October Synod of Bishops begins to take shape

By Christopher Lamb | Contibutor
Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Pope Francis greets María Lía Zervino, president general of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations during an audience with the group in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican May 13, 2023, before it opened its general assembly in Assisi May 14-20. In his talk, the pope said, “There is an urgent need to find peace in the world, a peace that begins, above all, within the heart.” (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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.

Then, at the beginning of June, the working document for the synod will be released, detailing the shape of the discussions at the forthcoming assembly. The text will take into account the synodal dialogues and continental assemblies that have taken place across the worldwide church since October 2021. We already have a remarkable insight into the joys and hopes of Catholics with the “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent” document published last October. That document synthesized the first round of dialogues, which had taken place at the local level.

A lot has happened since the synod for a synodal church began.

“Did anyone expect in October 2021 that 18 months later the pope would say that women could vote in the synod? It’s quite something,” one theologian working closely with the synod office in Rome told me.

Crucially, this change reflects the “bottom up” process of reform that this synod has begun, and it is a bold attempt to reshape the church by giving a stronger voice to local Catholic communities. Across the globe, Catholics have called for women’s voices to be heard during the synod. Women have been described as being in the “majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities,” yet too often are invisible from decision-making and governance roles. Including women members at the synod reflects this call from the church on the ground, along with the local synod assemblies where bishops and laity have spent time in discernment and dialogue together.

Some now question whether the synod structure has strayed from its original purpose of being a Synod of Bishops, a forum for bishops and the pope to meet about questions facing the church. Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops at the end of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council to seek to continue the work of the council. He called it the “Synod of Bishops,” but stressed that, “like all human institutions,” it “can be improved upon with the passing of time.”

In Rome, the office is now called “The General Secretariat of the Synod.” But the gathering, which takes place in October, will be a synod of bishops, given the vast majority of members are from the hierarchy, and the non-ordained participants put forward by bishops conferences and approved by the pope. The lay members are selected rather than representatives of different groups.

Furthermore, all the votes cast during synod meetings — to approve texts — remain consultative. The pope takes the final decisions. In other words, all those taking part in the synod are advising the bishop of Rome, and that can now include those who are not bishops. Including a broader cross-section of the people of God underlines an important point: The bishops do not forge the church’s mission alone, but rather in dialogue with the people.

The synod process has thrown up a range of topics that remain hotly contested within the church, such as the ordination of women and the greater inclusion of LGBTQ Catholics. Rather than answering these questions, the process underlines that such topics can only be addressed by becoming a more synodal church. That means becoming a church that listens and seeks to discern the will of the Holy Spirit collectively.

Catholics who engaged with the synod have repeatedly emphasized the desire for a more inclusive church, which eradicates clericalism and abuses of power and gives greater voice to young people. Underneath the calls for specific reforms lies a dream and a vision for a more synodal church. Those who have participated in the process do not want things to go backwards or the synod to stop. Francis, meanwhile, has once again warned about the contemporary temptation to “indietrismo” (backwardness), and pointed out during a meeting with Jesuits in Hungary that this was why he placed restrictions on the Latin Mass used before the liturgy that emerged from the reforms of Vatican II.

The coming months will likely see heightened tensions and debates as the synod assembly prepares to meet in October 2023, and again in October 2024. Francis is placing his trust in the synod as a method of renewing the church’s culture and injecting discernment, listening and dialogue into every level of decision-making. The synod is a step-by-step process rather than a revolution. But in less than two years, huge strides have been made. Stay tuned.



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