ROME – Participants and spiritual advisors in this month’s Synod of Bishops selected by the Vatican to brief the media have said faithful should lower their expectations for big changes on hot-button topics, insisting that while differences in opinion and perspective exist, there has been no ideological influence in the discussion.

Asked about skepticism in the lead-up to this month’s gathering during an Oct. 27 press briefing, British Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, who led the synod’s spiritual retreat before it opened on Oct. 4 and who has given spiritual reflections throughout the month-long discussion, said, “Many people fear the synodal way because they do not understand it.”

He noted that Pope Benedict XVI once observed at following the Second Vatican Council, “Some people read it through the eyes of faith and some through what you might call a political reading.”

“When people look at the synod and see it in terms of a political debate, they misunderstand it and they fear it because they think it might produce division and schism, whereas its whole purpose is not to do that,” he said.

Noting that even Pope Francis in his opening homily for the Oct. 4-29 synod warned against polemics and turning the discussion into an ideological debate, Radcliffe said he did not perceive any ideological conflict in the synod and tied most friction to cultural differences.

“Cultural difference has been more what we’ve encountered, and part of the beauty of Catholicism is it embraces people from almost every country in the world, and our cultures have a beautiful, enriching diversity,” he said, noting that what is important or concerning to Catholics in one culture is different than the priorities of Catholics in another part of the world.

“Learning how to be respectful of each other’s concerns, I think, has been more of a matter of concern than ideological difference, which I’ve not really detected in the synod,” he said.

Brother Alois Löser, prior of the Taizé ecumenical monastic fraternity, acknowledged that there was some skepticism going into the discussion, but said he has seen “an evolution, a change in people” throughout the process.

“There was an openness, and opening to listening, there is a huge diversity within the Church, this is clear,” he said.

In terms of ideology, he said the Church can play a role in bridging ideological divides.

“We live in a world in which there are more and more fears, more concerns, so the temptation is to enclose ourselves, being trapped by ideologies,” he said, saying, “We must recognize this, we must acknowledge it. In church, we can really go against the current, against the tide.”

Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality officially began in October 2021 with a consultation at the local, diocesan level. Discussion then broadened with a continental stage and it will culminate with a second Rome-based gathering in October 2024.

Throughout the process, discussion has touched on an array of issues with the aim of transforming Church structures to make them more inclusive of all of the Church’s members.

Several hot-button topics were addressed, such as the status of women and the welcome of LGBTQ+ individuals. Women’s priestly ordination, the female diaconate, and blessings for same-sex couples were among the most contentious issues discussed.

Referring to critics who have argued that this month’s initial Rome discussion can no longer be described as a “synod of bishops” given the novel presence of women and laypeople as full voting members, Radcliffe said he has participated in four synods so far, and this month “reveals much more clearly than any other synod I’ve been to what it means to be a bishop.”

“It shows the bishop not as a solitary individual, but emersed in the conversation of his people, listening, talking, learning together,” he said.

Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, an Italian religious sister who also offered consistent spiritual reflections throughout this month’s synod gathering, said she believes this synod was “a very significant event,” and described the process as “revolutionary, one of change, of passing” into new forms of inclusivity and listening with an ability to truly “look at reality.”

“We are at a complex moment in history” in which faith can give a unique and much-needed perspective, she said, saying to have people of various cultures and ecclesial ranks sitting beside one another “for me was very innovative.”

Asked about divisions over hot-button issues and whether changes could be expected on major issues such as the status of women and LGBTQ+ issues, Radcliffe said no, and drew on the image of a clock.

“Since the 16th century, we have been tempted by a very mechanical view of the world, the world is a great mechanism, the world is a great clock, God is the great clockmaker. Politics is very often seen as fixing problems. Politicians all over the world now say I want to be elected to fix a problem, but actually, we’re concerned with a communion which is not mechanical,” he said.

“The Church is an organism, a body, the body of Christ, and that means change is organic, even psychological, rather than demanding a quick fix,” he said.

Radcliffe noted that many Catholics had “massive expectations of changes,” but cautioned that this is not the right way to look at the synod.

“It’s a synod that gathers how to see how we can be Church in a new way, not one that makes decisions,” he said, saying it’s about learning to listen cross cultures and at every level.

Transformation is the goal right now, and “more practical changes will come” later, he said, saying the Church is at the beginning of this process, and “there will be bumps, there will be mistakes, but we’re on the way.”

Löser said listening was the most important part of the discussion, and that this was “truly fruitful, “but it is also true that now we cannot make a list of results.”

“It takes time, and we don’t know during this year how these fruits are going to ripen. We have sown, and we will have to see how things evolve,” he said, calling the pope’s structuring of this synod in a “conversation in the spirit style” unique and “courageous.”

Synod participants spent much of Friday offering suggestions in terms of how to continue the discussion at all levels during the interim period until next October’s gathering opens.

Organizers said several proposals were made, including proposals to shorten the duration of the synod from four to three weeks, and to allow more time for breaks for rest, personal reflection, and meditation. Members also asked for more time in small groups, and emphasis was placed on involving young people in the process.

Noting that the critique of clericalism was a consistent theme during the synod and that it has been a repeated refrain of the Francis papacy, Radcliffe said many diocesan priests “have found this alarming, because it does seem to undermine the fundamental element of their identity.”

Going forward, he said there is a need for the Church to “find a way of sharing a positive view of the diocesan priesthood, of how belonging to the diocesan priesthood is something beautiful, wonderful, fraternal.”

“It’s not enough just to be critical of clericalism, you have to positively evolve a supportive vision. Once you have that, then I think many more priests would be happy to come on board with the synod process,” he said, saying, “you cannot expect them to do that unless they have a feeling that their vocation is cherished.”

Asked about previous remarks he had made in a book on the issue of homosexuality in seminaries, Radcliffe said the issue was not people with homosexual tendencies, “they’ve never been banned by the Vatican,” but rather, the problem “is with people who made that the center of their identity.”

“What I argued then and what I argue now, is that if anyone is going to embrace a celibate lifestyle, their sexual identity, their orientation should not be the most important part of their identity. That is true whether they are homosexual or whether they are heterosexual,” he said.

“If you had somebody who had an unhealthy emphasis on heterosexual orientation, and they said, ‘this is the essential of what it means to be human,’ then we may have doubts as to whether they could really serve as a celibate priest too,” he said.

The issue, then, was never banning homosexuals from seminaries, but it was rather a question of weeding out people “who had an unhealthy focus on their sexual orientation,” regardless of what that orientation was.

Mother Angelini stressed the need to better engage young people in the Church, especially in the digital world and in “liturgical language, which is, shall we say, outdated for young people.”

Young people need to feel both “attracted and involved” in the process of ecclesial conversion, she said, saying, “They must be listened to, but they must also be included in processes of discernment, the interpretation of history, also deciding what decisions must be made in the life of the Church.”

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