Catholics have again been called to make their voices heard during the second phase of the worldwide synod, which one cardinal has described as an unprecedented moment in the life of the Church.
The synod for “a synodal Church”, an ambitious two-year renewal process aimed at mapping out the future of Catholicism, was launched by Pope Francis last October and is likely to go down as the lasting legacy of his pontificate. The details of the second “continental” phase were announced on 26 August in the Vatican as cardinals from across the world gathered in Rome to discuss Francis’ reforms of the Church's central government.
Early synod findings have seen Church members repeatedly call for an end to clericalism (the control of the Church by a small elite – ordained or lay) along with more visible roles for women and greater inclusion of marginalised groups such as LGBTQ Catholics. For many, the synod represents the first time they've been asked to participate in a Church consultation process.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator, or co-ordinator, of the 2021-2023 synod, said at a Vatican press conference on 27 August that an “ecclesial dialogue without precedent in the history of the Church” had begun with more than 100 bishops’ conferences out of a global total of 114 sending in reports to the Holy See.
The Luxembourg prelate added that a project carried out by social media influencers had garnered 110,000 responses and reached an estimated 20 million people. Religious orders and Vatican departments had also conducted synodal processes.
Quoting the testimony of Father Michael Ryan, parish priest of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, the cardinal told journalists that “to my knowledge, an effort of this sort and on this scale has never been undertaken by the Church – not even in its earliest days when the numbers were modest”.
The Maltese prelate Cardinal Mario Grech, who leads the Holy See's synod office, told reporters that the next phase of the synod process would again include ordinary Catholics and is not just a gathering of bishops. He explained that a document synthesising the material local churches had submitted would be drawn up and released by the end of October or early November.
The cardinal explained that this text would then be sent to the local Churches for further discussion and reflection, with each bishop requested “to bring the document to the knowledge of his [local] Church”. The aim, he explained, was for the document to return to where “the consultation took place” and to ensure it is adequately received by ordinary believers.
Then, from January to March 2023, the discernment will continue through regional assemblies involving bishops, priests, deacons, and religious and lay Catholics.
The European assembly will take place in the Czech Republic on 5-12 February 2023, while the African gathering will occur in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 1-7 March 2023. The Central and Latin American Church is planning five different events in El Salvador (13-17 February 2023), the Dominican Republic (20-24 February 2023), Ecuador (27 February - 3 March 2023) and Brazil (6-10 March 2023). These assemblies are a chance to deepen the listening and discernment of the synod process and demonstrate that the synod is designed as an ongoing process rather than a one-off occurrence.
The continental phase will conclude on 31 March 2023, with the submissions from the assemblies feeding into the drafting of the final working document for the assembly of bishops in the Vatican for October that year. The third part of the synod will be known as the “universal” phase.
While the synod process has been described as the most ambitious Catholic renewal attempt for decades, it is facing resistance from a well-organised minority who claim the process is a covert attempt to overturn certain Church teachings. Sections of the Catholic media are amplifying the voice of the synod sceptics while some conservative, often younger, clergy are quietly resisting the process.
Some have also called the synod's legitimacy into question by claiming only relatively small numbers of Catholics have taken part.
Nevertheless, the numbers participating in the synod represent a massive increase compared to how many ordinary believers contributed to synods in recent decades. Sister Nathalie Becquart, a senior official at the synod office, pointed out that countries such as Ukraine and Nicaragua had managed to hold listening sessions despite battling wars and internal conflicts.
Rather than obsessing over numbers, organisers insist that the process is an attempt to implement the Second Vatican Council's vision of the Church as the “People of God” and aims to recover the practice of synods and councils which took place in the early Church and which Eastern churches continue. The synod, organisers stress, is a spiritual process where people, priests and bishops seek to discern the will of the Holy Spirit.
During the press briefing, Cardinal Grech emphasised the “circularity” of the synod process and warned against “pitting a People's Church against a hierarchical Church”. When asked if he was worried about political interests “hijacking” the synod, Grech replied that only the Holy Spirit could hijack the process.
He stressed that the synod had shown a “Church that is alive, in need of authenticity, healing” and one that is “yearning more and more to be a community that celebrates and proclaims the joy of the Gospel, learning to walk and discern together”.
When pressed on whether the synod would lead to a change in Church teaching on homosexuality, Cardinal Hollerich said he was not in favour of changing any doctrine but wanted a “Church where really everybody can feel welcome”. In the past, Hollerich had suggested that the teaching needed revision.
“If we close the door on people, we push some people into despair, and that is something we do not want,” he added. “I have no personal agenda for the synod. I have a concrete mission...to listen and to serve.”
The cardinal admitted, however, that the Church was still learning how to become synodal.
“The listening and discernment process was certainly not perfect,” he said. “We are also learning from our mistakes.”
The Vatican has also announced those tasked with drawing up the document for the next phase of the synod, which the synod office in Rome will approve. The drafting group is made up of experts from across the world. It includes Sister Birgit Weiler, a missionary working in the Amazon, Fr Paul Bere SJ, a theologian from Burkina Faso, Archbishop Tim Costello of Perth, Australia and Austen Ivereigh, the journalist and Catholic commentator.
For his part, Francis has insisted that synodality must become the norm.
“The Church is either synodal, or it is not Church,” the Pope told a group of Jesuits in Canada last month. “That is why we have come to a synod on synodality, to reiterate this.”