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Reform multiple aspects of church life, says Roman Catholic Synod

31 October 2023

Synod concludes with proposals on governance, mission, theology, and discipline


The Pope presides at mass on the final day of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, on Sunday

The Pope presides at mass on the final day of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, on Sunday

THE Roman Catholic Church’s so-called Synod on Synodality has concluded in Rome with dozens of proposals for reform, touching on church governance, mission, theology, canonical discipline, and pastoral outreach.

“Our Assembly took place as old and new wars raged across the world, with the absurd drama of countless victims — the cry of the poor has resonated among us,” the Synod’s Synthesis Report says.

“We have carried everyone, at all times, in our hearts and prayers, asking how we can promote paths of reconciliation, hope, justice and peace. . . This Assembly is not an isolated event, but an integral and necessary step in the synodal process.”

The 20,000-word, 42-page report was released in Italian last weekend, at the close of the Synod, the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, attended from 4 to 29 October by 364 participants, as well as 85 experts, facilitators, and “fraternal delegates” from other Churches.

It says that participants — who included 54 women — accepted the Pope’s invitation “to recognise the synodal dimension of the Church”, according to practices attested to in the New Testament and Early Church. This dimension has assumed “particular historical forms” in various Christian traditions before being updated at the Second Vatican Council (1963-65).

Despite diverse “origins, languages and cultures”, they sought to “sing in a variety of voices with a unity of souls”, the report says, and to offer a “testimony of harmony to a torn and divided world”, and identify priorities needing further work before a follow-up synodical session next October.

In a weekend commentary, Vatican Radio said that the idea of synodality had caused “confusion and concern”: some feared “a departure from tradition and debasement of the Church’s hierarchical nature”, while others feared “immobility and lack of courage for change”.

It said, however, that the Synod, the first to give voting rights to laypeople, had “listened to all and probed everything more deeply”, taking a “renewed look” at contemporary demands in areas such as the part played by women and the laity, the ministry of priests and bishops, ecumenism, and care for abuse victims.

Meeting daily in working groups of ten to 12 members, the Synod considered 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-level consultations.

The Synthesis Report, voted on paragraph by paragraph after at least 1250 group and individual amendments, outlines “convergences”, “matters for consideration”, and “proposals” in three separate parts.

On mission, the report says that Christian communities should “enter into solidarity with those of other religions, convictions and cultures”, while ensuring that the Church’s liturgical language becomes “more accessible to the faithful and more embodied in the diversity of cultures”.

It says that the poor should be identified “not only as those materially impoverished”, but as being among the world’s migrants, minorities and indigenous peoples, victims of violence, racism, trafficking, and exploitation, as well as the elderly and abandoned, and unborn children, who require “constant advocacy”.

Christians are called to correct “systems within the Church” which fuel injustice, while also engaging actively in “politics, associations, trade unions and popular movements”, the report says.

“The Assembly is aware of the cry of the ‘new poor’, produced by wars and terrorism that torment countries on different continents, and condemns the corrupt political and economic systems that are their cause. The Church’s commitment must get to the causes of poverty and exclusion. . . It requires public denunciation of injustices, whether perpetrated by individuals, governments, companies or societal structures.”

The report says that laypeople are now “indispensable to the Church’s mission” as educators, theologians, animateurs, and administrators, and that their talents should be “recognised and fully appreciated”.

It says that the Church should commit itself strongly to “pastoral accompaniment and vigorous advocacy” on behalf of women, who “cry out for justice in societies marked by sexual violence and economic inequality”.

While further research is needed on women’s access to the diaconate, in line with commissions set up by Pope Francis in 2016 and 2020, urgent steps are needed to ensure that women “participate in decision-making processes and assume roles of responsibility”, at a time when many believe that the Church is scarred by “clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority”.

“Perplexity and opposition can sometimes conceal a fear of losing power and the privileges that derive from it,” the document says.

“It is clear that some people are afraid they will be forced to change, whereas others fear that nothing at all will change or that there will be too little courage to move at the pace of the living Tradition.”

Presenting the report at a press conference on Saturday, the Synod’s Maltese secretary-general, Cardinal Mario Grech, said that participants had come “in search of the broadest and most convinced consensus”, aware that they were “witnesses of a process” rather than delegates “representing the people of God in parliamentary logic”.

The Synod’s Relator General, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, said that the new “freedom and openness” offered by synodality would also “change the Church”, enabling it to “find answers, but perhaps not the exact answers this or that group wishes to have”.

The Pope thanked participants, four-fifths of whom were bishops, at a Sunday mass in St Peter’s Basilica, calling in his homily for the Church to offer a “haven of mercy” for “all shipwrecked people”.

He said that the Church could also “look with foresight to the horizon opening up before it”, as it accompanied “the fragile, weak, and outcast on their journey”, without “demanding any attestation of good behaviour”.

The Synthesis Report says that further consideration should be given to the appropriateness of clerical celibacy, “above all in ecclesial and cultural contexts that make it more difficult”, as well as to assigning judicial responsibility for abuse cases away from local bishops.

While laypeople and members of religious orders could become more involved in the choice of bishops, diocesan pastoral councils could also be made mandatory, and new “structures and processes” could be introduced for reviewing a bishop’s performance and “style of authority”.

Although not referring directly to homosexuality or to LGBTQ groups, the document calls for the avoidance of “simplistic judgements”, and says that greater efforts should be made to “hear and accompany” those feeling “marginalised or excluded because of their marriage status, identity or sexuality”.

“Church teaching already provides a sense of direction on many of these matters, but this teaching evidently still requires translation into pastoral practice,” the report notes.

“There was a deep sense of love, mercy and compassion felt in the Assembly for those feeling hurt or neglected by the Church, who want a place to call ‘home’ where they can feel safe, heard and respected, without fear of feeling judged.”

The report says that the reform proposals — more than 80 in total — reflect the desire “for a Church closer to people, less bureaucratic and more relational”, as expressed at a previous synod on young people in October 2018.

It adds that the “climate of mutual listening and sincere dialogue” should now radiate in RC communities worldwide, as all church members, “in the variety of their vocations”, become involved in the “synodal path” and contribute to “a better understanding and practice of the gospel”.

Bishops’ Conferences will help develop reflection on “the most relevant and urgent questions and proposals” over the coming year, in preparation for the final Synod Assembly next October, at which concrete recommendations will be presented to Pope Francis for a final decision.

In a Letter to the People of God, published in 15 languages on 25 October, participants in the Synod say that they came to Rome accompanied by prayers, as well as “expectations, questions and fears”, and that the presence of delegates from other Churches and ecclesial communities has “deeply enriched” their discussions.

“We hope that the months leading to the second session in October 2024 will allow everyone to participate concretely in the dynamism of missionary communion indicated by the word ‘synod’ — this is not about ideology, but about an experience rooted in the apostolic tradition,” the letter says.

“The Church needs to listen to the laity, women and men, all called to holiness by virtue of their baptismal vocation: to the testimony of catechists, who in many situations are the first proclaimers of the Gospel; to the simplicity and vivacity of children, the enthusiasm of youth, to the dreams, the wisdom and the memory of elderly people.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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