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"Enlarging the Tent": Synod on Synodality extends its timeline and releases its guide for the Continental Stage: Part One

Matthew Neugebauer

Monday, November 7, 2022

Two main bits of news came out from the Synod on Synodality the last few weeks. First, the General Secretariat announced that Pope Francis has extended the formal synodal process by an extra year, adding a second session to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops in October, 2024. This will follow on from the first session, scheduled for October 4-29, 2023.
Second, the Secretariat released the Working Document for the Continental Stage, which summarizes and distills the contributions of the Diocesan Phase. That Diocesan Phase began with local consultations across the globe, which were then summarized by their respective bishops’ conferences, religious communities, Roman dicasteries and lay associations. Those summaries were in turn submitted to a writing group of experts from all states of life (bishops, priests, religious and lay people), who deftly produced the clear and concise Working Document that will guide the next phase of synodal discernment.
For the Continental Stage, religious, clergy and lay people will meet in gatherings called “Ecclesial Assemblies” to reflect on the Working Document in their regional and continental contexts. The assembly groupings will correspond to existing organizations that bring together episcopal conferences across each continent, such as CELAM in Latin America and FABC in Asia. However, the CCCB and USCCB don’t have a similar organization for North America, so Canadian and American delegates will meet in a new "North American Assembly." There will also be a special gathering for representatives from the Middle East and the sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches.
I've described both items as "bits," but their implications could be widely significant. They demonstrate that the Pope, the General Secretariat and others tasked with overseeing the synodal process are committed to the authentic listening and open dialogue that Pope Francis has always hoped would characterize this synodal path.
I'll comment on the new timeline in Part One, and explore the Working Document in Part Two.

Part One: Synod extends its timeline

Practically speaking, the extension means that it'll give bishops and other participants more time to reflect on and engage in further dialogue with the rest of the Church. The previous timeframe would have still involved the planned consultation and drafting of the Instrumentum Laboris, and then the synod delegates in Rome would still have the important work of a Synod session and its Final Document in front of them. But it left the possibility and options for responding to the Synod of Bishops to later planning.
This new timeframe means that those forums and mechanisms to respond to the 2023 session are now built into the global synod process itself, included in its plan of action. The Synod of Bishops will still have their first session in 2023, but then representatives will go back to home to consult and continue to dialogue with the rest of the Church, before returning to Rome in 2024. We don't yet know what that formal consultation between sessions will look like, but given that both the Diocesan Phase and Continental Stage involved contributions from priests, religious and lay people, it makes sense for something similar to continue through to October, 2024. 
Why is this extension significant? Two reasons come to mind: it offers participants the gift of more time to reflect on the issues raised in the Continental Phase and the first session, and it expands the synodal process’s capacity for consultation and dialogue.
First, the gift of time to reflect. Proof of concept for an intervening year between sessions was the Synod on the Family, which also included two sessions in 2014 and 2015. (Yes, one was an "Extraordinary Synod," but the effect was the same.) Gerard O’Connell comments on the America Magazine podcast that difficult and complex questions were raised during the 2014 session, and participants recognized that “the response that was emerging [in that two-week session] wasn’t adequate” to those questions. The intervening year allowed participants to “reflect better at the theological level, at the pastoral level.” They returned in 2015 armed with a deeper and broader understanding of the issues involved, and a clearer sense of how the Church should proceed.
Second, the gift of time to consult further. The added year will require an increased investment in material resources alongside the precious resource of time itself. This increased investment in time and resources signals just how important this process is to Pope Francis’ overall project of reform. Most immediately, the increased time for more consultations throughout the Church will bolster the synod process’s overall capacity for authentic listening and open dialogue. Simply put, it’ll mean that the Synod 2021-2024 will contain even more listening sessions beyond the just-completed Diocesan Phase and the upcoming Continental Stage. As the Preparatory Document spells out, the pope wants this process to involve as much input from the whole Church as possible, and wants the materials that emerge from it to reflect the reality and truth of the whole Church as comprehensively as possible.
Long-term, the extension is intended to increase the synod's “knock-on effect” that the pope hopes to achieve in the culture of the Church as a whole. As he explained in his Angelus address shortly after the extension was announced, he decided to extend the synod process in the hopes that it "will promote the understanding of synodality as a constitutive dimension of the Church." The pope sees the extension itself and the whole synodal path as part of his work of guiding the Church toward being more synodal, a "journey of brothers and sisters who proclaim the joy of the Gospel."
As I'll describe in Part Two of this post, the Working Document for the Continental Stage demonstrates that the synod process has modeled this journey in surprisingly effective ways, has enabled clergy, religious and laity to practice this vision for a synodal Church. This extension gives the Church an extra year to take part in this intensive training in synodality. And practice makes habits, which form a virtuous life.
What do you think of this extension, and what do you hope comes from it? If you participated in or observed a local listening session, does this news change how you feel about that experience?

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