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Connecting the Dots: what to make of the new Synod make-up | Synod on Synodality

Matthew Neugebauer

Thursday, May 18, 2023

iStock Photo.
I mentioned in my last reflection that the Synod Secretariat has released a communiqué outlining the new make-up of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops this October. For the first time, it will give full voting privileges to five women religious and five men religious (either ordained or lay) appointed by their Superiors General, 70 more non-bishop participants (at least half of which will be women), and whoever else Pope Francis might appoint. They will join the couple hundred bishops elected from their episcopal conferences, the Eastern Churches’ Synods of Bishops, and the Oriental Churches’ Councils of Hierarchs.
As expected, there were different reactions to the Secretariat's announcement, from exuberance and gratitude, to pointed questioning about the change.
What no one should react with is surprise: this announcement is a long time coming. In his recent article for America, Salt + Light Media alum Sebastian Gomes went as far as saying it's "inevitable." He mentioned the increased involvement of non-voting “auditors” over successive synods, and tracked the gradual opening of the Synod of Bishops to voting participants who were neither bishops or religious priests. Those non-bishop voters largely consisted of a number of lay brothers sent to represent their Superiors. One was the Superior of a lay Order himself: Br. Herve Janson, PFJ, who was the Prior General of the Little Brothers of Jesus at the time. The Synod Secretariat deemed the full inclusion of lay brothers in those synods to be exceptions, not precedents on the way to further expansion.
Gomes recounts that Br. Janson, after participating in the 2015 Ordinary Session of the Synod on the Family, felt “unease with the fact that he could vote while three women religious participants could not.” More male religious (priests and lay brothers) and others came to share in his unease, carrying their concerns into the 2018 Synod on Youth and the 2019 Extraordinary Synod on the Amazon. However, the story of non-bishop participation then ended on a cliffhanger, with men and women religious orders committing to “work together to advocate for the right of women religious to vote in future synods.”

Proof of Concept

Between that cliffhanger and last month’s communiqué, Gomes admits that “It’s not clear what changed.” The difference, I submit, has been the way that the Synod on Synodality itself has played out so far. In other words, the Church has now experienced a fuller participation of and deeper, more active listening to those of all vocations. This began with the appointment of Sr. Bequart to the Secretariat in 2021, and was followed by the global conversations at the Diocesan and Continental Stages over the last two years. In the summary documents of the continental ecclesial assemblies, the contributions of women religious and other lay people of all vocations were all reflected in equal measure to bishops, albeit with unique sections summarizing the bishops’ own reflections.
As I noted in my last reflection, the appreciation and success of these consultations demonstrates wider synodality in action already, a proof-of-concept that has now "let the cat out of the bag" that makes this expansion of the October assembly’s make-up all but inevitable. There’s also the fact that they even tried it in the first place, across the world, already introducing the expectation that it would continue in the Universal Stage.
The unsurprising change to the General Assembly’s make-up stems from the very purpose of the Synod on Syndality as a whole. It was tasked with deepening and widening the communion, participation, and mission of all the baptized. It would have seemed perplexing at best, or hypocritical and disingenuous at worst, if it refused to continue the practical application of its mission at the highest level, namely, the full participation of all the baptized in the Universal Stage.
Ultimately, the Supreme Pontiff still has the final say. Like the wide inclusion of all vocations in the diocesan consultations and continental ecclesial assemblies, the expansion of voting privileges for the General Assembly was something that Pope Francis agreed to. He may have even expected it: it’s in line with his pattern of appointing Sr. Bequart, other women, and lay people generally to prominent positions in the Curia, as well as his recent reform of the Vicariate of Rome’s oversight structure.
I might even go as far as to suggest that the Holy Father may have called for this change of voting membership. At the beginning of this entire synodal process, he said that “all the baptized are called to take part in the Church’s life and mission. Without real participation by the People of God, talk about communion risks remaining a devout wish.” For Pope Francis, the Synod on Synodality offers the Church the opportunity “of moving not occasionally but structurally towards a synodal Church, an open square where all can feel at home and participate.” (Emphasis original.)
Whether or not you agree that it’s a good idea, it’s clear at face value that this expansion of voting membership to more lay people is a concrete act that "enlarges the tent" to gather more voices in. In my next reflection, I'll look at the Synod Secretariat's own rationale for the new make-up of the General Assembly, as expressed in the communiqué.

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