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ROME – On Thursday the Vatican released the working document for the next stage in Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which offered a global view of what faithful at all levels of the Church believe needs to happen for it to be a true place of inclusion.
The document, published Oct. 27 and titled “Enlarge the Space of your Tent,” is a summary of reports from national bishops’ conferences, who compiled the reports based on contributions from individual dioceses after an initial consultation phase with local parish communities.
It will serve as the working document for the next, continental stage of the synod, in which episcopal conferences on all seven continents will hold assemblies to reflect on and discuss the contents of the document. These assemblies will then submit a new report based on that discussion, which will be used to draft the working document for the final, universal stage in Rome.
Formally called “For a synodal Church: Communion, participation, mission,” the synod was opened by Pope Francis last October and, rather than the typical month-long meeting of bishops at the Vatican that a synod usually is, this one is unfolding in a multi-stage process extending into 2024.
An initial, diocesan phase of the process lasted from October 2021 to April 2022 and was designed as a consultative process that took place according to certain guidelines issued by the Synod of Bishops. A second, continental phase, began in September and will last through March 2023, when continental bishops’ conferences will coordinate and evaluate the results of the diocesan consultations.
A final, universal phase was set to conclude the process during next year’s Oct. 4-29 gathering in Rome, but with Pope Francis recently extended the process for a year, meaning the final universal phase will now conclude in 2024.
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Though notoriously difficult to define, “synodality” is generally understood to refer to a collaborative and consultative style of management in which all members, clerical and lay, participate in making decisions about the church’s life and mission.
The continental stage document published Thursday gave an overall positive review of the synod process thus far, saying participation globally “exceeded all expectations,” despite the abysmally low participation rates, especially in western nations.
In total, contributions arrived from 112 out of 114 episcopal conferences and all 15 Eastern Catholic Churches, as well as 17 of the 23 departments of the Roman Curia and several international bodies of religious superiors and lay movements.
The document generally highlighted long-standing problems in the life of the Church, such as the lack of participation of women and the lack of inclusion and welcome of so-called “marginalized” categories, such as the LGBTQ community and families in irregular situations, including divorced and remarried couples.
It also underlined ongoing problems related to the clerical abuse scandals, liturgical disputes, and the problem of clericalism, as well as the disparity between rich and poor, with many bishops’ conference reports indicating that faithful felt that wealthy and educated families and individuals were listened to more than those uneducated and less well-off.
Among the challenges to the synod process, the document stated that a year in, there is still difficulty “understanding what synodality means,” and there is resistance from some faithful and clergy who are skeptical of the process, believing the synod was called with the explicit intention of changing church teaching.
It also requested greater ecumenical and interfaith efforts, especially in places where Catholics are a small minority, or where many different Christian rites or churches are present.
Listening to the excluded
While the document offered few solutions, it said many reports from the episcopal conferences were clear in their vision for the church as “an expansive, but not homogeneous dwelling, capable of sheltering all, but open, letting in and out.”
The church, it said, must be “capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging, and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus is at the heart of the synodal process.”
In terms of listening and inclusion, the document said groups that often feel excluded are women, remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ individuals, and men who have left the priesthood, as well as the poor, the elderly, indigenous people and migrants, drug and alcohol addicts, and victims of trafficking.
Often, the voices of these groups “has been absent from the synod process, and they appear in reports only because others speak about them, lamenting their exclusion,” the document said.
The document also highlighted the need to listen more keenly to young people and the disabled, and to offer greater “welcome and protection” for the women and children of priests who broke their vow of celibacy, and who are “at risk of suffering serious injustice and discrimination.”
Other excluded groups mentioned included survivors of abuse, including clerical abuse and abuse that happened in other settings, as well as prisoners and those who suffer discrimination and violence based on race, ethnicity, gender, culture and sexuality.
Synodality, the report said, “is a call from God to walk together with the whole human family,” regardless of faith or cultural background.
To this end, it highlighted problems related to tribalism, sectarianism, racism, poverty, and gender inequality within the life of the church and the world and underlined the role the church can play in peacebuilding efforts.
“Many reports emphasize that there is no complete synodality without unity among Christians,” the report said, saying that for many bishops’ conferences, this unity “begins with the call for closer communion between Churches of different rites.”
The topic of inculturation was also mentioned, with some, such as the bishops’ conferences of Laos and Cambodia, asking for “a more meaningful inter-cultural approach” to the church’s life and ministry, and for a greater integration of local cultures, especially in the liturgy.
Clericalism was also flagged as a major issue in the document, which said many episcopal conference reports voiced the desire for “better formed, better accompanied and less isolated priests,” and called clericalism a form of “spiritual impoverishment, a deprivation of the true goods of ordained ministry, and a culture that isolates clergy and harms the laity.”
The clerical mentality, the document said, separates faithful from God and damages relations among the baptized, “producing rigidity, attachment to legalistic power and an exercise of authority that is power rather than service.”
Noting that clericalism can be “as much a temptation for lay people as clergy,” the document said the solution is to conceive new forms of leadership that are more collaborative in nature.
One of the most prominent issues mentioned in the document was desire of faithful for “a conversion of the Church’s culture,” particularly in regard to women.
“A growing awareness and sensitivity towards this issue is registered all over the world,” the document said, noting that reports from all continents included an appeal for women, both lay and religious, to be valued as “equal members of the People of God.”
The document highlighted two specific challenges when it comes to women, the first of which was the fact that women are the majority of those who attend liturgies and participate in church activities, whereas men are a minority, yet most of the decision-making and leadership roles are held by men.
“It is clear that the Church must find ways to attract men to a more active membership in the Church and to enable women to participate more fully at all levels of Church life,” the document said, but noted that while all reports mentioned this issue, none agreed on “a single or complete” solution.
Many reports, it said, asked that the church continue contemplating how women can be given active roles in governing church bodies, and that they have the possibility of “adequate training to preach in parish settings,” and of being ordained to the female diaconate.
There was a variety of opinions on women’s priestly ordination, “which some reports call for, while others consider a closed issue,” the document said, noting there was also a call to more vocally recognize what women already do.
The document noted that there were several tensions over differences of opinion on certain aspects of church life, but insisted these tensions are nothing to be afraid of, but ought to be harnesses “as a source of energy without them becoming destructive.”
It indicated that some legal changes could be coming, saying the church “needs to give a synodal form and way of proceeding to its own institutions and structures, particularly with regard to governance,” and that Canon Law will need to accompany this process, “creating the necessary changes to the arrangements currently in place.”
Though it did not define what a “synodal practice” or structure was, the document said there is a lack of
“established synodal practices” at the continental level and said this must be addressed.
At the local level, pastoral councils and economic and diocesan councils are a good step that will help foster both synodality and transparency, the document said, saying these entities are “indispensable” and must be “increasingly institutional places of inclusion, dialogue, transparency, discernment, evaluation and empowerment of all.”
For this to happen, decisions must be made “on the basis of processes of communal discernment rather than on the majority principle used in democratic regimes,” it said.
The document also stressed the need for more competent professionals working in the areas of economic issues and governance, and suggested that universities and academic institutions research and draft educational programs based on synodality.
Reports from the bishops’ conferences, the document said, overwhelmingly asked for “ongoing formation to support a widespread synodal culture,” and floated the idea of establishing “synodality agents and teams” and courses on synodality for those tapped for leadership, especially priests.
Also highlighted in the document were ongoing liturgical tensions, with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) specifically pointing to divisions over Pope Francis’s reforms of the Traditional Latin Mass.
In their report, the U.S. bishops stated that “Division regarding the celebration of the liturgy was reflected in synodal consultations,” and that “Sadly, celebration of the Eucharist is also experienced as an area of division within the Church. The most common issue regarding the liturgy is the celebration of the pre-Conciliar Mass.’”
According to the U.S. bishops, “The limited access to the 1962 Missal was lamented; many felt that the differences over how to celebrate the liturgy ‘sometimes reach the level of animosity. People on each side of the issue reported feeling judged by those who differ from them.”
In light of these disputes, the document insisted that the Eucharist, as a sacrament of unity and love in Christ, “cannot become a reason for confrontation, ideology, rift or division.”
According to the document, many reports advocated for the implementation of “a synodal style of liturgical celebration that allows for the active participation of all the faithful in welcoming all differences, valuing all ministries, and recognizing all charisms.”
Issues to be addressed in pursuing this, it said, include “rethinking a liturgy too concentrated on the celebrant, to the modalities of active participation of the laity, to the access of women to ministerial roles.”
Other issues related to the liturgy were also mentioned, such as the “protagomism” of the priest and the subsequent risk of the congregation becoming too passive, and the quality of homilies, which was “almost unanimously reported as a problem.”
The inability for some, such as divorced and remarried couples and those in a polygamous marriage, to receive the sacraments was also highlighted as a concern.
In terms of what comes next, the document said the continental stage of the synod that just began will focus on three primary questions:
- “After having read and prayed with the DCS, which intuitions resonate most strongly with the lived experiences and realities of the Church in your continent? Which experiences are new, or illuminating to you?”
- “After having read and prayed with the DCS, what substantial tensions or divergences emerge as particularly important in your continent’s perspective? Consequently, what are the questions or issues that should be addressed and considered in the next steps of the process?”
- “Looking at what emerges from the previous two questions, what are the priorities, recurring themes and calls to action that can be shared with other local Churches around the world and discussed during the First Session of the Synodal Assembly in October 2023?”
As part of this stage, assemblies will be held on all seven continents, and each continental assembly will draft a final document based on their reflections.
The final documents of these seven continental assemblies will be used as the basis for drafting the Instrumentum Laboris (official working document) for the universal stage. The Instrumentum Laboris must be completed by June 2023.
Faithful at every level will participate in the continental assemblies, the document said, asking that the gatherings “be ecclesial and not merely episcopal, ensuring that their composition adequately represents the variety of the People of God.”
In the lead up to next year’s universal stage of the synod, the continental stage document will be sent to all diocesan bishops, who will be asked to conduct a “process of discernment” on it based on the three key questions.
Bishops’ conferences will then collect and summarize these reflections, and the summaries will then be shared with the continental assemblies. At the end of each assembly, a final 20-page document will be drafted and sent to Rome, with a deadline of March 31, 2023.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen