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Instrumentum Laboris Highlight #3: A Liturgical Assembly | Synod on Synodality

Matthew Neugebauer

Friday, September 22, 2023

Pope Francis celebrates Mass for the Opening of the Synodal Path, October 10, 2021.
The Instrumentum Laboris (IL) or “Working Document” for the 2023 General Assembly was released in late June by the Synod Secretariat. You can read a clear and concise overview of the document here, which outlines both its intended purpose and overall structure. The IL’s two-part structure includes a reflection on the themes and priorities that emerged during the Continental Stage, followed by a series of worksheets with questions for the General Assembly to consider.
As we approach the Synod Assembly next month, I’ve published a series of posts reflecting on specific aspects of the Working Document that stood out to me. You can read Part One here and Part Two here. Now, on to Part Three.

A Liturgical Assembly

To my mind, the most striking image from the Instrumentum Laboris happens to be the most traditional. Seeking for ways to describe the Synod, the IL states:
A synodal assembly cannot be understood as representative and legislative, analogous to a parliamentary structure with its dynamics of majority building. Rather, we are called to understand it by analogy with the liturgical assembly. Ancient tradition tells us that when a synod is celebrated it begins with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, continues with the profession of faith, and arrives at shared determinations to ensure or re-establish ecclesial communion (#48).
I can think of two ways that this analogy works well. First is by looking at the overall structure of the Mass: the invocation of the Holy Spirit is like the Entrance rites that culminate in the Prayer of the Day, the Profession of Faith is like the Liturgy of the Word that literally culminates in the Creed, and the "determinations to ensure Communion" is like the faithful’s celebration and reception of the Eucharist.
Another way to look at it is through the shape of the Liturgy of the Eucharist itself. The various Eucharistic Prayers we use contain a literal invocation of the Holy Spirit on the gifts (Epiclesis), and climax in the Words of Institution, followed by the reception of the faithful that bind the Mystical Body of Christ to his True Body and Blood. All of this requires, in the well-worn words of Vatican II, the "full, conscious and active participation" (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14) of priest and people alike – a vibrant description of the faith of the faithful if there ever was one. 
Sacrosanctum Concilium fleshes out this connection between liturgy, faith, and participation. Priests and people bring their journeys of “faith and conversion” to the liturgy (#9), and in this case, to the Synod. They “hold fast” to this faith, in the Synod and in the rest of their lives, as they are “filled with ‘the paschal sacraments’” (#10, quoting prayers from the Roman Missal). Hearing the vocation to “full, conscious and active participation" in every part of the Church’s life makes the phrase a great description of co-responsibility: just as they are at Mass, all the baptized are called to full and active participation in the mission of the Church and in the formal and informal ways that relationships of communion are expressed.
Connecting the synod to the Mass in these ways speaks to a more fundamental aspect of this analogy. As the IL states, this is not a parliament full of jostling and maneuvering among competing interests, but a prayerful gathering of the one People of God before their Lord, seeking to discern, “What steps can a synodal Church take to imitate ever more closely its Master and Lord, who walks with all in unconditional love and proclaims the fullness of the Gospel truth?” (Worksheet B.1.2).
We can’t do this alone, on our own power, as if we could simply “figure out” what to do and then do it. In order to “imitate,” to follow Christ’s path of “unconditional love” and “the fullness of Gospel truth,” the Synod needs to include an invocation of grace, of God’s generous action in the gathering. As IL #48 continues,
“In a synodal assembly Christ becomes present and acts, transforms history and daily events, and gives the Spirit to guide the Church to find a consensus on how to walk together towards the Kingdom and to help all of humanity to move towards greater unity.”
The first concrete example of the whole Synod as a liturgical assembly will be when it becomes a literal liturgical gathering, in real time and real space. The General Assembly will formally start with Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on October 4, 2023, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi – that great patron of fraternity, dialogue, and communion with all of Creation. This Opening Mass is not some vague formality or technicality, something to "get through" before the members "get down to business." Beginning the General Assembly with Mass, opening October’s deliberations with a prayer to our Lord, hearing the Word of the Lord, and the celebrating the Body and Blood of our Lord, makes the Synod Assembly a synod rather than simply a "meeting” or “a strategy for organizing the Church” (#49). As the above quote states, a synod is an act of God’s presence, the way together is the way led by God’s Spirit, who “leads [us] into all truth” (cf John 16:13). 
In other words, in order to properly be called a "synod," to find its place within the Church’s Tradition of Synodality stretching back to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the Synod on Synodality needs the Holy Spirit. As Cardinal Grech has recently reminded us, "without prayer, there will be know Synod." Moreover, as Pope Francis said at the beginning of the synodal path, “the Synod is an ecclesial event and its protagonist is the Holy Spirit. May we experience this Synod in the spirit of Jesus’ fervent prayer to the Father on behalf of his disciples: ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21)” (emphasis added).
Of course, the prayerful environment of the Synod will not stop with the Ecumenical Vigil on September 30 or the Opening Mass on October 4. Each full assembly session (called a “General Congregation”) will begin with a customary public prayer. Moreover, the IL calls for all conversations at the Synod to be governed by a method known as "spiritual conversation," or "conversation in the Spirit.” The name is meant to be taken literally, as in “talking in and through the Holy Spirit.” Specifically, it involves silent prayer, meditating on Scripture, truthful and honest speech, open listening to the speech of others, and the pursuit of a common witness or consensus. This was the approach that characterized the Diocesan and Continental Stages, and the IL devotes a significant section reflecting on its meaning and procedure (#32-42 and the diagram on the next page), underlying how important it is to the General Assembly. Given its consistent place in all three stages of this synodal path, “spiritual conversation” can be said to characterize the Synod on Synodality as a whole.
The IL’s method of conversation in the Spirit, and this overall vision of the Synod as a liturgical assembly that prays and worships rather than merely deliberates or votes, has a strong sense of open-endedness. Indeed, the Working Document has steadfastly refused to require any specific conclusions from this October's Assembly. That is partly because there'll be another gathering next year, when there will be time for “proposals on how we can grow as a synodal Church,” which “will then be presented to the Holy Father” (“How to use the Worksheets,” p. 29). More profoundly, the crafters of the IL and the organizers of the Synod call on participants to prayerfully depend on God to lead them, through spiritual conversation, on the paths that the Assembly will go. There is a deep sense of trust  – of faith and conviction – that the Holy Spirit can and will use the natural dynamics of in-person communication, such as the power of body language and hearing the audible voice of another person, to stir the collective thoughts and feelings of the gathering toward his goal of loving unity and a clearer pursuit of truth (see Worksheet B.1.2).
Understanding the Synod as a liturgical assembly might seem like a nice ideal, or wishful, pie-in-the-sky thinking, even if we hope for God’s gracious action within it. The question that might counterbalance this idealism, keeping in mind that this October’s Assembly is merely to “outline paths of in-depth study” between now and the 2024 Assembly (“How to use the Worksheets,” p. 29) is, Will it paper over, with vague words of unity and trust, the very real challenges and obstacles to love and truth that many in the Church continue to face? I would argue that the answer to this question – will this General Assembly adequately make space for difficult conversations over the year ahead, and if so, how? – is actually the heart of the matter. Even this October’s Assembly’s main purpose is to “outline paths of study,” the way it does even that, creates the possibility for honest and constructive conversations, could offer us a real measure of whether or not God himself will put "meat on the bones" of the aims of the whole Synod on Synodality. Building on the fruitfulness of the Diocesan and Continental Stages, the experience of this Assembly might give us a sense that God is actually using this process to effect a wave of healing in the Church, to create a new "culture of encounter" where there is often polarization and division.
The answer to that question is long and complicated, and might only be seen in retrospect, perhaps after the 2024 Assembly. However in Part Four, I offer one path into a possible answer. Stay tuned.

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