07 July 2023, The Tablet

Fr James Martin SJ chosen by Pope Francis for most ambitious Church renewal process in 60 years

Fr James Martin SJ chosen by Pope Francis for most ambitious Church renewal process in 60 years

Fr James Martin, the Jesuit priest from the United States who ministers to gay Catholics, was chosen personally by Pope Francis to take part in the synod.
Associated Press / Alamy

Those taking part in the forthcoming global summit on church renewal will make up the most diverse gathering yet for a synod assembly in Rome. 

Women, including religious sisters, will participate as voting members, while voices representing refugees, disabled people and LGBTQ Catholics will also be part of the synod, discussing how the Church can be more inclusive and mission-focussed. 

The synod assembly, which takes place from 4-29 October 2023, will include a broad cross-section of voices from across global Catholicism in what is set to be a groundbreaking summit with a host of contested topics on the agenda.  

Fr James Martin SJ, the Jesuit priest from the United States who ministers to gay Catholics, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former doctrine prefect, were among those chosen personally by the Pope to be members of the synod. Cardinal Müller is a Francis critic who has described the synod process as a “hostile takeover” of the Church and accused Fr Martin of spreading heresy. 

“I’m honoured to be invited by the Holy Father to participate in the synod,” Fr Martin said following news of his appointment. “As a Jesuit, I’m committed to this kind of group discernment and look forward to what the Holy Spirit has in store for the synod, and for the church.” 

The synod has insisted on the need for a Church able to hold opposing views in tension and, through the process of prayerful discernment, offer an antidote to polarisation. Among the topics for discussion include involving women at every level of Church decision-making, including the possibility of female deacons, the ordination of married men, greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ Catholics, reform of governance, the selection of bishops and lay leadership. But there is also a focus on bringing a wider range of voices to church decision-making and not becoming inward looking. Among those taking part include Enrique Alarcón García, the president of an international group for people with disabilities, who is a voting member chosen by the Pope, and Luca Casarini, who runs "Mediterranean Saving Humans", an initiative taking a stand against the deaths of refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, has been invited as a special guest.  

Around 400 synod participants include a strong contingent from the Church in England and Wales. The Archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, and the Bishop of Leeds, Marcus Stock, were chosen by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to participate in the gathering. At the same time, Bishop Nicholas Hudson, an auxiliary in the Westminster archdiocese, has been selected personally by the Pope to attend while Fr Jan Nowotnik, Director of Mission and National Ecumenical Officer at the bishops’ conference, is among the non-bishop voting members after being involved with the synod process in England and Wales. Cardinal Arthur Roche and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, two English priests holding senior Vatican positions, will also participate in the synod as voting members. 

Professor Anna Rowlands, from the University of Durham, who is an adviser to the synod, will attend as one of the “experts and facilitators”, as will Austen Ivereigh, the papal biographer who has worked on the synod process both globally and in England and Wales. Experts and facilitators do not vote. Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the former global leader of the Order of Preachers, will lead a retreat for the synod participants and serve as a spiritual adviser during the process. 

From Ireland, the Bishop of Limerick, Brendan Leahy, and the Bishop of Raphoe, Alan McGuckian, will represent the bishops, while Sister Pat Murray, the executive secretary of the International Union of Superiors General, will be one of the female voting members. Professor Fr Eamon Conway, an ecclesiologist at the University of Notre Dame Australia, will be one of the experts and facilitators. The Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, Brian McGee, will represent the Scottish bishops. 

The Australian Church, which has undergone its own local synodal process, will be well-represented through the Archbishop of Perth, Tim Costelloe, who has been chosen by Francis to attend and also to act as a "president delegate" during the synod, along with the Archbishops of Sydney (Anthony Fisher) and Adelaide (Patrick O’Regan) and the Bishop of Sandhurst, Shane Mackinlay. Australian laywomen Professor Renee Köhler-Ryan, from Notre Dame Australia; Dr Trudy Dantis from the bishops’ Conference pastoral research centre; Kelly Paget, the Chancellor of Broken Bay diocese, are among the voting members. Susan Pascoe, a synod adviser, and Professor Ormond Rush are among the experts and facilitators.  

The majority of the participants are bishops from across the world elected by their confreres. However, in a historic change to the synod process, Francis ruled that non-bishops, including women, would also be voting members. Regional bishops’ groups have put forward these synod members from those who took part in the continental assemblies, while five women and five men will take part as representatives of religious orders. The Pope also personally chooses a portion of the participants and, in another landmark move, has named two women -- Sr Maria de los Dolores Palencia from Mexico and Momoko Nishimura, from Japan -- as "president delegates" at the synod, meaning they can "preside over the Assembly of the Synod in the name and with the authority of the Roman Pontiff when the latter is not present."  

Along with Fr Martin, Francis has chosen key allies in the US hierarchy Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago, Wilton Gregory of Washington, DC and Robert McElroy of San Diego, while Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark will attend as a member of the synod council. The Archbishop of Seattle, Paul Etienne, has also been chosen by Francis to serve at the synod assembly.

His choices are in contrast to those chosen by the US bishops' conference, which includes its president, Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. The US bishops’ conference leaders have often appeared out of sync with Francis’ pastoral priorities.

Other bishops from the US attending include Bishop Winona–Rochester, Minnesota, Robert Barron, who leads the Word on Fire media network, Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, Kevin Rhoades and Bishop Brownsville, Texas, Daniel Flores.    

Participants will be asked to reflect on the synod working document through open discussion and more focused “conversations in the Spirit”, where they will gather around tables of about a dozen in the Paul VI Hall. This is a new development. 

The working document came out of an unprecedented listening exercise which included local synods taking place across the worldwide Church. The process has been described as the most ambitious Catholic renewal attempt in 60 years but has faced 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. 

But others have insisted that the synodal reforms begun by Francis are “irreversible”, with those Catholics taking part saying there can be no turning back. Those named for the October 2023 assembly will also participate in the second assembly in October 2024.


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