will ultimately make the final decisions.

The pope and the Holy See synod office are seeking to ensure that the gathering in October takes place within an atmosphere of prayerful listening. Francis is only too aware that we live in an increasingly polarized culture in which authentic listening has become difficult. To ensure the synod assembly participants begin the process by switching from “transmit” to “receive” mode, Francis has decided that the gathering in the Vatican will be preceded by a three-day retreat.

Father Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar who is a popular speaker and author, will lead the spiritual reflections from Oct. 1 to 3 near Rome. The choice of Radcliffe is significant. It shows an awareness that some of the strongest resistance to synodality comes from the Anglophone world.

The 77-year-old Englishman is a former master of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) and is an experienced spiritual guide. He has spoken of synods depending “upon both having the confidence to speak and the humility to listen” and that listening “is daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own, views with which you may disagree with strongly.”

Meanwhile, Pope Francis was preparing to undertake one of the boldest and riskiest trips of his pontificate as he traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5. Both these sub-Saharan African countries have long suffered from internal conflicts, and both are places where the church has been crucial in working for peace and providing vital services in health and education.

While in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, the pope was to be joined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Rt. Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The three leaders coming together for this visit was unprecedented and itself an example of synodal “walking together.” South Sudan has been scarred by a terrible civil war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced around 2 million. The religious leaders’ presence in the country was designed to build peace.

Despite his mobility problems, Pope Francis’ determination to travel into the heart of Africa shows he has no plans to slow down. Of course, Francis may decide the moment has come for him to step down. With Benedict XVI’s resignation, a precedent was set. But those who know this pope say that stepping down is unlikely in the short term. There’s still a lot more for him to do.


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