ROME – Around the world, Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality is moving full steam ahead as bishops gather at the continental level to discuss the concerns and priorities of their local churches, ahead of a major gathering in Rome later this year.

Formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021, the Synod of Bishops on Synodality is officially titled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is a multi-stage process that will culminate in two Rome-based gatherings in October 2023 and October 2024.

After an initial consultation with laypeople at the diocesan level, reports summarizing the conclusions were sent to national bishops’ conferences, and bishops are now discussing the contents of those reports in a continental synod phase that is set to close in March.

From Oct. 4-29, bishops and select delegates, including laypeople, will gather in Rome for the first of a two-part discussion, which will close with a similar gathering in October 2024. According to organizers, the exercise is aimed at making the church a more open and welcoming place, driven less by a clerical power-structure and more on collaborative leadership.

As part of the current “continental phase,” seven assemblies are being held for bishops to discuss the issues that emerged in their own regions. The results will be sent to the Vatican to aid in preparations for the October gathering in Rome.

The North American assembly, which brought together the bishops of the United States and Canada, unfolded over a series of recently concluded virtual meetings.  A writing team is currently in Orlando, Florida to compile the final report.

Assemblies for Europe and Oceania have already been held, and assemblies for the Middle East and Latin America are taking place now. The assembly for Latin America and the Caribbean is unfolding in four different regional meetings between now and the end of March, with the first meeting just wrapping up.

The assembly for Asia will take place Feb. 24-26 in Bangkok, Thailand, and the assembly for Africa and Madagascar will be held March 1-6 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Given differences in cultures, traditions, ethnicities and various rites and churches, the assemblies are highlighting both shared priorities as a universal church, as well as priorities and concerns that are unique to each place.

In Oceana, for example, the continental synod assembly took place Feb. 5-9 in Fiji, highlighting several topics of regional importance such as the environment and better faith formation, especially for rural communities.

Given that much of Oceana is composed of island nations, climate issues were of particular interest, with concerns ranging from the impact of rising sea levels and extractive industries, to flooding and droughts, to proper care for oceans, as well as maintaining the region’s rich biodiversity and protecting the eco-balance of its many islands.

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In Europe, the continental assembly was held Feb. 5-9 in Prague, with a separate meeting for presidents of national bishops’ conferences Feb. 10-12.

For Europeans, the key points centered less on climate and more on problems such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, the clerical sexual abuse scandals, and historic divisions between European countries.

According to a conclusory note, the main topics discussed were the need to accompany people who have been wounded or are suffering in some way, and to empower young people and women, while showing greater attention to “marginalized” groups in the church.

Key priorities appeared to focus on clarifying the concept synodality itself, a concept, the report said, which is still not well understood by the average believer.

Bishops said there’s a need to delve into the theological and practical aspects of synodality and to develop a better picture of how “synodal authority” is exercised, as well as clearer criteria for “discernment” and at what level decisions are to be made.

A reflection must also be launched on the nature of the various ordained and non-ordained “charisms and ministries” in the church, the note said, and also called for “concrete and courageous decisions” about the role of women in the church and how to foster their involvement at all levels, especially when it comes to decision-making.

The cultural rift between faith and secular society was also mentioned as something needing attention and the need for greater faith formation were also highlighted in the note as priorities, as was the need to overcome “tensions around the liturgy.” To this end, the bishops stressed the Eucharist as a “source of communion,” with many European bishops and faithful still divided over Pope Francis’s controversial decision to restrict access to the Traditional Latin Mass.

In the Middle East, liturgical issues have an entirely different scale and meaning.

For the past few days, representatives of seven different rites and churches, with their own internal historic and traditional divisions, have been meeting together to discuss common priorities as part of the Middle Eastern continental assembly, which is taking place from Feb. 13-18 in Lebanon.

Participants in the gathering, situated in a region with a much lengthier tradition of synods and synodality, include Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Al-Rahi, Head of the Synodal Assembly and Head of the Council of Catholic Patriarchs of the East; Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako; Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius III Yonan; Patriarch of the Armenian Catholic Church Raphael Bedros XXI Minassian; and Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac of the Coptic Catholic church.

Others include the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech; general relator of the next synod of bishops, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg; Archbishop Paolo Borgia, the Vatican’s envoy to Lebanon, as well as a slew of others.

Delegates represent the Copts, Syriacs, Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans, Armenians and Latins, and come from the Holy Land, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Armenia.

In his opening address, the gathering’s coordinator, Father Khalil Alwan, highlighted regional priorities, the first of which was recognizing and maintaining the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East, which he said is characterized by peaceful coexistence with other faith traditions, including Muslims and Jews.

“Our continental assembly is different from the rest of the continental assemblies, as it is not continental in the exclusive sense of the word,” Alwan said, saying that participants include seven different Catholic churches that are not governed by the Latin Rite laws, but rather canon law’s stipulations for eastern churches.

Each of these individual churches has their own customs, traditions, laws, and liturgical rites, and each has a significant diaspora, Alwan said, saying this diversity is a challenge, but the churches face similar issues.

“We are united by the conditions of our countries, where we all often lack freedom to practice our faith, freedom of expression, women’s freedom, and children’s freedom. We all seek, according to our energies, to fight corruption in politics and the economy,” he said.

He also highlighted the common desire to “practice transparency in our religious and social institutions, and we yearn to practice responsible citizenship, as well as to fight poverty and ignorance.”

Alwan cited the mass exodus of Christians from the Middle East in recent years as a source of pain and a growing concern, saying “the horizon of a decent life has dwindled, thus diminishing our existence and our testimony in the land that God has chosen as his home.”

“We, the children of the Church, are not only united by life’s concerns and difficulties, but also by the baptism, by faith, by love and hope,” he said, saying that in this light, the continental assembly holds special significance.

In El Salvador, the first of four regional meetings making up the continental assembly for Latin America and the Caribbean is taking place from Feb. 13-17. The meeting was opened by a special Mass in the chapel where St. Oscar Romero, the country’s most famous saint, died.

Shot in the back as he celebrated Mass in 1980 due to his outspoken condemnation of institutional injustice, Romero was declared a martyr by Pope Francis and canonized in 2018,

Romero has been hailed as a source of guiding inspiration for the current meeting, which is focused on Central America and Mexico – areas plagued by poverty, drug and gang violence, and mass migration, as locals brave dangerous routes up north in search of a better, safer life.

In an opening speech for the meeting, Peruvian Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, President of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America (CELAM), stressed equality among the baptized, saying this is a criteria “for the configuration of all ecclesial subjects,” projects and goals.

“The practice of discernment in community is essential to growing in synodality and to really walk together in our church,” he said, saying synodality “is not a concept to be studied, but a life to be lived.”

Sister Genoveva Henríquez, president of the Conference of Religious in El Salvador, said the meeting is an opportunity “to contribute to the opening of horizons of hope for the fulfillment of the mission of the church,” based on Romero’s example of prioritizing those on the peripheries.

“We must see with eyes wide open and feet well planted on the ground, but with a heart well filled with the Gospel and with God (synodality),” she said, saying this consists of establishing “a circular, participatory, and less hierarchical and pyramidal style of government” for the church.

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