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Synodists gather in Rome to debate education, multiculturalism, the environment, and migration

12 October 2023

‘Towards a Synodal Church: Communion, participation, mission’ runs until 29 October 


Participants of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gather in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, on Tuesday

Participants of the 16th General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops gather in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, on Tuesday

ROMAN Catholic synodists from around the world have debated their Church’s approach to education, multiculturalism, the environment, and migration, during the opening days of the so-called Synod on Synodality in Rome. It runs until 29 October, with the theme “Towards a Synodal Church: Communion, participation, mission”.

In his opening address last week to 364 participants, and 85 experts, facilitators, and “fraternal delegates” from non-Catholic Churches, the Pope said that the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops should be seen not “as a parliament or the United Nations”, but as a “bond of communion between dissimilar parts” under guidance from the Holy Spirit.

He urged participants to “express themselves freely”, while also refraining from briefing journalists, and warned against the “common disease” of gossip and backbiting, and “talking behind people’s backs”.

Preaching on Monday at the second week’s opening mass in St Peter’s Basilica, the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, Cardinal Béchara Boutros Raï, said that the “synodal path” would help the Church to “respond to global crises”, including persecution, climate change, exploitative economic systems, and “the wounds inflicted by various forms of abuse”.

He said that Roman Catholics were also called to pursue “just peace amid ongoing wars”, while promoting human dignity, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, care for the marginalised and vulnerable, and engaging with “contemporary societal challenges”.

The Synod’s Relator General, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, said that church members worldwide had already worked, during two years of consultation, to “bring the synodal Church into sharper focus as a comprehensive vision”. Participants, he said, would be reflecting on openness to other cultures, and how best to foster “justice, peace, and integral ecology” with other faith traditions.

The week’s opening session included keynote addresses on communion and formation by the Oxford Dominican Fr Timothy Radcliffe, and Professor Anna Rowland, from the Centre for Catholic Studies, at Durham University, as well as reflections on the Orthodox experience of synodality by Metropolitan Job (Getcha), co-president of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

The Synod, the first to give voting rights to lay people, is considering reports drawn up in February and March at continental assemblies in Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, North America, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which, in turn, debated “national syntheses” tabled by Bishops’ Conferences after diocesan and parish consultations.

A “final synthesis”, presented on 23 October, will provide the roadmap for a follow-up session in Rome, in October 2024, when concrete recommendations and decisions are expected.

The 27,000-word programme, or Instrumentum Laboris, for the assembly, published in June, reviewed common challenges facing Roman Catholics worldwide, but also highlighted the part played by local Churches as a “privileged point of reference”.

Synod regulations, published on 4 October, noted that participants, meeting in working groups of ten to 12 members, were “bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants”.

Vatican Radio said that last week’s “Module One” had considered “how the hierarchy can place itself within the Communion”, and how to “curb bureaucratisation of ecclesial structures”, as well as the part played by women in the Church’s “decision-making processes”, and “moving from the concept of power to that of service, and avoiding any form of clericalism”.

The President of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, the Congolese Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, told a press conference that the synod was not “geared to bring solutions to all problems”, such as issues over women’s ordination or the blessing of same-sex unions, but to explore how the Church could best “discuss and address” them through “collective discernment”.

He also warned against “exaggerated expectations”, and said that the outcome of the synod, unlike its 15 predecessors, remained largely unknown.

The mission director for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Fr Jan Nowotnik, told the Church Times that the synod would seek to develop the idea of the “People of God” outlined in the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, finding “the right balance between local and universal priorities in how the Church is run”.

He said that “deeply polarised views” about the synod had emerged through social media, especially in Europe and the United States, but that he was confident that the month-long debates would not “get bogged down in rival political agendas”.

A “counter-synod”, demanding liberal changes, was staged this week by progressive RC movements, including Britain’s Root and Branch, and the US-based Catholics for Choice.

Conservative critics, such as Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former Archbishop of St Louis, and the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have warned of a danger of schism as a result of some demands for reform.

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