ROME – Participants in Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality have reiterated insistence that there are no hostile divisions in the process despite differences of opinion, while also calling for a greater participation of women in leadership and for stronger ecumenical efforts to be made.
A lack of rancor, however, doesn’t mean participants are without regrets.
For instance, Archbishop Timothy Broglio, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, noted that to his knowledge, there are no parish priests participating in the synod, and said that’s “a lacuna” that would be good to fill before the next edition in 2024.
During an Oct. 25 news briefing, synod participants selected by organizers to brief journalists on the process were asked whether there were any differences or divisions between members named by the pope, and those chosen by their own national bishops’ conferences.
In response, American Cardinal Robert Prevost, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Bishops, said he preferred to speak about “opinions and viewpoints rather than divisions.”
“One of the things I think has been very remarkable through this whole session of the synod is the respectful listening that has gone on, even though different perspectives or points of view on a number of topics have been brought up. There has been very little sign of authentic division,” he said.
Pointing to the wide variety of the 365 participants tapped for the gathering, who hail from various countries and continents as well as different Catholic rites, Prevost said “the great respect and desire there has been to seek out unity yes, but not uniformity,” has been an important part of the process.
“All of us together are looking for ways of truly walking together as a Church,” he said.
Similarly, Cardinal Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Archbishop of Bangui in the Central African Republic, said differences “are not a handicap, they are a source of richness.”
“You can hold different views, but that doesn’t mean the other person is my enemy just because he or she is expressing a different point,” he said, saying, “I must respect this different point, receive it, welcome it. That is what we expect at the synod.”
Nzapalainga said that for participants, “We are not all in tune, but we can listen to each other, we can respect each other, we can go forward together, because the Church, Christ who is calling us, wishes us to go forward and it is precisely getting on Christ’s boat that I can move forward but not alone, with the others.”
Pope Francis’s Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality is set to close this weekend after a month-long discussion evaluating how the Church can transform its attitude and structures to be more inclusive and welcoming of all its members. The process will conclude with a second Rome-based discussion in October 2024.
Among the various issues discussed have been the status of women, including the female diaconate and women’s priestly ordination, as well as LGBTQ+ issues, such as the blessing of same-sex unions.
Asked what structures needed to change and what the Church might look like going forward, Prevost said the synod’s purpose is “not primarily to revise structures in the Church.”
Referring to the institutional and spiritual dimensions of the church, Prevost said that while institutional revisions are likely needed, the synod has focused on the latter, “What we could call charismatic, spiritual, the human and relational aspect of what church is about in terms of inviting people to feel welcome, inviting people to take on the co-responsibility of all baptized in the Church.”
“Further down the line, there may be further discussion on how structural changes may lead toward some of the benefit of promoting an authentic church that is always in mission,” he said, saying some of the fears that have been voiced about potential structural changes “don’t necessarily reflect the reality of our work.”
Broglio, whos’ also head of the Archdiocese of Military Services in the United States, said the US Church has many options for consultative structures, such as parish councils and diocesan pastoral and finance councils, “and the question is how well those are used.”
“Those are all opportunities for that interaction and also for that opportunity to speak and to listen, but obviously that depends on those being implemented and being used once they’re implemented,” he said.
Asked about difficulties in implementing synodality at the local level, Broglio voiced his belief that part of that is that throughout the two-year global consultation process leading up to this month’s synod, less than one percent of Catholics in the world participated.
“So, one thing we have to do going forward is to encourage greater participation and invite people to partake and engage in this process of speaking, and listening and praying together,” he said, saying, “that would be a source of growth for the Church.”
When challenged on whether the lack of participation among Catholics was due in part to the US bishops themselves not making synodality enough of a priority, Broglio said, “I’m sure we do have some responsibility for it,” but said the topic had been discussed by USCCB leadership.
He said the issue of reflecting on this month’s conversation and encouraging further participation ahead of next year’s Rome gathering will be a focus of the USCCB fall plenary in November.
“In my experience in the United States, that’s going to have to be very capillary, so the diocesan bishops can do a number of things, but if the parish priests aren’t on board, it won’t go beyond the chancery, so that’s something we have to do is engage priests so that they will then engage their people,” he said.
Synod participants on Wednesday also lauded the pope’s decision to implement a media blackout.
Prevost voiced favor on grounds that from the beginning, “One of the very specific objectives as part of the process of the synod was to be able to build up trust and confidence among members, so that people wouldn’t feel that’ ‘if I say this at the table, tomorrow morning I’m going to read about it.’”
Noting that some participants had given media interviews, Prevost, without providing names, said, “some of those interviews have not been helpful because they don’t reflect necessarily, or to a full extent, all that has been going on in the synod or what it’s really about.”
Similarly, Broglio noted that in the lead up to the synod, there were expectations “that some dramatic thing was going to come out of the synod, and that certainly provoked reactions of either great expectation or great fear.”
“One should stick to what Pope Francis has talked about in terms of the synod not being an instrument of change, but an experience of listening in the harmony that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Nzapalainga praised the environment of silent reflection in the synod, saying this month’s discussion was different and required “quite a lot of time for discernment.”
“There is no need to give an immediate answer to a certain topic” that requires further reflection, he said, saying, “It’s important to have this climate of silence, listening and dialogue because this will allow us to move forward not under pressure but in a serene manner.”
The issues of women and the clerical abuse scandals were also addressed by participants, who said the abuse scandals were an important point of discussion, but it was not the main topic. Prevost said the protection of minors was addressed in terms of identifying some of the problems “and how we can better address them.”
“It’s an ongoing topic in many countries around the world, many parts of the Church, and it will have to continue to be that, but it has to be kept in the proper perspective, because the whole life of the Church does not revolve around that specific issue, as important as it is,” he said.
On the issue of women, Nora Kofognotera Nonterah, a theologian and lecturer at the department of Religious Studies at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, said she found the synod “inspiring” and felt heard throughout the process.
“I felt listened to as a lay person, as a woman, and as an African in a Church that most often has not given that voice, has not had a chance to enrich herself with the voice and wisdom from women, from laypeople and from Africans,” she said.
Noting that she is one of two African laywomen participating in the synod and is one of very few women theologians from Africa, Nonterah said she came “with the hopes, dreams, anxieties, lamentations, but also the resilience of the African women, laypeople from the continent, and in fact the whole church, that might not always get to sit at the center of the table of discourse.”
In terms of how the call to include more women in governance can be executed, Prevost said “it’s a work in progress,” and while acknowledging that there is ongoing study of the women’s diaconate, he shut down discussion on women’s priestly ordination.
“Clericalizing women won’t necessarily solve a problem, it might make a new problem,” he said.
“Perhaps we need to look at a new or different understanding of leadership, power, authority, and service, above all service,” Prevost said.
He also drew a distinction between secular and ecclesial interpretations of the role of women, noting that in society women broadly are in leadership and can even be elected to office, however, “it’s not like an immediate parallel to say ‘well, in the Church therefore.’”
“Our categories and the life of the Church are different, need to be different, so some of those questions will continue to be there, to be reflected upon,” he said, saying, “In the meantime, women are continually taking on new roles of leadership including in the Holy See…I think there will be a continuing recognition that women can add a great deal to the life of the Church on many different levels.”
Broglio pointed to the role women religious play in education in the US and throughout the world and the influence they have on forming young minds as well as fostering vocations, saying, “The assumption that because all roles aren’t occupied by women at all levels means therefore that they have no influence is false.”
Nzapalainga said incorporating women in governance is a process, and that when important discussions take place, “We must have a female standpoint.”
“There are many women to whom we go, we ask for advice. So formally, they don’t have a formal role, but I listen to women, I listen, I invite women to participate, and by virtue of baptism,” he said, saying, “women can’t be left out for behind.”
Participants in Thursday’s news briefing included Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan and president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference; Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; and Catherine Clifford, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Saint Paul University, Ottawa.
They spoke of the growth of the ecumenical movement following the Second Vatican Council and the importance of strengthening ecumenical ties in the process of synodality, arguing that unity is essential to the credibility of Christian announcement of Christ.
“All the popes after the Second Vatican Council have a very great influence of mission and evangelization because this is the mission of the Church. All Christians are called to be participants in this mission because the unity is a help for finding a good participation in the mission,” Koch said.
He insisted that “unity between Christians and churches is not a goal in itself, but it is a need to have a better common mission for the annunciation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Similarly, Gadecki said that after the Second Vatican Council, there was an emphasis that “every baptized must be considered a missionary, not only working for a small group of enthusiasts, but all baptized” were called to evangelize.
The Church’s missionary call “will not be full if we don’t accompany it with the ecumenical movement,” he said, saying every baptized Christian of all Churches are called to participate in this mission together, because “we are united in Christ, the work in Christ, or we fight among ourselves.”
Clifford in her remarks said the reason the Second Vatican Council placed such a strong emphasis on renewing the ecumenical movement was “to proclaim the Gospel more effectively.”
“Our work in dialogue is to constantly examine ourselves and what needs to be renewed in the Church…to be better witnesses,” she said, saying, “That’s what we’re doing in the synodal assembly…we’re doing this together with other Christians who are asking other questions of themselves to renew their own Church life.”
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