By Alfredo Romagosa
A new stage in the path to a Synodal Church initiated by Pope Francis has just begun with the publication of the Working Document for the Continental Stage¹ published by the General Secretariat of the Synod and consisting of an organized compilation of the material resulting from all the local meetings on synodality held during the last year. The process was supposed to conclude with the actual Synod on October 2023, where the bishops, with the assistance of experts and consulting lay people will formulate formal proposals for the pope. The pope is then expected to make decisions based on these proposals, published in the form of an apostolic exhortation, an official document that the pope publishes after most synods. But, as he did with the 2014/2015 Synod on the Family, Pope Francis has decided to have two synodal meetings, one on 2023 and one on 2024, to be sure that the work really gets done. Of course, most of the work is actually done in preparation for the meetings. The upcoming stage is called “continental”, because the preparatory work is supposed to be done as a continent, in our case composed of the United States and Canada. In this article, we will review key elements of the Working Document, but it is also a good moment to “take stock” of the process and its outlook for the future.
Several authors have used the synodality process to reflect on Francis’ papacy. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, for example, has written an article entitled “The Long Game.”² He begins it by recalling a cartoon from 2013 on the election of Pope Francis which shows him standing on the South Pole, which could be seen as a world turned upside down. The cartoonist wanted to emphasize the beneficial newness of the “southern” winds, but the cartoon also implied possibly significant changes. In his article Cardinal Tobin is also talking about the positive impact of Francis’ papacy but acknowledging that his changes have been unsettling for some. In another article, historian John W. O’Malley SJ characterizes Francis’ synodal process as a reversal of the “papalization” of the Church in recent centuries.³ Lay theologian Rafael Luciani further defines the process and Francis’ papacy as “a transition from an occidental and mono-cultural Church centered on Rome and on primacy, to a worldwide and intercultural one that opens the way for more authority at the local Churches.” ⁴
1 Working Document for the Continental Stage
2 Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, “The Long Game” in Commonweal, June 2021, 24-27.
3 John W. O’Malley SJ, “Papal Upgrades” in America, July/August 2022, 39-41.
4 Rafael Luciani, “La Reforma como Conversión Pastoral y Sinodal: Eclesiogénesis de una Recepción Conciliar” in Journeying with Pope Francis, Roots and Challenges, edited by Alfredo Romagosa and Sixto García, my translation, (Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 2020), 115-138, at 115.
Many articles speak of synodality as a new way of being church, but we must remember that discerning together has always been part of Christianity. In the early centuries, there would seem to have been an obsession with synods or councils at all levels, often as the result of serious conflicts. There clearly was a neglect of this aspect in recent centuries, but Cardinal Tobin points out a good characteristic of the “new style” of synodality: “Acts of synodality no longer function as sweeping dogmatic declarations, but rather are used to fine-tune how the Gospel is applied to the signs of the times.”⁵
Remember that the word synodality in Greek just means “journeying together,” but it is clear that the pope is trying to change the style of the Church as outlined in the paragraphs above. This whole process officially began with a Consultation phase, in which many of us participated at our parishes or organizations. Through the rest of the article we will refer to the Working Document as the document, and we will refer to its paragraph numbers (#). The document attempted to synthetize the material gathered from the consultations, but it also passed on many raw quotations, so as to convey their flavor, and the church source is often also provided (EC). We will use italics for these raw quotations. Before getting into specific issues, the document celebrates the importance of the consultation process:
Many emphasized that this was the first time the Church had asked for their opinion and they wish to continue this journey: “Meetings in the spirit of the synodal method, in which all members of the congregation or community can openly and honestly express their opinion, as well as meetings with various groups outside the Church, should continue. This kind of cooperation should become one of the ‘unwritten laws’ of the Church culture, so as to foster rapprochement between Church members and groups in society, thus creating a readiness of people for deeper dialogue” (EC Latvia) (# 17)
The document also records some expressions of rejection: “I distrust the Synod. I think it has been called to bring about further change to Christ’s teachings and wound his Church further. (individual submission from the UK) Quite frequently, the fear has been expressed that the emphasis on synodality could push the Church toward adopting mechanisms and procedures that depend on a democratic-type majority principle.” (#18) We should remember the conflicts in the Early Church described by the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul. Acknowledging the reality of conflicts, the document reflects on what it sees as the proper handling of controversies:
The submissions are encouraging because they avoid two of the main spiritual temptations facing the Church in responding to diversity and the tensions it generates. The first is to remain trapped in conflict, such that our horizons shrink and we lose our sense of the whole, and fracture into sub-identities. It is an experience of Babel and not Pentecost, well recognizable in many features of our world. The second is to become spiritually detached and disinterested in the tensions involved, continuing to go our own way without involving ourselves with those close to us on the journey. (#30)
5 Tobin, “The Long Game,” 26.
Problems and Limitations
Reaching the Margins
The document details some of the problems and limitations most often mentioned in the Consultation. Perhaps the most critical has been the inability to reach the “margins”, as Pope Francis had intended:
“As the Bolivian Church, we are saddened that we have not been able to effectively reach out to the poor on the peripheries and in the most remote places” (EC Bolivia). Among the most frequently mentioned excluded groups are: the poorest, the lonely elderly, indigenous peoples, migrants without any affiliation and who lead a precarious existence, street children, alcoholics and drug addicts, those who have fallen into the plots of criminality and those for whom prostitution seems their only chance of survival, victims of trafficking, survivors of abuse (in the Church and beyond), prisoners, groups who suffer discrimination and violence because of race, ethnicity, gender, culture and sexuality. (#40)
Among those who are looking for a more meaningful dialogue and a more welcoming space are those who “for various reasons, feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships, such as: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ people, etc.” (#39) Also included in the margins are young people: “There is universal concern regarding the meagre presence of the voice of young people in the synod process, as well as increasingly in the life of the Church.” (# 35) The need to reach out to all these margins is captured in the biblical image from Isaiah (54:2) about the need to “Enlarge the space of your tent!” (#10).
The Role of Women
The role of women is often cited as both a limitation and an opportunity: “The call for a conversion of the Church’s culture, for the salvation of the world, is linked in concrete terms to the possibility of establishing a new culture, with new practices and structures. A critical and urgent area in this regard concerns the role of women and their vocation, rooted in our common baptismal dignity, to participate fully in the life of the Church.” (#60) There are two related challenges in this area: “Women remain the majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities, men a minority; yet most decision-making and governance roles are held by men. It is clear that the Church must find ways to attract men to a more active membership in the Church and to enable women to participate more fully at all levels of Church life.” (#61)
This issue presents its own controversies: “Many reports ask that the Church continue its discernment in relation to a range of specific questions: the active role of women in the governing structures of Church bodies, the possibility for women with adequate training to preach in parish settings, and a female diaconate.” A more controversial subject was the priestly ordination for women, “which some reports call for, while others consider a closed issue.” (#64)
The document laments “weak involvement of priests” (EC Chile) (#19) in the process so far, and points out their serious needs: “the reports are sensitive to the loneliness and isolation of many members of the clergy, who do not feel listened to, supported and appreciated.” (#34) “They also voice the desire for better formed, better accompanied and less isolated priests. They signal the importance of ridding the Church of clericalism so that all its members, including priests and laity, can fulfil a common mission. Clericalism is seen as a form of spiritual impoverishment, a deprivation of the true goods of ordained ministry, and a culture that isolates clergy and harms the laity.” (#58) Seminary training is in need of reform: “Though long, seminary formation is geared toward preparing the clergy for a priestly lifestyle and devoid of forming them for pastoral coordination. The formation and training on working together, listening to one another and participation in the mission together is essential in priestly formation.” (EC Sri Lanka) (#83)
The formation and recognition of lay ministers is a key need, respecting their charisms, and what is sought is inclusivity, “the harmonization of these gifts, without pitting them against each other, under the guidance of the pastors, and thus without opposing the Church’s charismatic and institutional dimensions.” (#70)
The bishops have also shared their concerns and reflected on what synodality means for them: “The bishops too have prayed and debated the question: ‘How to make an Episcopal Conference more synodal? And how to live it in a more synodal way?’” (EC Paraguay) (#75) They have asked the question whether the Episcopal Conferences should include representatives of the clergy and laity in their debates and meetings.
The need for transparency is expressed in different ways, including openness: “The Catholic Church needs to become more open and transparent, everything is done in secret. Parish Council agendas and minutes are never published, financial committee decisions never discussed or balance sheets shared.” (individual observation from UK). It is also expressed as a problem of authority: “It is sometimes sad to note that in our Catholic Church there are bishops, priests, catechists, community leaders..., who are very authoritarian… Instead of serving the community, some serve themselves with unilateral decisions, and this hinders our synodal journey.” (EC Chad) (#79)
A genuine appreciation of synodality immediately generates a desire for training so as to make it real:
The overwhelming majority of reports indicate the need to provide for formation in synodality. Structures alone are not enough: there is a need for ongoing formation to support a widespread synodal culture… Formation for synodality intersects all dimensions of Christian life and can only be “an integral formation that includes personal, spiritual, theological, social and practical dimensions…” (EC Spain) “For the realization of the said elements of synodality, there is an urgent need for the education and formation programmes for clergy and lay people for developing a shared understanding of synodality that is so vital for journeying together in the local Churches.” (EC Myanmar) (#82)
The consultation has affirmed the importance given by the faithful to liturgical celebration and prayer: “Liturgical celebration and prayer are experienced as a force for uniting and mobilizing human and spiritual energies. The prevailing opinion is that prayer fosters joy of life and a purpose of community, because it is seen as a point of reference, a place of strength and an oasis of peace. (EC Burkina Faso e Niger) (#89) There is also a desire for improvement: ”Let us try to make the liturgical celebration more alive and participatory of all the community of believers; priests, laity, youth and children, reading the signs of the time with sound discernment. The young people are trying to have a space in the liturgy with songs and it is positive.” (EC Ethiopia) (#91) The quality of the homilies is a pervasive issue. There is a call for “deeper homilies, centered on the Gospel and the readings of the day, and not on politics, making use of accessible and attractive language that refers to the lives of the faithful.” (Maronite Church) (#93)
As we enter the next stage, there should be a natural transition from consultation to decision making. In the article that we quoted earlier, Dr. Luciani⁶ emphasizes that synodality cannot be just a consultative process, but it needs to lead to decision-making. Decisions in the political world are characterized by conflictive debates and voting. Synodality in the Church context requires more patient discerning. This was put into practice in the Plenary Council of Venezuela.⁷ It included a continuous process that ended in decisions by the bishops, but it was a last step in a search for building a consensus fidelium. There was some sharing of viewpoints and some voting, but with more sharing than voting, and a gradual consensus could be seen emerging. Luciani characterizes this decision making as resulting from “the consultative vote of all the participating faithful and in interaction with them.” In paragraph #78, the document reflects this concern, speaking of the many councils that are often organized: “Many reports show the need for these bodies to be not only consultative, but places where decisions are made on the basis of processes of communal discernment rather than on the majority principle used in democratic regimes.”
A recent article by lay theologian Dr. Olga Consuelo Vélez Caro⁸ combines notes of concern and hope. She is afraid of a potential outcome of just “a superficial varnish” and some token changes without the necessary recognition of the need for conversion and structural changes so that synodality becomes the “constitutive dimension of the Church.” She is unhappy with the progress so far, but she sees the process extension to 2024 as a sign that the pope is expecting real change. Again, the document states this need: “The Church also needs to give a synodal form and way of proceeding to its own institutions and structures, particularly with regard to governance. Canon law will need to accompany this process of structural renewal creating the necessary changes to the arrangements currently in place.” (#71) We conclude with an inspiring statement from the document relating synodality to mission:
“We believe that communion must lead us to a permanent state of mission: meeting and listening to each other, dialogue, reflection, discernment together are all actions with positive effects in themselves, but they are not understandable if they are not directed at pushing us to go beyond ourselves and our communities of reference in order to carry out the mission entrusted to us as Church.” (EC Spain) (#99)
6 Rafael Luciani , “La Reforma como Conversión Pastoral y Sinodal,” 137.
7 Raúl Biord Castillo, “El Concilio Plenario Venezolano”, as part of the seminar Caminando hacia el Sínodo de los Obispos, Boston College, 2021.
8 Olga Consuelo Vélez Caro, “¿Una iglesia en conversión sinodal?”, my translation, Atrio, 25-octubre-2022.