At the special event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis gave a magisterial address with his reflections on the Synod and the Church. I remember walking back from the function with the Chilean Cardinal, and discussing the new insights the Holy Father had given. The Pope stressed that Synodality flows from the teachings of Vatican II and that the Church of today is called to be a Synodal Church.
The most evident structure to begin this new thrust was the Synod of Bishops. Topics for the Bishops’ Synod are chosen by the Holy Father in consultation with the bishops of the world. After the consultation, the Secretary General of the Synod takes the list to the Holy Father with the recommendations of the Synod Council.
The major point of discussion at our deliberations was whether we should discuss Synodality itself or take another theme of universal importance and discuss it in a Synodal way. In other words: Should Synodality be just the process, or the process and also the object of the process. After much debate on this issue, the topic of Synodality was chosen. We later learnt that this was also the personal preference of the Holy Father.
Synod: walking together brings its own challenges. Can we all really walk together? Aren’t we so different? Is there commonality in the Church universal? And of course, the elephant in the room: are we beginning a democratization of the Church? Is this the Church that Our Lord intended to found? It is evident that such a process has its own inherent challenges. I am reminded of the reflections of St. John Cardinal Henry Newman regarding sensus fidelium which become very relevant here. Discernment is vital for this process. It is the Holy Spirit who should guide us for all decisions. But how do we ascertain this? How to discern what truly is the will of God?
On October 9–10, Pope Francis will inaugurate the process of the Synod, a process that will go on for two years, with discussions at the diocesan level, national level and continental level and finally the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023. A detailed timetable has been drawn up for the programmes for Dioceses, Episcopal Bodies, Continental Federations and the Dicastery in Rome.
How will the Synodal process go on in India? I must honestly say I just don’t know. In India we have three sui iuris Churches: three Churches that are united in Christ, part of the Roman Catholic Church under the authority of Pope Francis but with their own internal autonomy in many matters. Reflecting this theological reality, each of our episcopal bodies will conduct their own procedure independent of each other: the Conference of the Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) for the Latin Church; the Syro Malabar Synod for the Syro Malabar Church and the Syro Malankara Synod for the Syro Malankara Church.
At the moment in the process planned we do not envisage a pan-India meeting, but there is a distinct possibility that we will feel the need for this. We have had the Plenary Council of India in 1950, the historical All India Seminar in Bangalore in 1969 and we have biennial Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Plenary Assemblies, taking up different themes that concern the Church in India, having a supra ritual nature and of national importance. And we have never run short of topics.
Given the present plan, each Diocese/Eparchy will inaugurate the Diocesan/Eparchial process a week after the Holy Father formally launches it on October 9 - 10. Every Diocesan Bishop will begin the process with an inaugural Eucharist or Service of the Word in his own Cathedral or an important Basilica/Shrine. I am sure all Dioceses will have a very meaningful liturgical service.
This begins the Synodal process at the local level. In the Archdiocese of Bombay we have the praxis of having a Consultation/Diocesan Synod every ten years or so. This will be our fifth in a row. We had already announced a Diocesan Consultation in 2021, which had to be kept on hold because of the pandemic. Then the Holy Father announced the theme for the next Synod. Our own plans fitted in fully with the Holy Father’s directions. This gave us the confidence that it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding the Church. Else we could not independently have had the same plans.
Incidentally the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) has over the last two years worked on its own plans for a General Conference and the preparatory meetings have all been synodal. Do we need further evidence of the felt need for this and of the gentle thrust of the Holy Spirit behind these programmes?
This time, unlike in the past, the plan is that we will have homogenous groups discussing the themes in their own circles. This, I expect, will make for greater depth of discussion and the quieter voices will also be heard. Thus it is foreseen that the Women Religious meet among themselves, the Men Religious, the Lay Associations, the Youth, the children and of course, the Diocesan Clergy. Then gradually we will move for greater synthesis through a study at the Diocesan level.
Will this work? Is this feasible? We have quite a lot of experience with the old system: elected delegates representing the whole Diocese meet for five days and after systematic discussion arrive at a final document. This is a new way. And we will learn, also through mistakes.
I see a variety of issues that confront the Church today, which will not be the same tomorrow. The pandemic and the lockdown have brought special pastoral challenges. Then there have been issues that have been with us for some time: a Faith formation which is relevant and answers the questions of our time and place; the issue of social justice and outreach to the poor; the Dalit issue; discrimination against women; child protection policies have to be put in place and be effective; in some places the Church has to regain lost credibility. Every region, every diocese, every district in the country will have its own specific problem.
There is a palpable enthusiasm among many about the Synodal process – a process that has its own challenges and has to be carefully thought out and effectively guided. Else the Church could emerge from this process more divided and more confused than before.
What will the Church in India be at the end of this process? Under the leadership of Pope Francis, we are once again plunging into a project with no clear pointers to where it will lead us. My personal experience with Pope Francis is that he always takes the right decisions. Somehow inexplicably things work out. It is the Holy Spirit guiding the Church not just human planning.
All we can hope for is that we will be faithful to the divine plan, that we will have the courage and persistence to carry on in spite of obstacles that will and must come. We always emerge stronger because of these. We hope that at the end of this process the Church will become what God wants it to be: the Kingdom of God. We hope that the Church will be a holier Church: weak, struggling, a bit confused, uncertain but all marching together as missionary disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. We go ahead in faith, hope and charity.
(The writer is the Archbishop of Bombay & President, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India)