ROME – As Pope Francis’s much-touted Synod of Bishops on Synodality begins its initial consultative phase at a parish level, Italy’s bishops are blending the process into their own 4-year national consultation, using materials for the universal gathering to guide their own national discussion.

Ever since they were first instituted by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1965 as a direct product of the Second Vatican Council, a Synod of Bishops has been held at the Vatican every three to four years, gathering bishops from around the world for a month-long discussion on a contemporary issue of pressing importance.

While these larger, universal gatherings have been the norm, Pope Francis has encouraged similar discussions on a smaller scale through national synods, in which all bishops of a given country meet to discuss important issues of national interest at both the social and ecclesial levels.

For the past two years Germany has been holding its own national “synodal path,” and this year, the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) launched their own national synod, set to conclude in 2025, at nearly the same time as Pope Francis inaugurated 3-stage universal Synod of Bishops, which, like CEI’s own process, begins with a year of diocesan consultation.

Like the broader Synod on Synodality – a term which is still obscure to many being asked to participate in the process – the Italian synodal path will unfold in three phases.

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The first phase, called the “narrative phase,” will take place from 2021-2023 and is dedicated to gathering information and listening. In the first year, the stories, desires, sufferings, and resources of all faithful who wish to participate will be collected based on the questions prepared by the Synod of Bishops. The second year will focus more on pastoral priorities given the information gathered.

This stage of the Italian process will happen in tandem with the Synod on Synodality, which has been reconceived as a three-stage process beginning with a local consultation carried out between pastors and faithful around the world.

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The first, diocesan phase will last from October 2021-April 2022 and is largely a consultative process involving laypeople with the help of guidelines issued by the Synod of Bishops. A second, continental phase will follow from September 2022-March 2023, with the final, universal phase culminating in the traditional month-long meeting of bishops and select auditors at the Vatican in October 2023.

A second phase of the Italian national synod will take place from 2023-2024, in which the faithful, with the support of pastors and theologians, will conduct an in-depth reflection on what came out of the initial two-year consultation.

Finally, the Italian national synod will culminate in a third phase with a large assembly in 2025. The dates have yet to be set, however, the idea is that the gathering in 2025 will result in concrete points of action or instructions for points of action, which will be returned to parishes at the close of the synod process.

Speaking to Crux, Vincenzo Corrado, a CEI spokesman, said the Italian bishops will draw on the discussion and conclusions of the Synod on Synodality to guide their own two-year consultative process.

The handbook and the initial working document for the Synod on Synodality, which contains discussion points for consultation in parishes, have been “endorsed” by the Italian bishops, Corrado said, noting that various questions posed in the working document have been included “in various aids that are about to be made available to different realities.”

These aids, Corrado said, are “methodological sheets” that are intended to launch a reflection on key topics highlighted in the Vatican’s guidebook for the Synod on Synodality.

While in many countries questionnaires and other consultative tools have been handed out to faithful in parishes to complete and return to their pastor, in Italy the forms will soon be handed out in parishes, pastoral centers, hospitals and even prisons “so that the consultation can be broad,” Corrado said, although he did not provide a time frame for when those materials will be sent out.

After these forms have been studied and parish faithful have sent in their responses, each diocese in Italy will then send a 10-page summary of the answers to CEI by March, from which the summary for Italy’s national synod, as well as their contribution to the Synod on Synodality, will be drawn.

“All of the material will be used to identify the priorities with which the Italian synodal path will continue until 2025,” including the final conclusions of the Synod on Synodality in 2023, he said.

Italy began its national synod earlier this year in a bid to assess not only the challenges the country faces amid the current pandemic-related crisis, but the general state of the Church.

The Italian national synod was organized in response to a direct request from Pope Francis, who has been pushing for a national synod in Italy ever since he visited Florence in 2015 for the V Florence Conference, which drew participation from representatives of every Italian diocese, and which allowed the pope to speak to the church at a national level.

On that occasion, Pope Francis outlined his own vision for the renewal of the church in Italy, urging bishops to be pastors rather than enforcers of complex doctrines, and asking for a church that is close to the poor and abandoned, and which understands and accompanies those in difficulty.

In a read a communique issued by the Italian bishops at the close of their plenary assembly in March, they said “it is time to abandon those superstructures known to be stale and repetitive, to recover the sense of verification and the value of planning that requires concrete choices, sometimes breaking with, or, in any case, not in line with the ‘it’s always been done like this’ mentality.”

“Only in this way can we responsibly open ourselves to listening to the change of the era and begin walking together,” they said, adding that from this perspective, the national synod, like the Synod on Synodality, has been designed not “as a pre-established path, but as a process, marked by the rhythm of communion, by leaps, and starts.”

In his homily for the opening of the Synod on Synodality, Italian Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia and president of CEI, said God is patient with the weaknesses of his followers, and “with wisdom he educates his people so that his community may be ever more beautiful and capable of proclaiming the Gospel.”

“This is why the Church needs to rethink itself today too: Not only by looking at how to interact with the world, but also to understand how we live our relationships,” he said.

The synod, he said, is “an opportunity to put into practice that which is still lacking in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. Many faithful, we know, are waiting for answers so that new paths of communion may be found, and we can finally abandon those repetitive pastoral models that no longer lead to anything.”

Referring to the current synods taking place, Bassetti called them a “challenge” in which everyone is asked to participate, and “from which we cannot escape.”

“The risks that the synodal path is reduced to ‘talking to each other’ or to a ‘façade event’ are real,” he said, and urged faithful to pray and participate, “so that we don’t have to say that we wasted our opportunity, the opportunity of a lifetime!”

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