ROME – Organizers of Pope Francis’s upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality have hit back against insinuations that the working document for the gathering is skewed in favor of liberal-minded Catholics, arguing that there is no conspiracy or pre-set agenda for the discussion.
Speaking to journalists at a June 20 presentation of the synod’s working document, called the Instrumentum Laboris, Jesuit Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxemburg said, “We have no agenda.”
“There was not a conspiratorial meeting with some people to come up with how we could add some progressive points of the Church. That is a very bad imagination of some people,” he said, saying the synod consisted of “a listening experience” at diocesan, national, and continental levels.
The contents of the synod’s preparatory text, Hollerich insisted, is not a compilation of what “we believe must enter this document,” but it rather reflects “what has been said by people and we have to be faithful to the mission we received, and we try to be faithful.”
Hollerich, who serves as relator general for the synod, spoke alongside several other synod officials, including Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops; Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, a consultor for the Synod of Bishops; and Sister Nadia Coppa, president of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG), among others.
Titled “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” the synod was formally opened by Pope Francis in October 2021 and is a multi-stage process that will culminate in two Rome-based gatherings, one in October of this year and another in October 2024.
“Synodality,” though still puzzling for many Catholics, 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 first of the two Rome-based gatherings will be held from Oct. 4-29, when bishops and select delegates, including laypeople, will gather to discuss the results of the global consultation process thus far, which have been summarized in the Instrumentum Laboris presented Tuesday.
A more than 27,000-word text, the Instrumentum Laboris stresses unity in diversity and the need to lead the Catholic Church “beyond fragmentation and polarization,” prioritizing a genuine dialogue when there is a difference of opinion, rather than alienating those who disagree.
However, the list of issues up for discussion generally reflect the priorities and concerns of more progressively-minded Catholics, whereas concerns associated more with conservative-minded Catholics are absent.
Much space in the document is given to listening to voices that feel marginalized and excluded, including divorced and remarried Catholics, members of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as those seeking the ordination of women deacons and the married priesthood.
Issues of greater concern to conservatives, such as abortion, euthanasia, and the Latin Mass, are not mentioned, and the topic of marriage and family generally is not addressed.
Asked how they would respond to Catholics who feel the synod’s working document is imbalanced and, therefore, could risk worsening existing divisions, Grech advised, “don’t miss the forest for the trees.”
“If we are going to address particular issues, then it’s an impossible task. The aim of this synodal process is to help the Church know herself better,” he said, insisting that “there is not ‘party A’ and ‘party B,’ progressives and conservatives. We can do without this distinction.”
Rather, “We are the holy people of God, help us come together and not divide,” he said, stressing the need to be open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who he said, “can help us to find an answer to the difficulties that seem unsurmountable.”
“If we come together and listen to one another, we can solve many issues. If we come together, and this is the call, let us come together as one people of God irrespective of” differences, he said. If this can be done, he said, “we’ll have something to offer to the world.”
Hollerich said that there is no agenda for the synod, and insisted that “I am completely against abortion.” However, he said the synod is not about specific issues such as abortion, homosexuality, marriage or divorce, but “the synod is on synodality.”
He noted that there are many other issues touched on in the document, including racism, tribalism, class discrimination, cultural prejudice, discrimination against people with disabilities, poverty, migrants and refugees, street children, and human trafficking.
“Because it is in the text it doesn’t mean it is a synod on street people, a synod on trafficking human persons…this is in the text because it refers to synodality and people have mentioned it. What bishops do with that is left to their discernment,” Hollerich said, saying the synod’s task is to be “faithful to the process, and we do this in all transparency.”
Costa offered a sketch of how the synod proceedings will take place, saying the working sessions will take place in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall, rather than the New Synod Hall where past synod gatherings have happened, in order to accommodate the increased number of participants and to facilitate easier transitions between plenary sessions and working groups.
Roughly 370 members will participate in the synod, not counting the various experts and auditors who will be present. For the 2018 Synod on Youth, there were only around 267 members participating, with some 50 auditors.
Grech said a full list of synod members and participants is still being finalized, but it is expected to be published by the end of the month.
Discussion will follow the structure of the Instrumentum Laboris and will be divided according to the document’s various sections and worksheets.
Working groups will be composed of members of various ecclesial ranks, including laypeople, priests, religious, bishops and cardinals, which Costa said was arranged intentionally to ensure a variety of perspectives.
A final document will be drafted and voted on at the end, which will serve as a source of reflection until the culminating October 2024 synod gathering.
Hollerich said Pope Francis has seen the Instrumentum Laboris and has approved of the text, which he said is “about welcoming and walking together,” not about changing church teaching.
“Some people choose to walk with us as a Church, others choose not to welcome” the process he said when asked about those who fear church teaching is on the line. He invoked the Gospel story of Jesus welcoming the publican Zachariah, who climbed onto a tree to see Jesus. As a result, Jesus reached out to Zachariah and it led to his conversion, Hollerich said.
“It doesn’t mean Christ changed his way about seeing public sinners,” he said. “So, we do not speak about the Church’s teaching, that is not our task and not our mission, we just speak to welcome everybody who wants to walk with us. That is something different.”
As a Church “we want to create spaces to welcome all,” Grech said, noting that people are often “really judgmental” and rush to make assumptions.
“Let us leave the judgement to the Lord. Our mission is to help the individual to see Jesus, and we can see miracles,” he said.
Synod organizers were also asked about the controversial “Synodal Path” that recently concluded in Germany and which has been heavily criticized, including by Vatican officials, over proposals to create new governing church bodies and proposals to allow the priestly ordination of women, the approval of same-sex marriage, and the married priesthood, among other things.
Asked what they would do differently than the Germans, Hollerich said the synod does not “work like a parliament,” but is a space of listening to one another even with different opinions.
“The German Synodal Way was not considered as a model for the synodal process, I think it’s quite distinctive,” he said, voicing his belief that “the two, without judging what’s done in Germany, the two situations are very, very different.”
Swiss laywoman Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler, a member of the Swiss delegation appointed to the European continental synodal assembly, said there is a need to “deeply respect” the German Synodal Way, noting that inner-Church tensions are not new or unique to Germany.
“We have to appreciate what they did. If you look at their theological documents, a lot has been done” that should be accepted as a valuable contribution, she said, saying, “please don’t judge” and noted that other national synod processes are unfolding in many other countries around the world, including Italy.
Hollerich said the German Synodal Way is reflective of a broader cultural mentality that developed in the wake of the Second World War that was “very confrontational, they always learned in school that you have to confront each other, because being quiet does not work at all.”
“It’s a German way of proceeding, it’s not the way of the synod or the Synod of Bishops, we are more in favor of harmony,” he said.
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