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A Dynamic Synodal Journey

Sunny Jacob Sunny Jacob
06 Nov 2023

A month-long Synod on Synodality assembly, convened by Pope Francis, concluded on the 28th October evening. There were 365 synod members who discussed and discerned on communion, participation, and mission from October 4 to 28, 2023. The Participants of the Synod approved the text calling for greater “co-responsibility” among all believers in the mission of the Church and proposing concrete reforms to achieve it. The first assembly of the Synod is over. The second assembly will be held next year around the same time, at the same place.

The 42-page summary document titled “A Synodal Church in Mission” describes some important proposals to establish new ministries for the laity, increase lay involvement in decision-making, create processes to evaluate bishops’ performance of their ministry, change the way the Church discerns “controversial” issues, and expand the footprint of synodal assemblies going forward. 

The document explains how in a symbolic manner the Synod was held: “… the Assembly was held, beginning with the arrangement of people seated in small groups around round tables in the Paul VI Hall, comparable to the biblical image of the wedding banquet (Rev. 19:9), is emblematic of a synodal Church and an image of the Eucharist, the source and summit of synodality, with the Word of God at its centre. Within it, different cultures, languages, rites, ways of thinking and realities can engage together and fruitfully in a sincere search under the guidance of the Spirit”. “The synodal process was and is a time of grace through which God is offering us the opportunity to experience a new culture of synodality, capable of guiding the life and mission of the Church.”

The Document says, “We have accepted the invitation to recognize with new awareness the synodal dimension of the Church”. An invaluable fruit of this synodal process is the heightened awareness of our identity as God's faithful People, within whom each is the bearer of a dignity derived from Baptism and called to co-responsibility for the common mission of evangelization. “The exercise of co-responsibility is essential for synodality and is necessary at all levels of the Church”. The summary document emphatically says, “Every Christian is a mission in the world.” This a new dimension of the understanding of Mission. The first part of the document sought to ground synodality in Scripture, tradition, and the teaching of Vatican II while also affirming the need to further develop the often-misunderstood concept itself and apply it more deeply to the Church’s theology and canon law.

Discernment, dialogue and listening to one another and consensus building were the process of this Synod. “Synodality can be understood as the walk of Christians with Christ and toward the kingdom, together with all humanity; mission-oriented, it involves coming together in assembly at the different ecclesial levels of life, listening to one another, dialogue, communal discernment, consensus-building as an expression of Christ’s making himself present alive in the Spirit, and decision-making in differentiated co-responsibility”.

The document deals with 20 different issues, including everything from “Christian initiation” to “missionaries in the digital environment.” The dynamism of the summary is worth noting. It witnessed areas of convergence, divergence, and concrete proposals that had emerged during the Synod. “This is the approach of Jesus, to create spaces for everyone so that no one feels excluded,” said Cardinal Mario Grech, head of the secretariat for the Synod, during the document’s presentation to media after its release.

The synod’s report is not ruling out the apprehensions and fears of people about the outcome of the Synod. It says, “Some fear that they will be forced to change; others fear that nothing will change, and there will be too little courage to move in the rhythm of the living tradition. Some perplexity and opposition also hide the fear of losing power and the privileges that come with it,” says the document. The assembly also identified the need to determine why some Catholics in some parts of the world did not participate in the synodal process, which was initiated by Pope Francis in 2021, and has included consultation at diocesan, national, and continental levels. 

It is surprising to note the observation that only 1% of Catholics worldwide took part in the pre-Synodal process in their dioceses and parishes. Since the first part of the Synod is over, and the summary document is available, we can hope for better participation of people before the second part of the Synod next year. It is the responsibility of the Dioceses, and Parishes to involve all people in the second phase of the synodal process. As Pope Francis says, let ‘the Holy Spirit be the protagonist of synodal process’. 
The document also deals with the issue of more role for women in the affairs of the Church. It says, “theological and pastoral research on women’s access to the diaconate should be continued,” considering the results of two commissions Pope Francis established to study the topic. “If possible, the results should be presented at the next session of the assembly”. This is a welcome development that will make the Church relevant and progressive. Of course, there is a lot more to be done in this direction. 

However, it is worth noticing the absence of the term “LGBTQ+ people” after the phrase was included in the working document that guided assembly discussions. The summary report did, however, emphasize the assembly’s “closeness and support to all those who experience a condition of loneliness” as result of “fidelity to the Church’s tradition and magisterium in marriage and sexual ethics” and called upon Christian communities to listen and accompany those in these situations. Regarding resistance to certain proposals, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, the relator general of the Synod on Synodality, said that if the results were considered in the context of parliamentary voting in a democratic state, “we would be very happy indeed” with the outcome, because everything was decided after hearing everyone, and on majority vote on issues raised. 

Perhaps the Synod’s most significant concrete proposals came in the form of calls for changes in ecclesial decision-making and the expansion of synodal assemblies and bodies in the life of the Church. The report called for continental assemblies to be canonically recognized and for the implementation of “the exercise of synodality” at regional, national, and continental levels. One “issue to be addressed” was the revision of local Church councils to “realize through them a greater participation of the people of God.” The best example is the recent plenary council in Australia, which included bishop and non-bishop participation. The Synod assembly also proposed formally reconsidering the composition of the Synod of Bishops itself.

In the section on “The Synod of Bishops and Ecclesial Assemblies”, the document welcomed the changes done in the Synod i.e. the full participation of non-bishop members, including laymen and women.  While “preserving its eminently episcopal character,” the Synod also “made tangible” the link between the participation of all the faithful, episcopal collegiality, and the primacy of the pope. “The question remains open about the impact of [non-bishops’] presence as full members on the episcopal character of the assembly,” the Synod document noted. 

There are serious points for further reflections on the issue of Eastern Churches. The document acknowledges that “their experience of unity in diversity can make a valuable contribution to the understanding and practice of synodality”. In recent decades, the path of recognizing the specificity, distinction and autonomy of these Churches has developed considerably. 

The “urgent need to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility in pastoral care and ministry” was also cited. The document refers to Pope Francis’ recent appointment of several women to positions of responsibility in the Roman Curia and stressed that “the same should happen at other levels” of the Church and that canon law be adapted accordingly. We hope this will be implemented in our dioceses and parishes too. 

Another important step proposed by the document is, it called for bishops to exercise their mandate to teach, govern, and sanctify through greater engagement with members of their local community. Concrete proposals included establishing “structures and processes for the verification of the bishop’s work” and making diocesan pastoral councils canonically mandatory. With regards to the selection and appointment of bishops the Synod suggested that there should be broader consultation in the process, including greater input from laymen and women. 

Formation of seminarians must be modified to have a more synodal strain of pastoral engagement. Adequate selection processes for candidates for ordained ministry are needed, and requirements for propaedeutic programs are met. “Formation for a synodal Church requires to be undertaken in a synodal way: the whole People of God are formed together as they walk together. There is a need to overcome the delegation mentality found in so many areas of pastoral ministry”. “The formation of ordained ministers should be thought of in coherence with a synodal Church, in the different contexts. This requires that candidates for ministry, before embarking on specific paths, have matured a real, albeit initial, experience of Christian community. The formation journey should not create an artificial environment, separate from the common life of the faithful. By safeguarding the requirements of formation for ministry, it will foster an authentic spirit of service to the People of God in preaching, celebration of the sacraments and animation of charity. This may require a revision of the Ratio Fundamentalis for priests and permanent deacons”. 

The assembly also proposed reconsidering the way the Church discerns “controversial” issues and “open questions,” a loaded topic that may raise concerns about the diminishing of the episcopacy’s charism for authoritatively teaching. “Some issues, such as those related to gender identity and sexual orientation, the end of life, difficult marital situations, and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence, are controversial not only in society but in the Church because they raise new questions,” the document specified. 

As a response, the document called for the promotion of “initiatives that allow for shared discernment on doctrinal, pastoral, and ethical issues that are controversial” in “light of the word of God, Church teaching, theological reflection, and valuing the synod experience.” The text proposed that a confidential meeting of experts on the controversial issues, possibly with the inclusion of those who directly experience them, should be initiated, with an eye toward next October’s assembly. 

In a move signalling openness to decentralizing the Church’s teaching authority, the document proposed further exploration of “the doctrinal and juridical nature” of bishops’ conferences, recognizing the possibility of doctrinal decision-making “in the local sphere.” The synod also proposed giving episcopal conferences more authority over liturgy. This is a new development in line with the decentralisation process.

The document insists on the topic of the Church’s engagement with the poor, that “the experience of encounter, sharing a common life and serving those living in poverty and the marginalized” should be “integral” in Christian formation. “It is a requirement of faith, not an optional extra,” also recommending that diaconal ministry be “more evidently oriented” toward serving the poor. Regarding Christian unity, the text included proposals to establish a common date for the celebration of Easter for all Christians and to “compile an ecumenical martyrology.” These are very valid proposals for the Church for the future.

There is a very new idea in the document for enhancing the formation and support of “digital missionaries”. This is for reaching out young people distant from the Church. The Synod also recommends Spiritual conversation as a method of prayer for all our meetings and deliberations. It emphasizes the importance of listening to groups that have been harmed by or excluded from the Church, including victims and survivors of clerical sex abuse. “Authentic listening is a fundamental element of the journey toward healing, repentance, justice, and reconciliation.”

According to its introduction, the 2023 assembly’s summary report “is in no way a final document” but will be used as the basis of the Synod on Synodality’s final stage — another Vatican assembly in October 2024. That assembly in 2024 is expected to produce a final text that will be presented to the Pope for his consideration. 

The Synod members will return to their respective dioceses, where they have been tasked to get feedback on the summary report and to foster a synodal culture. “I think people will go home with a heart full of hope, with a lot of ideas, and I’m looking forward to seeing them back next year,” Cardinal Hollerich said. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Church continues its onward journey. Yes, the Synodal Journey continues.

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