Last week, I wrote about three stand-out themes from the North American Ecclesial Assembly's Final Document: Communion through co-responsible structures, Naming the tensions alongside the opportunities, and Formation for synodality and mission. This week, as promised, I'll spend some more time on the significance of these themes.
Navigating both Restraint and Concrete Steps
When it comes to determining hoped-for outcomes for this Synod on Synodality, we most often hear a call to restraint. This theme was chiefly exemplified in Cardinals Grech and Hollerich's letter to the bishops of the world on their role in synodality. They urged caution in the face of agendas that would "require" the October 2023 and 2024 sessions to pass certain policy, canonical, or even magisterial changes in order for the synod to be considered a success. In last Thursday's press conference commenting on all the Final Documents from the seven continental assemblies, Perth Archbishop Tim Costelloe repeated that concern.
The North American Final Document does indeed give the need for caution the time of day. However, the calls for structural change and deeper formation
mark a turning point to something new. The Document is emblematic of a process in media res: not at the end, but no longer just starting out. It reveals a group of assembly participants seeking to wrestle with and navigate between a pair of good and necessary things that might pull in opposite directions: the need for patient restraint from predetermined conclusions, and an understanding that people do need concrete results to come from this whole process eventually.
The Document’s specific emphasis on structural co-responsibility expresses the hope of assembly participants that the final, October 2024 session will produce clear recommendations to Pope Francis on structural reform, at the global, canonical, and curial level, as well as at the regional level. Indeed, it directs the General Assembly to a renewed “consideration of current canonical norms and ecclesial structures.” (#54.3) The Document’s emphasis on formation is, at the very least, a request for guidance and resources from both 2023 and 2024 sessions of Synod, as well as from the Secretariat and the Holy Father himself, guidance that will deepen that “habit” of spiritual conversation and synodal decision-making.
The challenge and opportunity in this middle phase, then, is to begin turning toward those concrete steps, to begin developing some more coherent thought about what those real-world changes might entail, what sorts of structural reforms, “considerations of canonical norms,” and formational guidance might that look like, and to do so without insisting that it has to be “this way or the highway.”
Synodality in action, already
It already looks like the synodal process is beginning to practice what it preaches: the Continental and Universal Phases are themselves structures that serve to increase communion and participation. For example, the bishops' reflection in the North American Final Document highlights three unique and encouraging features of the small group portion of the continental assembly in particular: the opportunity for lay people to interact with and express their views with bishops directly, (#43) the rare opportunity for bishops to interact and converse among themselves, (#40) and the opportunity for such interactions between those living on opposite sides of the Canada-U.S. border, (ibid.) something I hoped for in my reflections on the Continental Stage last year. The enthusiasm with which the bishops describe these encounters leads me to suspect that they'll want to carry these conversations forward, if time and resources allow.
In a similar vein, Synod Secretariat under-secretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart, at the press conference summarizing the Continental Stage, singled out how the European Continental Assembly hopes to continue in some fashion. Indeed, the concluding section of the European Assembly’s Final Document expresses that “Concretely, we want this European Continental Assembly not to remain an isolated experience, but to become a regular event, based on the general adoption of the synodal method that permeates all our structures and procedures at all levels.” (#90)
Then, this past Wednesday, a communiqué from the Synod Secretariat clarified the makeup of the first Ordinary Session this October. My current takeaway from this is the fact that, by necessity, a concrete decision was made about who will participate in this structure. We got an answer to the question: What will this highly important and high-profile organism of teaching and practical decision-making in the Catholic Church concretely look like, for a few weeks in October, 2023? Now we know, definitively, what will be new to the General Assembly of Synod: five women religious, five men religious (whether ordained or lay brothers), all ten of which to be “elected by the respective organizations representing the Superiors General,” and 70 delegates of all sorts of vocations, selected by Pope Francis from a list of 140, with about 35 of them being religious or lay women. The communiqué directed the bodies making up the 140-member shortlist to make an effort to include as many young people as possible, and implies that Pope Francis will keep this effort in mind as well. In addition to these, various staff of the Roman Curia (notably Sr. Becquart and others) and whomever else Pope Francis wishes to appoint, will also be included. And here’s the headline: all of them will have full voice and vote in the Synod's statements and procedures.
“Episcopal nature," Proactive Leadership
These developments surely deserve more comment than I can give here. For now, I want to focus on the equally striking way that the communiqué about the Synod's makeup and the North American Assembly's Final Document both preserve the bishops' collegial role in this synodal process. The Secretariat's communiqué stresses that 75% of the Synod is still composed of bishops elected from their episcopal conferences, the Eastern Churches’ Synods of Bishops, and the Oriental Churches’ Councils of Heirarchs. The communiqué points out that this make-up preserves the "episcopal nature" of the institution, which, after all, is still called the “Synod of Bishops.” The communiqué’s commentary seems to directly address the concern about divisive agendas and pre-determined conclusions: “It is therefore in the role/function of memory that the presence of non-bishops is included, and not in that of representation.” It highlights the way “non-bishop” delegates are not elected by public factions “whose representation they would take on, but are appointed by the Holy Father on the proposal of the bodies through which episcopal collegiality is realized at the level of continental areas, rooting their presence in the exercise of pastoral discernment.”
In a similar way, the North American Final Document, especially the bishops' reflection as well as its calls for structural change and increased formation, preserves what I call "episcopal initiative." I find both the care to preserve the "episcopal nature" of the General Assembly and the "episcopal initiative" of the North American Final Document fundamentally significant because they highlights the importance of leadership to drive change. A clear and succinct example is offered by the bishops' comments on the lack of collegial input from parish priests in this synodal path and in the decision-making processes generally: “The bishops acknowledged that it is their responsibility to address this [relative absence of priests] in the future, both by example and by conveying the transparency and spiritual/pastoral fruitfulness of synodality.” (#51, emphasis added)
Now, I am neither a bishop or a parish priest: my viewpoint outside of those relationships leads me to think that the summons to broader engagement with the counsels of the wider Church is often a two-way street. Bishops need to encourage their clergy and lay people (as they recognize in the Document), while parish priests and lay people also need to access the spiritual, practical, and even physical and emotional resources to reach beyond their parish bounds and embark "upon the way" with the wider Church. Put another way: are there obstacles to increased communion and participation that priests and lay people can themselves overcome? Or, are there simply too many demands on their time? Have they prayerfully discerned that their energy is best spent in more parish-specific ways and that God would have them focusing on these priorities instead?
If so, then fair enough–that’s how they view their relationship with their bishop and their diocese. However, the bishops have raised a concern that without the input of parish priests, then both the efforts and fruits of synodal, collective decision-making may fall short. The Final Document’s summary of the Ecclesial Assembly’s conversations remarks that a synodal church is one that reaches out, reaches beyond, to the excluded, to the margins, and to the wider mission of the Gospel in society. (For example, #26, #35, etc.) I hear in the bishops’ reflection, as in the communiqué's comments on episcopal nature of the Synod of Bishops, the recognition that sound, sensitive leadership – Christ-like leadership in a hierarchical Church with clear lines of discipline – needs bishops to be the ones to reach out first, to actively seek ways to ensure that priests and lay people have safe and productive structures and avenues to provide their input, and have the time and energy to offer it on a more regular basis.
I hope that this episcopal initiative fosters authentic unity by building trust, through being open to feedback and questions, and developing collaborative models and structures of decision-making that incorporate, in one collegial whole, the diverse perspectives and experiences of clergy and laity. As Sr. Becquart remarked, the Ecclesial Assemblies of the Continental Stage demonstrated the possibility that “diversity can also be a path to unity.”
How so? How can leadership that celebrates diversity be an active path to unity, rather than a surrender to a cacophony of voices and agendas? I think this is the question underlying the calls to restraint mentioned above. The quest for an answer gets me back to the North American Document’s points about formation and about bishops leading by a more transparent example. Those spiritual, practical, and emotional resources that encourage people to take part in the counsels of the wider Church, and care about them in the first place, don't just happen overnight, not to most people. Parish priests and lay people need opportunities for formation through experience with dialogue and with those wider Church conversations and decision-making processes. They need to develop a taste for it, to see that it's not so bad after all.
So, as the bishops themselves note, the shepherds of the Church have to give and allow them more opportunities to gain that experience, and more importantly the bishops themselves need to model that kind of collective oversight in more transparent ways. I hear in their reflection an impetus to reach out more directly to clergy for input, and to develop more robust structures that sustain that input. In our digital twenty-first century, perhaps bishops can also show people more of the ins and outs of the day-to-day functioning of their charism of oversight, through the use of diocesan and other media outlets. These can all serve as ways of modelling that kind of synodal leadership for the whole Church.