Pope Francis has asked Fr Timothy Radcliffe, an English Dominican friar, to lead a retreat for bishops and participants taking part in one of the most important global Church gatherings for decades.
The former Master of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) will lead the prayer gathering from 1st to 3rd October 2023 as preparation for those attending the Synod of Bishops Assembly in the Vatican.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the relator general of the synod, told a Vatican press conference on 23 January that the retreat was being organised to emphasise that the synod is rooted in prayer and listening.
Fr Timothy, 77, who lead the worldwide Dominican order from 1992-2001, is a well-known preacher and writer whose books have been translated into 24 languages. He is based at Blackfriars in Oxford where he helped launch a social justice institute at the College, is a theologian and is an honorary Doctor of Divinity at the university. In 2015, he was appointed as a consulter to the then Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is known for his pastorally sensitive approach to gay and lesbian Catholics, including support for same-sex civil unions.
His selection as retreat leader reveals the esteem in which the Dominican friar is held by Pope Francis and reflects the long experience that religious orders have of synodal processes with their focus on listening and communal discernment. Given the practice of synodality is still a relatively new concept for the Latin rite Church, several bishops attending October’s assembly have had little exposure to synods.
The Vatican gathering is set to be a crunch moment for the synod called by the Pope on the theme of a “Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission” which began on October 2021 and will continue until October 2024. The process has involved an unprecedented attempt to listen to Catholics from across the globe but has also faced resistance from a well-organised minority who claim the process is a covert attempt to overturn certain Church teachings. Cardinal Mario Grech, the leader of the synod office in Rome, has admitted that “there are those who openly oppose” the synod, including younger clergy.
“Synods depend upon both having the confidence to speak and the humility to listen. Listening is daring to open yourself to people who’ve got views other than your own, views with which you may disagree with strongly,” Fr Timothy said in a video released last year. “Our society fears difference, Google and Facebook have algorithms which steer us towards the like-minded, so we’re tempted to live in bubbles of people who think the same thing.”
He added: “The Church itself has been touched by these sterile culture wars of left and right, and they are unfruitful.”
Cardinal Hollerich made the announcement about Fr Timothy during a press conference setting out details of an ecumenical prayer gathering to be held before the synod summit gets underway. From 29 September to 1 October young people will be invited to Rome for a series of events organised by Taizé, the ecumenical Christian fraternity, including a prayer meeting in St Peter’s Basilica, presided at by the Pope, to which all Christians are invited.
“Synodality, with its accent on Baptism and the Holy Spirit, is a great chance to go further on the path of ecumenism,” Cardinal Hollerich said during the press briefing, timed for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January).
The press briefing was attended by Br Alois, the Prior of the Taizé Community, Archbishop Ian Ernest, the Director of the Anglican Centre, in Rome, Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Holy See, and Rev Christian Kireger, the President of the Conference of European Churches and head of the Protestant Federation of France.
Archbishop Ernest emphasised that the global synod process goes beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. “It opens the doors for greater ecumenical collaboration,” he added.