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Co-Responsibility, Honest Reflection, and Formation for Mission: The North American Assembly’s Final Document (Part One) | Synod on Synodality

Matthew Neugebauer

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Image by Robert Cheaib on Pixabay.
The Continental Stage of the Synod on Synodality is now complete, which among other things means that the North American Ecclesial Assembly has released its Final Document.
The Synod Assembly for Canada and the U.S. met in twelve online sessions from December 14 to January 25: seven were in English, three in Spanish, and two in French. The Document lists the vocationally diverse make-up of the 931 participants: “391 lay women, 235 lay men, 76 deacons, 148 priests (diocesan and religious), 77 women religious, and 4 non-ordained men religious.” (#3) The split between women and men was very close to equal: 50.2% women and 49.8% men. The delegates represented 236 of North America’s 267 eparchies and dioceses. (Ibid.) 146 of the continent’s bishops participated in various ways: joining in the plenary sessions, contributing to small groups of mixed vocations, and small groups composed of bishops themselves. (#39)
The Document groups the assembly's discussions into three key themes: “Called and Gifted Through Baptism;” “Communion with Christ and One Another;” and “Sent Forth on Mission.” (These map closely to the Synod on Synodality’s overall themes of “communion,” “participation,” and “mission.”) The themes themselves are divided into various areas, such as the role of women, (#19) the place of youth and young people, (#20) restoring trust and credibility in Church leadership, (#25) and understanding the Church in a secular world. (#36) The Document then devotes a section to summarizing the bishops' reflections on the assembly (following the recommendation in the Working Document for the Continental Stage or DCS #108), before concluding with a list of priorities that participants believed the Ordinary Session of Synod in Rome this October should focus on. (#54)
Much of the Document repeats themes from the DCS and other materials, such as the importance of listening to those who feel excluded, and the need to develop a more synodal Church. However, three unique contributions stand out: Communion practiced through structural co-responsiblity, an honest reflection on the specific tensions and limits that participants have experienced in this synodal process, and a consistent emphasis on formation in faith, mission, and synodality itself.
For Part One here, I'll go into how the Document summarizes these themes. In Part Two next week, I'll spend some more time describing why I think this is significant.

Communion through co-responsible structures

The Document repeated comments from previous documents about the bond of communion through baptism (#14, 15; cf. DCS #22 and Pope Francis’ Opening Address), but put some more concrete meat on its somewhat abstract bones. Assembly participants affirmed that bishops, clergy, and laity are together responsible for leading the mission and ministry of the Church and putting it into action. Key here is that this co-responsibility requires the development of “Church structures and practices” that “are dynamic and able to move with the Holy Spirit,” such that “everyone is able to ‘use their gifts in service of the Church and of each other’ (Session XII Group 4).” (#17)
The bishops’ reflection states that during the Diocesan Phase, the Church’s shepherds grasped the need for concrete reforms: “The listening sessions in the local Churches caused bishops to reflect on the structural challenges that make it difficult to sustain this [synodal] style in a consistent way. ‘Has the Church been so organized that it becomes difficult [for lay people] to speak to [the hierarchy]? The Church has organizationally isolated itself from the people of God’’ (Session III Group 17).” (#43) In response, the conclusion directs the October Synod to “consider current canonical norms and ecclesial structures,” since “the theme of co-responsibility touches the issue of shared decision-making and the desire for more transparency in Church governance.” (#54.3)

Naming the tensions alongside the opportunities

The Document openly reflects the concerns and questions that assembly participants raised about the synod process. Chief among them is the difficulty navigating the tension between the call to be more inclusive of those who feel excluded by Church teaching and practice, and the call to remain faithful to Church teaching. (#29) The bishops also raise the concern that the consultations at the Diocesan Phase did not draw as many participants as was hoped for, and expressed a sense of ambiguity about the “role of the local bishop and the college of bishops in union with the Pope as the process unfolds.” (#49)
The bishops also note “the relative absence of priests” in diocesan decision-making processes, suggesting a further sense of ambiguity about the role of parish priests in an emerging synodal church. This ambiguity was reflected in the DCS, which had very little to say about a positive role for priests. The bishops explain this relative absence by counter-example: parish clergy in northern Canada have a much deeper input into their bishops’ decisions and ministries, precisely because there are fewer of them. (#51) Logically, the larger number of clergy in more populous urban centres make it more difficult for bishops to seek out their input and build consensus. The counter-example implies that many clergy in urban parishes feel isolated or left to their own devices, rather than connected to the wider decision-making conversations that a more synodal church would engender.
Alongside the calls for structural change mentioned above, “the bishops acknowledge that it is their responsibility” to overcome this numerical challenge in more personable ways as well, such as “by example and by conveying the transparency and spiritual/pastoral fruitfulness of synodality.” (Ibid.) In the Document’s Conclusion, the first priority directed to the Synod in October is the “integration of synodal consultation in the local Churches” in a way that clarifies the “methodology, ecclesiology, and aims” of synodality and stands apart from a “competitive model, opposing laity to clergy." (#54.1)

Formation, formation, formation

The Document overwhelmingly focuses on the formation of youth and of all the People of God as the primary way to foster greater communion, participation, and mission and to develop a more synodal Church. This call to deeper formation appears throughout, including in a section encouraging young people to have a “a bold curiosity” as they learn the faith, (#21) a similar expression of the need to “create ‘safe places where people can ask their real questions about Church teaching without judgment or punishment’ (Session X Group 8),” (#32) and calls for increased practical and theological training in mission and evangelization, Catholic Social Teaching, and community development. (#37) 
The Document relays that the North American Ecclesial Assembly directly called for deeper spiritual and personal formation in synodality itself: formation “on how to listen and accompany,” (#31), and “for co-responsibility, welcoming, and going out to the peripheries.” (#22) Assembly participants saw that increased formation – experience and training – in listening, dialogue, and finding common ground, can offer a path through the challenges of polarization in Church and society. Polarization in North American society often manifests in that fundamental tension described by assembly participants between inclusiveness on the one hand and fidelity to Church teaching on the other. “A key to solving this problem was seen in the ability to listen,” the Document states. “One delegate reminds us that ‘listening doesn’t always mean you get the answer you are looking for’ (Session X Group 6), while another pointed out that listening helps us understand the perspectives of others and thereby welcome them.” (#29)
The bishops’ reflection makes this point about formation and polarization directly, and expresses the bishops’ need to clarify expectations of what the Synod can ultimately do about this. Above all, the bishops indicate their sense of responsibility to foster and develop synodal formation throughout the Church. To quote at length:
There is a concern about the danger of false or unrealistic expectations regarding what the synodal process is meant to be and to "produce." Western, North American culture automatically thinks in terms both of measurable results and of winners and losers, and the Church’s voice can be drowned out by that competitive impulse. Nevertheless, the bishops felt that they must show a different way, one that promotes our common baptism, our communion in the Lord, and our will to work together to address the challenges we face, which is led by the Spirit and is faithful to the Lord Jesus. "Bishops must simply do the best we can in the synodal process and be authentic and honest. We must be transparent. Bishops need to reveal themselves more. We need to recognize the need for conversion all the way around (bishops, priests, laity)." (#52)
Synods and councils, historically, have existed to provide forums that enable Church leaders to face disagreements directly, and find a way forward. The North American Ecclesial Assembly, and most clearly the North American bishops, have in this Document expressed a commitment to developing the "habit" of spiritual conversation that can move past polarization and into deeper faithfulness to the call and ministry of Jesus Christ and His mission to the world.
Stay tuned for Part Two next week, where I’ll go into more detail about why these themes are important for the global Synod on Synodality.

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