Mary McAleese’s keynote address to the Root and Branch Synod in Bristol raises a number of issues for those hoping that synodality will herald an “ecclesial springtime”, as Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, has suggested.
As the former head of state made clear in her address, Pope Francis has been carefully managing expectations on the prospect of a progressive model of synodality. There is little hope that what takes place in Rome in 2023 will be similar to last week’s Root and Branch synod in Bristol or the German synodal path.
In his recent book, Let us Dream, Pope Francis emphasised that it is important not to confuse Catholic doctrine and tradition with the Church’s norms and practices. What is under discussion at synodal gatherings are not traditional truths of Christian doctrine. Such gatherings are concerned more with how teaching can be lived and applied in the changing contexts of our time.
Mary McAleese correctly noted that synods, according to Pope Francis, “are not places for robust open debate with freedom of speech on contentious magisterial teaching” but rather are protected zones for how those teachings can be successfully applied in our contemporary context.
However, in the recent Tablet webinar, A synodal Church, what does it mean? Professor Myriam Wijlens, canon lawyer and adviser to the synod of bishops’ office in Rome, was more optimistic.
She noted that up to now, there has only been a partial implementation of the vision of Vatican II. “I think what Pope Francis has been doing is not introducing anything new. He is reconfiguring how we interact with each other on the basis of the second chapter of Lumen Gentium on the people of God.”
She said that in the past, synod proceedings were confined to the bishops but what was happening now is that the preliminary session, which involves sounding out the lay faithful, has become part of the synod. This, she stressed, is a major change because it expands our understanding of the synod to include the people of God and it sees the local church informing the church universal.
Professor Wijlens also recalled how Cardinal Suenens had, at the first session of Vatican II said: “We forgot to invite the other half.” This resulted in a number of women being invited to come as observers as well as representatives of other Churches. Change took place in the course of the council.
Wijlens believes people should not rule out the possibility of changes emerging via the process of synodality and the 2023 synod itself. She challenged people to get involved.
And as she indicated, this could yet allow the Holy Spirit to bring some surprising developments.