Global Synod on Synodality: Five takeaways from what the People of God told their Church

By Ellie Hidalgo 

The first phase of the largest global listening process ever attempted in human history has been completed, and the Vatican has published a synthesis of what the People of God across all the continents have told their Church. This synthesis of the voices of millions of people entitled, “Enlarge the space of your tent”, now serves as the reflection document for the next phase of the global synod – the continental stage. While this working document from the continental stage (DCS) is not considered a document of the Church’s magisterium, it is a theological document that reflects the experience of listening to the voice of the Spirit through the People of God, and it creates a framework for the next stage of listening and discernment. Here are five takeaways from the DCS and the synod process to date: 

  1. Catholics affirm their great love for the Church that has nurtured their faith and their dreams of a Church that is inclusive and welcomes the Family of God and that can serve as a credible witness in the world. The heart of the synodal process is the desire to discern communally what steps the Holy Spirit is inviting Catholics to take to grow as a synodal Church that journeys together. The premise is that the only way forward (and not backward) is by walking together. Theologically, the DCS emphasizes that our foundational unity as a People of God is the common dignity of all the baptized and the ability to recognize the abundance of gifts and charisms which the Spirit pours out on the faithful. To this end, the listening and consultation phase sought to attune the Church’s ear to the sensus fidei – in the belief that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit resides in and among the people. It is why listening matters. It is why we can grow in wisdom, insight, compassion and develop the capacities for good discernment when we invest in listening to and dialoguing with others – particularly the poor, those on the peripheries, and those who feel excluded in some way. The hope is that enculturating a synodal style is the way to be and thrive as a Church in the third millennium. 
  2. The biblical image of the tent found in Isaiah chapter 54 is key to interpreting what the People of God have told their Church. The scriptural directive from God to “enlarge the space of your tent” encompasses the five generative tensions which have emerged from the experience of listening globally – a desire for a Church that is radically inclusive, open and welcoming through the basic posture of listening; proclaiming the face of a God who cares and is open to dialogue with all people, including those of other faiths; an assumption of co-responsibility of all the baptized for the Church’s one mission; the need to create structures and institutions that widen concrete possibilities for living in communion, participation and mission; and recognizing the liturgy, especially the Eucharistic liturgy, as the source and summit of Christian life. The DCS features poignant quotes from the faithful in every continent. For example, a member in Ireland articulated the sentiments I heard expressed in Miami by Hispanic/Latino grandparents and parents who no longer experience Sundays as a day of family unity by noting, “Those who feel at home in the Church feel the absence of those who don’t.” The synodal process is sparking a hope that by intentionally seeking to enlarge the space of the tent, Catholics can create more experiences of welcome and belonging particularly for younger Catholics who have one foot or two feet out the door. 
  3. The scandal of abuse by members of the clergy or by people holding ecclesial office continues to be an open wound and source of pain for victims, survivors, their families and communities. There is still much work to be done to acknowledge the depth of damage, to safeguard the vulnerable, to heal and to rebuild trust in the moral authority of the Church. Many groups have called for cultural changes in the Church and believe that the way forward is to create structures of greater transparency, accountability and co-responsibility. The laity are essentially asking for greater participation and responsibility (not less) to restore, reconcile and renew the Body of Christ. They express deep appreciation for the dedication of many faithful priests while also wanting to rid the Church of the clericalism that isolates, overworks and impoverishes the clergy and also harms the laity. 
  4. The call to rethink women’s participation in the Church (paragraphs 60-65) is named as a “critical and urgent area” for discernment. All the continents have raised the issue of valuing Catholic women as baptized and equal members of the People of God. They ask for the Church to be their ally in addressing women’s social realities of impoverishment, violence and diminishment. Although women are often among the most active members of the Church, they have much less access to decision-making and governance roles, and this has become a stumbling block for the Church in today’s world. Three areas are specifically named for the Church to continue its discernment: 1) the active role of women in the governing structures of Church bodies; 2) the possibility for women with adequate training to preach in parish settings; and 3) a female diaconate. Additionally, women, particularly religious women, already engage in prophetic synodal practices in challenging world contexts and could play a significant role being teachers of synodality in Church processes.
  5. The healthy exercise of authority and power are reimagined in a synodal key – one in which those with ministerial responsibilities (clergy, religious and laity) are centered in listening to diverse voices and to being of service. Renewed forms of leadership are relational and collaborative, and local churches are asked to integrate a more synodal style. For example, current bodies of participation and consultation, like the parish council, are asked to become entities where decisions are made on the basis of communal discernment, rather than on the majority principle. However, ongoing formation to create and sustain a widespread synodal culture at each local level is raised as a definite need. Universities are named for their capacity to develop research that addresses questions of synodality, and theological faculties are asked to deepen the insights of synodical experiences and practices. 


What happens next? 
The faithful from each of the continents are gathering together in the next two months to reflect on the DCS and to discern the priorities for their continent. The bishops’ conferences for the US and Canada will collaborate for the Continental Phase for North America. Bishops and three to five designated delegate from each diocese will participate in any of the 10 virtual assemblies taking place December through January. The North American writing team will gather in February to begin composing a Continental Synthesis that will be submitted to the Secretariat for the Synod by March 31. 

During the recent US bishops’ conference in November, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, who is part of the US Synod Coordinating Team, thanked all those who helped to organize more than 30,000 listening consultations across the US during the listening and consultation phase (remarks begin at minute 25). The synod process, he said, is about “hearing in grace and responding in grace.” He added that synodality includes how bishops relate pastorally with their people and walk with them and is a style that can overcome the polarization experienced in the Church. 

Some have expressed concern that the US was not also formally paired with Mexico and Latin America during the continental stage as part of the one America which Pope John Paul II envisioned for North and South America. Even with that limitation, Latin Americans leaders have been actively seeking to build bridges across the Americas throughout the synodal process, including Synod Commission on Methodology member Mauricio López (Ecuador), theologian Rafael Luciani (Venezuela), women faith leaders in the Amazon, and CELAM president Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, OFM of Peru (whose remarks to the US-based National Catholic Council of Hispanic Ministry begin at minute 36). 

Pope Francis recently decided to extend the Synod on Synodality by an additional year through October 2024 to allow more time for relaxed discernment by the Syond of Bishops as well as the People of God. The Universal Phase of the Synod will now be held in two parts, October 2023 and October 2024. 

“I trust that this decision will promote the understanding of synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church, and help everyone to live it as the journey of brothers and sisters who proclaim the joy of the Gospel,” said Pope Francis.

While most of us will not have the opportunity to participate in the continental stage as official delegates, the faithful are nevertheless encouraged to keep living as protagonists of the Church’s mission, to gather together, read and reflect on the DCS, and to pray for the synod process. The particular project I am co-directing, Discerning Deacons, also seeks to build synodal bridges across the Americas. We are co-sponsoring with Boston College a webinar on “The Global Synod: What Happens Next?” featuring theologian Rafael Luciani and Richard Coll of the US Synod Coordinating Team on December 7 at 7 pm ET. And during advent we will host two virtual sessions to gather together and reflect on the DCS – register for Wednesday, December 14th session at 7 pm ET (Spanish interpretation available) or Thursday, December 15th session at 12pm ET. All are welcome. 

Ellie Hidalgo is based in Miami and serves as co-director of Discerning Deacons, an organization that has been training synod animators and organizing synodal consultations across the US and beyond. Previously, she worked for 12 years on the leadership team of Dolores Mission Catholic Church in Los Angeles.