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Instrumentum Laboris Highlight #1: On Land and Sea | Synod on Synodality

Matthew Neugebauer

Friday, July 28, 2023

Sunset on Fiji's South Coast. The Oceania Ecclesial Assembly took place in February, 2023 in Fiji's capital of Suva. iStock photo.
The Instrumentum Laboris (IL) or “Working Document” for the 2023 General Assembly was released last month by the Synod Secretariat. Julian Paparella has written a clear and concise overview of the document, outlining 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. Julian includes those questions at the end of his summary–you are invited to reflect and respond to them yourself. Feel free to send us a message on our social media channels or comment on our posts regarding the General Assembly.
In the latest One Body blog post – our ongoing series on ecumenical relationships – Nicholas Jesson has continued our reflections on the IL with a look at the “Universal Priesthood.” He focuses on the way bilateral and multilateral dialogues have discussed the role of lay people, what we can learn from the Protestant Reformation, and how the Synod on Synodality can strengthen the ministry of all the faithful.
For my own reflections on the Working Document, I’ve decided to publish separate, digestible posts. There were a number of things that stood out to me, so let’s dive into the first one.

On Land and Sea

I was struck by the way both the main body of the text and the worksheet questions begin with calls to address situations of political, economic, and ecological distress. The first concrete concerns that the document raises are “the reality of too many wars that stain our world with blood,…the threat represented by climate change,...the cry to oppose an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture” and others (#4). The very first question in the worksheet asks, “How does the service of charity and commitment to justice and care for our common home nourish communion in a synodal Church?” (B.1.1).
The placement of a topic within a document is a clue to the relative importance that this topic should receive. By addressing these socio-economic and ecological circumstances right out of the gate, the Synod Secretariat is offering these concerns as “framing priorities” that might shape the whole tenor of the General Assembly’s conversations.
These priorities emerged directly from the Continental Stage. For example, the Asian Ecclesial Assembly raised the issue of extreme poverty and income inequality early in its Final Document (#3). To take another example, the participants at the Oceania Assembly, gathering in Suva, Fiji, made a point of visiting a coastal town to witness the effect of climate change and exploitative practices on the land and people there. They saw first-hand the threat that rising temperatures and sea levels, with their increased risk of natural disasters and flooding, pose for the homes and livelihoods of millions in much of Asia and Oceania.
These priorities also follow from the previous Synod of Bishops in 2019, entirely devoted to bolstering Communion and Mission in the Amazon region of South America. Poverty, deforestation, urbanization, and the effects of climate change are daily realities there as well, deeply affecting peoples’ lives. It is therefore a core focus of the Church’s mission and ministry, as well as one that impacts the vitality of that ministry (Querida Amazonia #85-90).
The Synod on Synodality is making a point of expanding this awareness to multiple regions across the globe. Thankfully, the IL raises these concerns, not to cast a shadow of doom and gloom, but to inspire the global Church to support that resilience and creativity in communities throughout the world. It states that the ever-greater emergence of violent conflict “calls for a renewed commitment to building a just peace,” and environmental destruction “implies a necessary priority of caring for the common home” (#4).
Just as importantly for us in the Global North, my sense is that the Synod on Synodality is highlighting these experiences in order to broaden the Church’s communion in the face of heightened polarization in the West, such as on questions of gender and sexuality. Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, spoke on America Media’s “Jesuitical Podcast” about the power of encountering the poor and hearing their voices and experiences throughout this Synod process. He referenced Pope Francis’ 2019 reflection that 
The poor save us because they enable us to encounter the face of Jesus Christ. In the heart of the pilgrim People of God there beats that saving power which excludes no one and involves everyone in a real pilgrimage of conversion, to recognize the poor and to love them.
This encounter, with those whose lives have been so different from ourselves, has the chance of relativizing the divisions we find most important. It can be a powerful way for the Holy Spirit, who shows us the face of Christ, to gather the Church to common cause and action–participation in communion–such as that deepened care for our common home and “a renewed commitment to building a just peace” in places of conflict. 
I’m grateful that the IL shook me out of assumptions about “hot-button issues” taking centre-stage, such as questions about gender and sexuality. The document does take them up, especially in the worksheet questions (B.1.2, B.2.3). At the same time, I’m mindful that even those issues we like to focus on in the West are, in many places around the world, deeply intertwined with the effects of poverty and climate change. This is acutely the case regarding the role of women, many of whom bear a heavy load of emotional, spiritual, and physical labour "in remote places and in challenging social contexts” and yet “are frequently the main agents of pastoral care and evangelization" (B.2.3, see also Querida Amazonia #99-103).
Surely the Church throughout the world is called to listen to the anxieties and concerns of all of its members, as well as their stories of resilience and creativity in the face of these threats. May this framing priority, this encounter with Jesus Christ in the poor at the General Assembly, even reframe our approach to divisive issues, and foster that resilience and creativity to find new and vital ways to deepen our communion and mission.

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