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ROME – Retired Pope Benedict XVI once famously said in an address to a group of clergy that the inherent beauty of Catholicism is “the religion of the great ‘both/and,’” meaning there is space for everyone.
Speaking to priests from the Italian dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso in 2007, Benedict was told by one of the veteran priests in attendance that while in seminary, he had been chastised by a spiritual director for enjoying soccer more than Eucharistic adoration, and he wanted Benedict’s opinion.
In response, Benedict said that “Catholicism, a little simplistically, has always been considered the religion of the great ‘both/and,’ not of great exclusions, but of syntheses. ‘Catholic’ means precisely ‘synthesis.’”
A true pastoral approach means “to live in the ‘both/and’” he said, adding, “I’d simply want to commit myself to the great Catholic synthesis, for this ‘both/and’: To be truly human, everyone according to their gifts and charisms loving the earth and the beautiful things the Lord has given us, but also being grateful that the light of God shines upon the earth, giving splendor and beauty to everything else.”
This is more or less the sentiment that organizers of the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality and members of the team that wrote the document for the current continental phase said they are trying to convey through the synodal process.
Speaking during the Oct. 27 presentation of the synod’s continental phase document, Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, a consultor with the Vatican office of the Synod of Bishops, told journalists that the process, and the document, “allows people with different positions, visions, experiences to go out of an ideological perspective and listen to the stories of others.”
A path is then carved out “that doesn’t want to homogenize everyone but wants to be taken together, in the same direction,” he said, noting that this takes time, and that a synodal church is “not something built at the table.”
Costa stressed that the synod up to now has been about listening to faithful at all levels of the Church, and that the document presented is a reflection of this listening process, “which implies not carrying forward one ideological position but leaving space to understand what is precious in the contribution of each person.”
The synod, he said, is not a “self-referential” process, and nor is it meant to cause “a fight between the left and the right, conservatives and progressives.”
Rather, the synod, he said, is meant to gather “the richness and the concerns of each person who is trying to walk to open a path.”
Similarly, Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, head of the Vatican office of the Synod of Bishops, said he hopes the synod will “help everyone in the church: No one is excluded, because the Spirit can show something to the church through everyone.”
“On our side, there is this availability, this openness, this desire that no one feels exclude, even those who are saying…well, there are some who resist,” he said, saying, “Fine! Come forward, let’s walk together.”
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 with faithful on the local parish and diocesan level. 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 when Pope Francis recently extended the process for a year, it means the final universal phase will now conclude in 2024.
Presented on Thursday, the document for the current continental stage in the Synod on Synodality is a collection of reports from bishops’ conferences summarizing the discussion with faithful in local communities.
Titled “Enlarge the Space of your Tent,” the document stresses the role of the Catholic Church as a place of acceptance and inclusion.
It highlights several challenges to this – citing among other things the clerical sexual abuse scandals, 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 – yet offers few proposals for solutions.
The document includes reports from several bishops’ conferences in which faithful voiced frank and differing opinions on hot-button issues such as women’s priestly ordination, the female diaconate, and welcome of members of the LGBTQ community.
Asked about critics who took issue with certain works of art celebrated on the Synod of Bishops’ Twitter account during the drafting of the document in Frascati and whether these voices are also being heard, Grech said that “we are listening to everybody.”
The goal of listening “to everyone without excluding is part of our responsibility at this moment,” Grech said. “We cannot otherwise be…you could criticize us that we are not a listening church, we are.”
“Right now, we are not making any decisions. Our duty at this moment is to be a channel, to hear voices of the people of God,” he said, saying, “We exclude nothing, we take note of everything, and then we submit that to the pastors who have the responsibility to guide the people.”
Asked about concrete proposals in the bishops’ conference reports such as the female diaconate, Grech insisted that “We are not pushing any agenda.”
“It was our responsibility to present to the people of God what was given to us. There is no agenda on the part of our secretariat,” he said, insisting that, “We must listen, we must listen to all without excluding anyone.”
Anna Rowlands, Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice and the University of Durham, and who was a member of the document’s writing team, told journalists that they read every single report submitted, and that “if something came up as an issue a sufficient number of times, we had to include that.”
“Many reports mentioned women’s diaconate, so we had to include it,” she said, noting that the role and promotion of women in both the church and society as a whole was “an astonishing theme” that emerged in all reports, across the board.
The issue was framed, she said, “not in terms of rights and roles,” but as being rooted in “a common baptismal vocation so that the gifts, capacities, and skills of all can flourish.”
Rowland said the reports that mentioned women “all asked for special attention to women but not in the same way. There’s real diversity” in terms of ideas and opinions, but there was no agreement on solutions.
Reports from Africa and Asia specifically, but also some in the West, she said, asked that women “as victim-survivors of violence of every kind” be acknowledged, and that the church be able “to better respond to being a woman in social realities that diminish and undermine” their dignity, such as war and violence.
According to Grech, the question of women’s participation in the life and mission of the church is also “a challenge for theological reflection,” and he invited theologians to “put themselves at the service of the church and the people of God, in the light of tradition and the magisterium,” so that as a church, “we can find more ways of participation for everyone.”
Monsignor Piero Coda, secretary general of the International Theological Commission, also weighed in, saying the theology on women’s participation “is not developed enough because it is done by men,” and insisted that “only when it is done by women” in collaboration with their male counterparts will a genuine theology on this topic be developed.
Asked if there was a limit to just how big God’s tent, which in the document is held together by the pegs of church teaching and the magisterium, could be and who could enter, given that some who felt excluded hold positions at odds with the church’s teaching and traditions, organizers said no.
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, general relator for the Synod on Synodality, who joined via video connection from Japan, said that in the “tent” of the church, “There will be groups sitting in the tent that are unhappy others are there, but who is invited? All the people created and loved by God. All.”
“Our behavior is sometimes more fragmented, and our love is at times not as big as the love of God, but if we are inside the tent, we have to move from time to time,” he said. “We have to establish new balance, and sometimes when a storm is outside, you sometimes notice that you need all people to protect those inside.”
As human beings, “we have things we like and don’t like,” Hollerich said, but urged faithful to “look at each person as a person loved by God.”
“Christ died for this person on the cross, so if I am not capable of giving space to this person in the tent, I have a problem with God,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen