Towards a Synodal Church in Mission

A brief look at the Synthesis Report of the First Universal Session of the Synod on Synodality by Michael McCabe SMA

The first universal session of the Synod on Synodality (Rome, 4-29 October, 2023) was unique in the recent history of Episcopal Synods on several accounts. It was held in the Vatican’s Audience Hall, not the usual Synodal Hall. Among its 400 participants (including observers and facilitators), were a significant number of religious and lay men and women (70), all with voting rights. The method of the synod was also new (for Vatican meetings). It gave a voice to all the participants and facilitated what was termed ‘conversations in the Spirit’ (35 round tables of 10 participants – mixed – each person being given a chance to speak a number of times).  It involved several moments of silent prayer, speaking (3 mins), and listening,  followed by free exchange. The final 42-page Synthesis Report, entitled ‘A Synodal Church in Mission’, summarises the results of these conversations.  All 81 paragraphs of the report received the two-thirds majority of votes necessary for inclusion in the document.   It should be noted that this Report is not a final document but rather ‘a tool at the service of ongoing discernment.’

Structure of the Report
The Report consists of an introduction, a conclusion, and three sections, entitled respectively ‘The face of the synodal Church,’ ‘All disciples, all missionaries,’ and ‘Weaving bonds, generating communities.’ Each section contained subtopics split into three headings: ‘Convergences,’ which highlight areas of agreement, ‘Matters for Consideration,’ pointing to subjects for further discussion, and Proposals,’ suggesting specific actions.

The Assembly was practically unanimous in affirming the fundamental equality and dignity of all the baptised (as clearly taught by Vatican II), while respecting  the specific identity and role of the laity in the Church. The Report notes that many assembly members warned against the danger of ‘clericalising’ the laity, creating ‘a kind of lay elite that perpetuates inequalities and divisions among the People of God’. The Report states: ‘Before any distinction of charisms and ministries, we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13). Therefore, among all the baptized, there is a genuine equality of dignity and a common responsibility        for mission.’ By the anointing of the Spirit, who ‘teaches all things’ (1 Jn 2:27), all believers possess an instinct for the truth of the gospel, a sensus fideiSynodal processes enhance this gift and allow for verifying the existence of that consensus of the faithful which is a sure criterion for determining whether a particular doctrine or practice belongs to the Apostolic faith’ (Report, p. 9).  This is a hugely significant statement which underlines the importance of consulting the faithful, not just on practical and pastoral issues, but also on matters of doctrine, a principle vigorously argued by Cardinal John Henry Newman over a century and a half ago, in 1859.

The Report calls for the simplification of liturgical language, and the inculturation of the liturgy. The text states that there was a ‘widely reported need to make liturgical language more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures’. Without questioning continuity with ritual tradition and the need for liturgical formation, the Report acknowledges the need for further reflection on this issue and for greater responsibility to be given to episcopal conferences in this area, along the lines of the motu proprio (Personal Letter of the Pope,) Magnum Principium  (2017). 

The Report stressed the need for greater participation of laity (especially women) in the life and mission of the Church and in decision-making processes at all levels (from local to universal), saying that this ‘can contribute to a more vibrant and missionary Church’. This will require the creation of new lay ministries according to the needs of local Churches. The Assembly endorsed the establishment of a special ‘baptismal ministry listening and accompanying’.  The Report also calls for special attention be given to the formation of priests so as ‘to avoid the risks of formalism and ideology that lead to authoritarian attitudes and to clericalism’. Priests need to be trained in the art of listening to, and collaborating with, the lay faithful on a basis of respect and equality.

 Matters for Further Consideration
The Report acknowledges that there were a number of significant issues on which Assembly delegates did not reach consensus, and which therefore require further study and reflection. The first of these issues is the meaning and implications of Synodality itself. Many delegates found the term confusing. The Report calls for an ‘in-depth terminological and conceptual study of the notion and practice of synodality’ to be undertaken and presented at the Second Universal Session of the Bishops on Synodality in October ‘24. The Report also calls for the establishment of a ‘special intercontinental commission of theologians and canonists’  to examine the canonical implications of Synodality.

 While the reports of the local and national synodal assemblies, especially in the Western world, revealed enormous support for the ordination of women as deacons, the ordination of married men, and the removal of compulsory celibacy for priests, the Rome Assembly did not reach agreement on these issues. It did, however, agree to examine them again at the second Universal Assembly this coming October.  

Neither did the Assembly agree on what it termed  ‘difficult issues’.  These issues are: gender identity and sexual orientation; the end of life; ethical issues related to artificial intelligence; and irregular marital situations. The report states that these are controversial issues in society as well as in the Church, and that, to address them, the Church must take account of ‘perspectives from the human and social sciences, philosophical reflection and theological elaboration’. It is noteworthy that the Report avoids using the term ‘LGBTQ+’ – the term non-binary persons use when referring to themselves as a group.

The Report makes several important proposals on the issues discussed by the Assembly. I will not attempt to refer to all of them but simply highlight those that struck me as particularly significant.

Under Lay participation in the Church, the Report  proposes  that the responsibilities assigned to the existing ministry of Lector be expanded to become ‘a fuller ministry of the Word of God, which, in   appropriate contexts, could also include preaching.’ The Report    also envisages the creation of a new lay ministry of accompaniment and listening, and ‘a ministry for married couples committed to supporting family life and accompanying     people preparing for the sacrament of marriage’.

Under the specific heading, Women in the Church, the Report calls for the participation of women in decision-making processes at every level in the Church, taking on greater roles of responsibility in pastoral care and the Report states: ‘There is an urgent need to ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes’. The Reports notes that Pope Francis has significantly increased the number of women in   positions of responsibility in the Roman Curia. The same should happen at other levels of the life of the Church, and Canon Law must be adapted accordingly. The Report goes on to propose that women be involved in seminary teaching and training programs (as happens in some Western countries). Research must continue on women’s access to the Diaconate, drawing on the work of two Commissions already established.     

Furthermore, liturgical   language must be revised to make it more respectful to women. Liturgical texts and    Church documents should ‘be  more attentive not only to the use of language that takes men and women  into equal account, but also to the inclusion of a range of words, images, and narratives that draw with greater vitality on women’s experience.’

On Religious, the Report proposes the revision of Mutuae Relationes, a 1978 document on the relationship between Bishops and Religious, in the light of synodality. This revision must involve all those concerned.

Regarding the Formation of Priests, the Report call for a thorough review of formation for ordained ministry in view of synodality, including a revision of the Ratio fundamentalis (The Gift of the Priestly Vocation), published by the Congregation of the Clergy, Rome, 2016).

Regarding the role of Bishops in the Church, the Report calls for the establishment of a process ‘for a regular review of the bishop’s work, with reference to the style of his authority, finance and Safeguarding. It also requires a review of the criteria for selecting bishops, including consulting the People of God. The Report also recommends further study on the doctrinal and juridical   nature of the Episcopal Conferences, and on the canonical status of continental assemblies of Bishops; and the creation of new international ecclesiastical provinces, for the benefit of bishops who do not belong to any episcopal conference.

The Episcopal Synod on Synodality was an experience of synodality rather than a discussion about synodality. While some people who followed the synodal process closely were initially somewhat disappointed that the Assembly did not come up with more radical proposals for the renewal for the Church, on further reflection, the degree of consensus it achieved is remarkable, given the great diversity of viewpoints represented in the Assembly. The fact that even controversial proposals were not rejected out of hand but included under matters for further study and reflection, is surely significant. In any case, the success of the Assembly must not be judged just by its Report. Pope Francis wants us to focus more on synodal method (as I outlined in the introduction) rather than the issues discussed.

 As the experience of the Assembly proved, the method adopted for this Synod created an atmosphere of respectful listening and sense of community among members with very different viewpoints about the Church and its mission. The ultimate aim of the synodal process, as Pope Francis has always insisted, is not to turn the Church into a more democratic Institution, but to enable the People of God to fulfil its responsibility to be witnesses of the Good News of God’s love and mercy for all humanity and all creation.  It is to achieve this goal, that Pope Francis wants the entire church to become synodal. As missionaries committed to the service of God’s reign in the world we must respond wholeheartedly to this challenge, and strive to embed synodality in the heart of the Church wherever we work.

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