The Continental Stage of the Synod on Synodality is upon us, and a few noteworthy news items have popped up:
First, the consultations for the North American and Oceanian Ecclesial Assemblies are now complete, while the European Assembly is underway. The North American sessions were held online from December 14 to January 25: five in English, three in Spanish, and two in French. The next step in Canada and the U.S. is for a binational Writing Team to produce a synthesis report, which will be sent to the Synod Secretariat in Rome in March. This report will entail North America's input regarding the Instrumentum Laboris or preparatory document for the Ordinary Session of Synod in October which begins the Universal Phase. The Oceania Assembly gathered in Suva, Fiji from February 5 to 9, and Europeans are meeting in Prague, Czechia and online from February 5 to 12. They too will produce reports that feed into the Instrumentum Laboris, as will the rest of the Assemblies throughout the world: the Middle East
(Beirut, Lebanon: February 12-18), Asia
(Bangkok, Thailand: February 23-27), Africa
(March 1-6, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), and Latin America and the Caribbean
(four regional sites from February 13 to March 10).
Second, Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich, respectively the General Secretary and General Relator of the Synod, have penned an open letter to their brother bishops throughout the world, especially those currently involved in the synod process. Even as the letter is written by the lead organizers of the Synod, the authors are still directly familiar with the ministry of bishops on the ground. Hollerich also currently serves as diocesan Archbishop of Luxembourg, and Grech was diocesan Bishop of Gozo, Malta until 2020, when Pope Francis appointed him to head the Synod Secretariat in Rome.
The letter indeed carries an amicable, fraternal tone, and is ultimately meant to get bishops and other representatives thinking about their approach to the October session. Nevertheless, Grech and Hollerich write that they “feel the urgency to share a few considerations for a common understanding of the synodal process, its progress and the meaning of the current Continental stage.”
Throughout the letter, three of these considerations stand out:
1) Synodality is thoroughly collegial by definition. The authors applaud the way many bishops have engaged the synod process in their own dioceses and regions, and their commitment to openly listen to the clergy and lay people under their care. This October, they will turn to their brother bishops in this same exercise of collegiality. The letter even goes as far as quoting Francis’ own use of the term "bishop of Rome” to describe his papal office as it relates to the Synod. The term underscores the common, collegial network of global oversight that all bishops take part in.
2) Synodality requires bishops to take an active role, one that is exercised “cum et sub Petro: with and under Peter.” Francis has expected and intended, since day one, for this synod process to effect genuine cultural and structural change in the Church. Any large-scale approach of the Church has to involve the canonical and magisterial powers of the papacy, as well as the administrative and teaching authority of bishops in their dioceses and regions.
Taking considerations one and two together, Grech and Hollerich stress that “there is no exercise of ecclesial synodality without exercise of episcopal collegiality.” The active participation of bishops, working together with each other and with the bishop of Rome, will be the “meat on the bones” that turns this synodal process from conversation and consultation into decision and action come the Universal Phase.
Grech explained further in an interview with Vatican Radio about the letter. “Bishops have been entrusted by the Lord to guide, to shepherd their flock," he said in the interview. He then recalled the ecclesiology underlying this essential importance of episcopal
collegiality to the synodal process: “The bishops, in communion among themselves and in communion with Peter, are those who can really guarantee that the discernment carried out by the People of God is correct.” The letter itself points out that they do so by guiding others along the synodal path. “In highlighting the process-oriented nature of the Synod,” the Synod’s constitution “makes the role of Pastors and their participation in the various stages even more crucial.”
3) This prayerful, faithful discernment of the Holy Spirit, guided by the global college of bishops, can transcend particular agendas or predetermined outcomes. Grech and Hollerich remind readers that the synod process, and the Ordinary Session of the Synod of Bishops, already has an “agenda,” a focus: "For a Synodal Church: communion, participation, mission” of all the faithful, together.
The push for particular agendas and predetermined outcomes usually involve controversial issues, or at least, issues that seem controversial in the west. In Let Us Dream, Pope Francis’ book-length reflection written with Austin Ivereigh, the Holy Father raises the example of the Synod on the Amazon in 2019. So much of the media buzz in North America focused on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood, and how this might open the door to married priests in the Latin church worldwide. However, Synod participants themselves focused on ways that church leaders can bolster and support vital ministry and mission in a struggling region. Their answer, away from that "media buzz": encourage the growth of the permanent diaconate, foster a renewed missionary zeal among priests who might be called to serve in the Amazon, and support the excellent and difficult ministry that lay catechists – many of them women – have done for a long time. (Let Us Dream, p. 89-91)
As for the Synod on Synodality 2021-2024, Grech and Hollerich expect that it will step back from “resolving” specific controversies. However, they hope that "step back" will enable the Church to find richer soil for the its long-term engagement with difficult issues:
“How could we address pointed questions, often divisive, without first answering the great question that has been challenging the Church since the Second Vatican Council: ‘Church, what do you say of yourself?’ The Council's long journey of reception leads us to affirm that the answer is in the Church that is ‘constitutively synodal,’ where all are called to exercise their ecclesial charism in view of carrying out the common mission of evangelisation.”
They encourage their brother bishops and all the faithful to pursue an episcopally engaged and episcopally led collegiality that opens those magisterial levers of change to perspectives beyond individual and context-specific views.
Closer to home: broadened perspectives
The North American Assembly provided a clear example of the power of broadened perspectives to discover a renewed ecclesial self-understanding. This was the experience of Sr. Leticia Salazar ODN, chancellor of the Diocese of San Bernardino in California. She spoke to Vatican News about her encounter with the wide range of global voices of the Diocesan Phase in the Working Document for the Continental Stage, as well as dialoguing with representatives from across the U.S. and Canada.
“That was a very humbling experience that has taken us from our own local reality to the big reality,” Sr. Salazar said. “The continental experience has been very humbling for me, letting me be able to listen, to pray with situations all over the world.”
She described her involvement in the Continental Stage as “a formation process that opens our minds to be able to engage in dialogue, to sustain the tension of diversity at all levels, be open to receive the gifts of one another.”
Sr. Salazar’s encounter demonstrates the promise of the Continental Stage and the gift that North America can share with the world. It brought together Catholics from Canada and the United States, in three languages, from large city centres and remote rural villages.
Sr. Salazar said that the fruit of this formation process of listening was a hopeful, healing response to the political polarization that this region struggles with,
a response that Church leaders hoped would emerge
from this North American gathering. ”Being light in a land of polarization is not easy,” she said. However, the participants in the Ecclesial Assembly were able to see that “the Holy Spirit is calling us back to the basics, to what is fundamental in Communion, Participation and Mission, to trust in the Spirit and move as community.”
Ecumenical prayer vigil
Lastly, a third bit of news: Pope Francis has announced that the Synod session in October will be preceded by an Ecumenical Prayer Vigil. Dialogue with Christians beyond Roman Catholicism is indeed a hallmark of the Francis papacy, exemplified by his recent Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace to South Sudan. Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant Churches have different perspectives by virtue of their different histories, histories that involve synods as more central to their governance than the Latin Church of recent centuries. This ecumenical action is also about broadening perspectives in a prayerful way: ecumenical brothers and sisters will join with synod participants in asking the Holy Spirit to lead the Ordinary Session of the Synod “into all truth” (John 16:13), beyond agendas or predetermined outcomes.