Catholics embark on 'largest attempt at human consultation in the history of the world'

Pope Francis’ ‘Synod on Synodality’ might change the Catholic church forever

Pope Francis is seeking to turn upside down one of the things the Catholic church is best known for – its hierarchical structure. He is re-energising one of the reforms from Vatican II, the Bishops’ Synod, turning it into one of history’s most ambitious consultation projects.

A synod is church-speak for a gathering. But this “Synod on Synodality” will invite ordinary Catholics, not just Bishops, to have their say.

The two-year project will see Catholics worldwide invited to share their experiences of the church – regardless of how involved they may or may not be in their local parishes. In fact, the experiences of those people on the margins of their Catholic community are expressly sought.

“Celebrating a Synod means walking on the same road, together,” Pope Francis said during a homily given at Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on October 10.

“Let us look at Jesus. First, he encounters the rich man on the road; he then listens to his questions, and finally he helps him discern what he must do to inherit eternal life. Encounter, listen and discern.”

Rafael Luciani, professor at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas is in charge of the process in Latin America, Francis’ home turf. Religion News Service reports.

“Ultimately, the 2023 Synod will likely change power dynamics and relationships in the Catholic Church, but the change ‘has to come from local churches, not from Rome,’ Luciani said.

The “encounter and listen” part is now underway in Catholic dioceses around the world. The first phase of the Synod involves churches creating opportunities to gather Catholics in their local dioceses (encounter) and hear what their experiences of the church have been (listen). This part of the process began in October and was initially slated to end in April 2022 but has since been extended until 15 August.

The Catholic Church has prepared documents to assist dioceses in this part of the synodal process.

“We cannot hide from the fact that the Church herself must face the lack of faith and the corruption even within herself,” a  preparatory handbook says “In particular, we cannot forget the suffering experienced by minors and vulnerable people ‘due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.’ ”

The enormous amount of abuse in the church is a key reason the church must change, according to Chriostopher White at the National Catholic Reporter.

“In large part, Francis is betting that a more synodal church — that is, a participatory, listening church — just might be the cure to a church marred by decades of clericalism and abuse,” White writes.

The preparatory handbook includes details about who can take part (basically, everyone), the church’s attitude in these conversations, pitfalls to avoid, and a broad array of suggested themes and questions to guide the discussion.

The aim is to overcome clericalism – the idea that power is held by priests and bishops.

After this period of encountering and listening to the experiences of everyday Catholics, the insights gained will be collated and passed up through the church’s leaders, who will ask the Holy Spirit to help them discern how to take the church into the future.

The word synod itself comes from the Greek word synodos, meaning “assembly” or “meeting”. It is synonymous with the Latin word “concilium”, meaning “council”. Synod is often used both to name a governing body and to describe a meeting of that body.

Synods have their roots in the New Testament’s book of Acts where, in chapter 15, Paul, Barnabas, the apostles, church leaders and laypeople meet together in Jerusalem to debate whether pagan converts needed to be circumcised again. Since then, they have become a fixture in many, if not most, denominations, creating a formal mechanism for various people to give input into issues facing the church.

The word “synodality” refers to how such councils make decisions. So, Francis’ so-called “Synod on synodality” (the official title is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission”) is an official process for the global Catholic church to consider how their decisions are made.

It is an ambitious undertaking and one that is not without its challenges. At the Synod’s official opening, Francis articulated three risks to the Synod’s success – formalism (ie. the church takes on the form of a synodal church without actually changing), intellectualism, and complacency.

A church that takes synods seriously – that does not concentrate power in the Pope – could impact relations with other churches.

As anticipated, Francis’ global project has been met with the full range of responses from Catholics. Cardinal Kurt Koch president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, wrote in L’Osservatore Romano (the official newspaper “This synod will not only be an important event in the Catholic Church, but … synodality is an issue that also moves ecumenism, and moves it in depth”.

Catholic News Agency reported Koch pointing to the 2007 “Declaration of Ravenna,” in which Catholic and Orthodox theologians agreed that the bishop of Rome was the “protos,” or first among patriarchs, before the separation of East and West. According to the Swiss cardinal, this was an immensely important step in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

A more synodical Catholic church could come alongside the Orthodox.

“This is the dry run for a new methodology that involves everybody – not just bishops – every body in the church has an opportunity to be part of it” – Bishop Frank Caggiano

Some are enthusiastic about the process’ potential insights and impact.

“I think this Synod is extremely important because what it is really doing is debuting a new method of consultation,” Bishop Frank Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut in the USA told Ashley McKinless and Zac Davis, hosts of America Jesuitical podcast.

“It is really a reflection on who we are. It is asking the church to take a step back and say, ‘We all by baptism have a role in the church. The Spirit’s moving in all our hearts. We all have a place and a role to ply in addressing pastoral issues,'” he said.

“So this is the dry run for a new methodology that involves everybody – not just bishops – every body in the church has an opportunity to be part of it. It’s revolutionary in that sense. I’ve read that this is the largest attempt at human consultation in the history of the world.”

Caggiano shared his advice to almost 200 delegates he had commissioned in his diocese to do the consultation work.

“What you’re going to hear, the stories of people’s lives …. we’re going to send it on to Washington and to Rome, but that’s our food to think about in our diocese because it’s closest to the roots. What are we going to learn about our own church life? What do we have to do in our own way of moving forward. So I guess we can kinda see it as seeding the local communities as well as having a much more global conversation – we’re doing both at the same time,” he said.

“I question whether its prudent to consult the people of God at this time in history when the past few generations have been so poorly catechised that they really don’t know the faith,” Matt Gaspers

There was significantly less enthusiasm from Maryland USA’s Father Robert McTeigue and his podcast guest Matt Gaspers, Managing Editor of Catholic Family News, speaking on The Catholic Current.

“When you start talking about change and structures, that’s when I get nervous,” McTeigue told Gaspers.

“To be honest, I don’t really know what the true purpose of this synod is,” Gaspers told McTeigue. “I have my suspicions.”

“A lot of it is based on the pretext of consulting the people of God under the pretext that they have the something that is legitimate – the sense of fides, the sense of faith. But I question whether its prudent to consult the people of God at this time in history when the past few generations have been so poorly catechised that they really don’t know the faith. So are they a good sounding board at this point? I would say no,” Gaspers said.

“People don’t ask my opinion about how to land an aeroplane because I don’t know anything about it and I don’t pretend to and it’s not my place to opine on landing aerolpanes,” McTeigue replied. “And, oh my gosh, yes, let people be in conversation, let people be in prayer, et cetera. But the function of governance in this society belongs to the hierarchical church.”

Undergirding all of these responses is an awareness of the project’s potential to change the Catholic church – for better or worse – and the hopes and fears accompanying that potential. Francis addressed those emotions in his homily.

“As we begin this synodal process, let us begin by asking ourselves – all of us, Pope, bishops, priests, religious and laity – whether we, the Christian community, embody this “style” of God, who travels the paths of history and shares in the life of humanity.  Are we prepared for the adventure of this journey?  Or are we fearful of the unknown, preferring to take refuge in the usual excuses: “It’s useless” or “We’ve always done it this way”?”

The potential for the Synod on synodality to change the Catholic church is not merely a distant possibility for Francis, but precisely what he hopes will eventuate.

“Whenever we enter into dialogue, we allow ourselves to be challenged, to advance on a journey. And in the end, we are no longer the same; we are changed,” Francis said.

“The whole process is very slow and very messy. Autocracy was always quicker and cleaner” – Archbishop Mark Coleridge

In Australia, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge recognises the importance of the consultative approach Francis is initiating in the Catholic Church.

Coleridge is the president of the Australian Bishops’ Conference that convened a Plenary Council after clerical sexual abuse scandals and the findings of a Royal Commission exposed the church’s institutional failings. The Plenary Council is the highest form of gathering for a local church and one of the leading examples of “synodality” in global Catholicism.

“I think we are learning that the whole process is very slow and very messy. Autocracy was always quicker and cleaner,” Archbishop Coleridge reportedly told a webinar organised by The Tablet in March.

“But if you are serious, and we are, about listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit, who is the only one who does know where are going, then it is slow and it is messy trying to hear the voice of the spirit in the vast cacophony or polyphony of the Church,” he said.

“It’s the only way into the future that’s worth having or a future that God might have in mind for us.”

Similarly, Pope Francis emphasised his desire that the Holy Spirit guides Catholics on their synodal journey.

“I want to say again that the Synod is not a parliament or an opinion poll; the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit.  If the Spirit is not present, there will be no Synod,” Francis said.

“Dear brothers and sisters, may this Synod be a true season of the Spirit!  For we need the Spirit, the ever new breath of God, who sets us free from every form of self-absorption, revives what is moribund, loosens shackles and spreads joy.  The Holy Spirit guides us where God wants us to be, not to where our own ideas and personal tastes would lead us.”

Francis ended his remarks with a prayer:

“Come, Holy Spirit!  You inspire new tongues and place words of life on our lips: keep us from becoming a “museum Church”, beautiful but mute, with much past and little future.  Come among us, so that in this synodal experience we will not lose our enthusiasm, dilute the power of prophecy, or descend into useless and unproductive discussions.  Come, Spirit of love, open our hearts to hear your voice!  Come, Holy Spirit of holiness, renew the holy and faithful People of God!  Come, Creator Spirit, renew the face of the earth!  Amen.”