25 October 2023, The Tablet

Bishop who doubted synod ‘positively surprised’ by its success

“The hot topics do pop up but in a very disciplined manner without ‘ideologisation’, without any aggressiveness.”

Bishop who doubted synod ‘positively surprised’ by its success

Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen.
Christopher Lamb

A bishop initially sceptical about the Synod described himself as “positively surprised” by his experience in Rome and said he would leave the gathering with “inspiration and encouragement”.

The Bishop of Copenhagen, Czeslaw Kozon, told The Tablet he had his doubts at the launch of the 2021-2024 Synod on Synodality, a process that has sought to address fundamental questions about the Church’s mission, culture and structures while listening to Catholics from across the globe.

“I must admit that, when the project was launched, I was a bit sceptical,” he said. “[It was] not because of the idea as such, not because of fear of any outcomes, but because it then seemed not very concrete, difficult to grasp, difficult to put into action.” 

Spending three weeks in Rome for the 4-29 October Synod assembly in the Vatican, which has adopted a new process based on listening in small groups, gave him a different perspective. 

“Being here, I am very pleased with the atmosphere…the hot topics do pop up but in a very disciplined manner without ‘ideologisation’, without any aggressiveness,” the bishop explained. “Even if the hot topics are mentioned, it is still all about process.”

The Danish bishop is president of the Nordic bishops’ conference, which includes Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. He is seen as a bishop at the “conservative” end of the Church spectrum, and he and fellow Scandinavian bishops have expressed their worries about Germany’s Synodal way, which has pursued several progressive reforms.

While the Synod process has been described as the most ambitious Catholic renewal attempt for decades, it faces 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 clergy quietly resist or ignore the process. 

Bishop Kozon rejects the idea that the Synod was part of a conspiracy to overturn doctrine, which has been pushed among some in the United States.

“People who are worried should be calm and confident,” he said. 

Meanwhile, some progressive voices have also raised questions about whether the Synod can deliver reform and if the voices of lay people calling for change will be heard.

The bishop said the Synod process is working, and he believes both the “so-called conservatives” and the “so-called progressives” can get behind it. 

The 71-year-old, who has led the Diocese of Copenhagen since 1995, described the three-day retreat for Synod participants before the assembly began and the emphasis on prayer and silence as vital elements of the process. 

Bishop Kozon attended the German Synod and describes the Vatican gathering, which has taken place in round tables inside the Paul VI hall, as “completely different in a positive way”.

He said that the German Church faces a very tough situation due to abuse cases and the secularisation of society. But he was concerned that some of the topics at the German Synod – the ordination of women, sexual teaching, mandatory priestly celibacy – were dealt with in a “very pushy way” as though dealing with these matters would solve the Church’s difficulties.

Bishop Kozon said he doesn’t think the synodal assembly this year or when it meets again in October 2024 will be the place to make decisions on the “hot topics”. Ultimately, he said, “it’s up to the Pope.”

Responding to a question about the scepticism among certain sections of the clergy to the Synod, Bishop Kozon admits some priests haven’t been “so engaged in the process”. However, he says no priest in his diocese has said anything directly against the Synod. 

“It is clear that priests have an essential role in the Church, and in some cases, they have the final say, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include lay people in decision-making,” he says. “Priestly ministry and priestly authority is meant for service.” 

He believes finding a synodal method that can be adopted at the local and diocesan levels is necessary. Still, he says that parishes and diocesan councils have been used in Nordic countries for the last 50 years. He said that in his part of the world, people in the Church see it as natural to have forums to think about things before making any decisions.

But while he stressed parish councils in Denmark are not “mini-parliaments”, things can be developed further. 

“There’s a lot of unexplored potential in the present arrangements,” he said. “It’s not only including people who want to be listened to – it’s also a question of making people aware that baptised Christians in general not only have a right to be heard but also a duty to be involved in the spreading of the Gospel.”

There are 54,000 registered Catholics in Denmark and an estimated 10,000 unregistered. The bishop explained that while the Church in Denmark is a minority in a primarily secularised society, it is growing mainly due to immigration. In many parishes, it is migrants who are “the face of the Church”. 

Unlike in Britain, there were no post-Reformation recusant Catholics in Denmark, so when the Catholic Church was re-established in the 19th century, it was being constructed from “almost nothing.”

Initially, it came under the jurisdiction of the German Church as an apostolic vicariate and was only created as a diocese in 1953. He explained that the first bishop, Johannes Von Euch, who served from 1883-1922, was “very active, very visionary” and that most of the church structures in Denmark today are down to him. 

Being a minority, he said, can be a triple challenge: to be a Catholic in a mainly Lutheran country, to be a foreigner in a Danish environment and a practising Christian in a very secularised environment.

Recently, he added, the government has made some “strange laws” affecting all “minority denominations”, saying that priests from outside the EU cannot come to say Mass without permission to work in the country. The laws, he said, are aimed at trying to curb Islamist extremism but are having unintended consequences.

Yet as the Synod draws to a close, he said he’s hopeful for the future. 

“I think I can go back with some inspiration and encouragement and tell people what has happened,” he said. “As an additional asset, it has been very good to listen to people from all over the world.”

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