16 November 2023, The Tablet

Becoming a truly synodal church

by Frank Callus

Becoming a truly synodal church

Participants of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gather in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican.
Independent Photo Agency/Alamy Live News

We have just completed the Synod on Synodality in Rome. The attention of the world has started to focus on the key issues that the Church will grapple with in the years ahead. Some emphasis has been laid on the scale of the event – four hundred bishops; some on the breaks with tradition- the role of women and the fact that some have voting rights. Following years of press coverage on the issue of clerical sexual abuse, this relatively positive interest in the Catholic Church is welcome.

The holding of the Synod marks a key point in the process. It represents the culmination of discussions that led to diocesan syntheses, to a national synthesis and to a Continental Stage held in the Spring.  In the months ahead we will learn more of the discussions in Rome and something of the preparations for the follow-up Synod in October 2024.  It is certainly becoming easier to think of synodality as a characteristic of the nature of the Universal Church, a process for determining its structures and systemic realities. To be sure, there will be decisions made that are applicable to the whole Church, ways of acting out the Gospel that will be influenced by the global conversations and deliberations. Pope Francis, himself, has defined the Church through this synodal process – the Church is synodal by and in its very nature.

The International Theological Commission in its paper “Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church”, reflected that the Church is both universal and local and that its strength lies in a recognition of this creative tension:

The Church, insofar as she is Catholic, makes the universal local and the local universal. The particularity of the Church in one place is fulfilled at the heart of the universal Church and the universal Church is manifested and made real in the local Churches, and in their communion with each other and with the Church of Rome.

For most Catholics there will be some interest in the deliberations in Rome. Some will fear the winds of change, concerned that synodality is changing the Church they thought they knew and loved. Others will be concerned that insufficient progress is being made in reforming the Church for a modern age, whether it is the Church’s attitude towards women in ministry, or its former hostility towards LGBTQ+ communities. The outcome of Synod 2023 will help to prepare for October 2024 with opportunities, presumably, for further discussion and discernment at parish, diocesan, and national level.

Deliberations at the Continental or Universal Stage will influence our experience over the longer term. A church more welcoming to those who feel marginalised, a reassessment of the baptismal character of the laity and its potential, a review of the role of women in the ministry, management and governance of the Church are all possible outcomes. We are likely to measure the progress of some of these issues not in years but in decades.

For many, the reality of what happens in their locality will weigh more heavily. Our perception of Church might be to share in its universality on occasions, but our more regular experience of Church is provided by our parish, our local community. One diocesan Synod Report from England and Wales spoke for many when it affirmed:

Most reports focused on the parish more than the diocese; many saw the parish as the embodiment of Church. References to the diocese, where they occurred, tended to be negative. 

It is in the local parish that the synodal process should be seen to have most immediate effect. Initially, a small group of dedicated lay members with a parish priest who is supportive could be the model for missional parishes in the future. The capacity to advocate for change- based on the parish Synod Report – is easier to initiate and the work of implementing some specific changes more manageable. The appeal of a parish that is open, collaborative and infused with energy will engage more successfully with those in the locality. Such a parish will not need to ask, “Who is my neighbour?” They will know them and their needs.

The Synod challenged parishes to assess where they were on their journey of faith. The questions from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales focussed attention on the ways in which the parish represented the Gospel to those in the area as well as its capacity to become more mission oriented. From the diocesan reports it was evident that the discussions identified common themes- the laity wanted a Church closer to the model left by Jesus to the apostles, an inclusive church, a church aware of its neighbours’ needs and ready to respond.

What the diocesan reports identified, too, was the need for formation, training, and development. While the Catholic Church has invested heavily in primary and secondary education, its investment in adult formation has been woefully inadequate. The synodal process had been a case of learning on the job. The laity that took part at the level of the parish represented a small percentage of the whole, but they are the catalyst for change. They are people close to the parish community, they understand its dynamics [sometimes better than the parish priest] and they have displayed a commitment to discipleship on which dioceses need to build.

Time and again, diocesan Synod Reports called for greater investment in the training of the laity to fulfil their baptismal role, to rise to the challenge of co-responsibility and to shoulder their fair share of the work of the vineyard.

The challenge has been met, at least in part, by the laity.  Throughout the synodal process, The Tablet has given space to reports from dioceses and hosted webinars. In the summer, ACTA held an evening conference on the Prague Assembly with Bishop Hudson, Sarah Adams, and Fr Jan Nowotnik. In early October the Spirit Unbounded conference was   organised by Root and Branch and broadcast from Bristol and Rome with incisive contributions from Rafael Luciani, Mary McAleese, and Sr Joan Chittister OSB among many others.

In the summer, School for Synodality was launched with the support of the Diocese of Northampton. It is organising webinars on key issues of the synodal process and developing resources to support parishes particularly in areas of parish leadership. It provides that essential connectivity between parishes in different dioceses grappling with similar issues. All these contributions are valid and purposeful and address an unfilled need. They are evidence of an investment of time, experience, and talent by and for the laity and as such are to be commended. They support synodality and allow it to resonate across the parish and the diocese.

There appear to be no plans for a systematic process of adult formation in the light of the diocesan Synod Reports. The document “Priority of Adult Formation”, authored by Bishop Rawsthorne of Hallam diocese in 1999, identified the need for ongoing formation but the current CBCEW website refers to ongoing formation only in the context of members of the clergy: ‘

The term ‘ongoing formation’ is a reminder that the one experience of discipleship of those called to priesthood is never interrupted.

Canon Law [#217] and the encyclical Christus Dominus place a duty on the episcopate to ensure that Christians have an opportunity for formation in their faith. In the past, this might have been delivered through a weekly homily, related to the Sunday readings. The value of such direction is, of course, dependent on the quality, interest, and education of the minister.

This responsibility to educate and inform has always been significant, but it becomes increasingly so in a synodal Church. The capacity to engage in discussion, to participate fully in discernment and to contribute to processes of analysis and synthesis need to be built up, diocese by diocese. Synodality represents a change of engagement for lay Catholics [ and many clergy] and cannot be assumed to be understood without tangible efforts to address the issue.

Lay-led associations, organisations and groups dedicated to supporting the development of a more inclusive and Christocentric Church have contributed significantly to this element of catechesis. Their work has become an invaluable component in the recent past, often reaching out to those who have lost trust in, and connection with the Church.  They have both a capacity and an inclination to develop resources and deliver programmes that help clergy and laity to become the Church they are called to be, and as such, might lay claim to being the first fruits of a synodal Church.


Becoming synodal:  an evening in the company of school for synodality   

                               7.30pm thursday 30 november 2023

Organised by ACTA. For DETAILS SEE: http/www.acalltoaction.org /   


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