Moment of truth for Francis
The October synod assembly in Rome is shaping up to be a significant moment both for the Francis papacy and the Church of the early twenty-first century.
The sixteenth General Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops beginning on Wednesday, the feast of St Francis of Assisi, will be unlike any other. It has the potential to be as much a landmark moment for Catholicism as the Second Vatican Council. The 464 participants will come from across the universal Church, and include two bishops from mainland China. Including Francis himself, 365 will be voting members, with the others acting as experts, facilitators and spiritual assistants. Some 81 are women, 54 of them voting members.
Much of the assembly’s work will take place in small groups gathered around tables in the Paul VI Hall, the large auditorium in the Vatican often used by the Pope for his Wednesday morning General Audience. It is dominated by Pericle Fazzini’s dramatic sculpture La Resurrezione, depicting Christ rising from a nuclear crater in the Garden of Gethsemane. With the synodal renewal, Pope Francis seeks to bring a revived sense of mission to the Church, and many are hoping that new life will emerge as a result. The synod process has taken place against the backdrop of the catastrophic scandal of clerical sexual abuse.
The Instrumentum Laboris, the working document which will form the basis of the discussions, acknowledges that the global Church is “deeply affected” by sexual, spiritual and other forms of abuse and stresses the need to address the consequences. The presence of two bishops from China is also a pointer to the future. It comes amid tensions in the Vatican’s delicate negotiations with Beijing over the appointment of bishops. Inside the synod hall, participants will be divided into 35 working groups of 10 to 12 members, each with a facilitator present to help discernment. Fourteen of the groups will speak in English, eight Italian, seven Spanish, five French and one Portuguese. Documents will be produced in English and Italian.
The small groups will hold “conversations in the spirit”, starting with each person talking for no longer than four minutes, before participants respond to what they have heard. There will also be sessions bringing the entire assembly together, at which the small groups will report back on their discussions. The assembly will have five modules, or segments, dedicated to a “synodal Church”, communion, mission and participation, with a concluding segment to approve a final report. Each small group will also formulate a report of their reflections, recording where there is agreement and where disagreement and tension remain. They won’t be asked to agree on each point but whether the report adequately reflects the work they have carried out.
The final module will produce a synthesis of all the discussions, which will be submitted to the assembly for approval. It’s worth remembering that the 2023 gathering will not produce the final synod document. That won’t happen until after the 2024 assembly (which will be attended by the same participants). Francis is expected to respond to that document in the months afterwards. Unlike previous synods, the working document is not a series of propositions but of questions for further discernment. Large sections cover the renewal of governance and decision-making, how to better include lay people and ensure greater transparency and accountability.
The role of women in the Church, consistently highlighted in the local synodal dialogues as needing urgent attention, is likely to be a significant topic of discussion. One question is how can the “baptismal dignity” of women, including their “participation in governance, decision-making, mission and ministries at all levels of the Church”, be better recognised and promoted. The question of female deacons, already the subject of two recent Vatican commissions, is also on the agenda, as is whether “new ministries” need to be established.
Three weeks of discussion in the Vatican are unlikely to resolve these issues, and it seems more realistic that this synod will show where there is substantial agreement, and expose where the fault lines lie. There is likely to be a strong pushback in some quarters to ordaining women deacons, for example, but I expect local churches to be asked to review what the synod has agreed and provide their reflections ahead of the 2024 summit.
One topic certain to be addressed is the problem of clericalism, which, like the failure to recognise the role of women, was repeatedly identified as a problem in the synodal dialogues. At the heart of this issue lies the way authority is exercised in the Church – clericalism is not a “priest issue” or even a Catholic issue, but the tendency for leaders to abuse power that is found in all institutions – and the synod will address the relationship between the common priesthood of all the baptised and the ministerial priesthood. “While we respect there is a priestly culture,” Fr Vimal Tirimanna, a leading Asian theologian who teaches in Rome and Sri Lanka and who will be a voting delegate at the synod, told me during a recent Tablet webinar on synodality and accountability, “that does not mean [that] under the name of priestly culture we should usurp the roles entrusted to each and every baptised person by the Holy Spirit.”
Formation is the critical issue, and the synod working document identifies the need to form all the People of God. But it insists that future priests need to be trained in “a synodal style and mentality” and that a renewal of seminary curricula ensures a “clearer and more decisive orientation” towards synodality. Fr Tiramanna told me that “in the seminaries, there is a serious need today to stress the servant priesthood”, while at the same webinar, Rafael Luciani, a Venezuelan theologian and expert adviser to the synod, said seminaries, the theology of the priesthood and parishes all needed to be renewed. “If you don’t touch that trilogy, you will not move forward as a synodal Church.” The synod will provide a platform for emerging leaders, including women.
Sister Nathalie Becquart, who took part in the 2018 youth synod, was appointed under-secretary of the synod office three years later. For the first time, Francis has included two women among those who act as “president’s delegates”, meaning they will preside over the assembly in the name of the Pope. One of them is Mexican Sister María de los Dolores Palencia, who runs a centre to help migrants in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, and the other is Momoko Nishimura, a consecrated laywoman from Yokohama in Japan, who works in youth ministry. While Francis has no immediate plans to step down and intends to play an active role during the proceedings, the synod is nevertheless likely to have something of a pre-conclave feel. Today, 30 September, he will create 21 new cardinals, 18 of them eligible to vote in a future election. Those in high-profile positions in the synod will be watched closely by the cardinals, and there will be an opportunity to size up potential successors. Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, of Luxembourg, who is relator-general to the synod, will play a key role in preparing the synod’s crucial final document, as well as introducing discussion topics and summarising their conclusions.
This was a role the then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio carried out at the 2001 synod, when he impressed people with his leadership qualities. That experience – he witnessed the synod secretary removing material which groups in the synod had approved – also convinced the future pope that the synod structure needed reform. Today, the synod’s secretary-general is Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, whose role is to ensure the synod runs smoothly and to tackle any problems that arise. At the opening session of the synod there will be speeches from Hollerich, Grech, the Pope and the president delegate. Other president delegates include Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes, the Archbishop of Mexico City and a leading figure in the Latin American Church, and Archbishop of Perth Tim Costelloe, the President of the Australian Bishops’ Conference, who led his country’s synod process (the Plenary Council).
The synod has the potential for plenty of fireworks. Among those attending is German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Holy See doctrine prefect who has already issued several high-octane warnings about the synod, even describing it as a “hostile takeover of the Church”. Also attending the synod is his compatriot, Bishop Georg Bätzing, the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, who has sought to push through reforms from the German synod on the role of women, lay preaching at Mass, and a reassessment of Catholic sexual teaching – all of them resisted by Rome. Intriguingly, there is no German-language group during the synod, which means there is no formal occasion when German participants can conduct conversations among themselves.
Several bishops may be going to Rome feeling a little sceptical about the process but open to conversion. How they respond over the next few weeks could make all the difference. A key figure here is Bishop Robert Barron, one of the United States delegates. He insists that the synod is “not voting on doctrine” and is “much more about strategy”. How he reacts to the synod process will be significant, even more so given his sizeable digital audience. The Pope and the synod organisers want to avoid synod discussions being turned into an ideological battle waged online. There was talk about placing some synod discussions under the “pontifical secret”. Speaking to reporters before the start of the gathering, Paolo Ruffini, the Vatican’s head of communications, stressed that rather than secrecy there was a need for “confidentiality” during the process, given it is a spiritual event.
Participants are being asked to refrain from giving interviews to the media during the assembly. Myriam Wijlens, a canon lawyer from the University of Erfurt, Germany and one of the expert advisers to the synod, told me during the Tablet webinar she did not like the term “pontifical secret” but said participants need to be able to speak freely. “Some members of the synodal process could be extremely active on all kinds of social media, and other voices could then be lost,” she pointed out. The spiritual nature of the synod, which is sometimes likened to a liturgical assembly, will be underlined by the prayer gathering and retreat that will precede it.
Today an ecumenical prayer vigil will be held in St Peter’s Square attended by young people and Christian leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The gathering has been organised by Taizé, the ecumenical monastic fraternity based in France, and reflects the inclusive nature of the synod process. Representatives of other Christian churches will also participate in the forthcoming synod, including the Anglican Bishop of Chichester Martin Warner and Elizabeth Newman, the chair of the Baptist World Alliance Commission on Baptist Doctrine and Christian Unity. This will be followed by a three-day retreat for all synod participants in Sacrofano, 16 miles north of Rome, led by Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the English former master of the Dominicans, and Maria Angelini, a Benedictine abbess from northern Italy. Some argue that the synod will not bring about significant changes. A few are determined to make sure it fails. The synod process itself will be as important as the outcomes in terms of documents and resolutions. For Pope Francis this is a decisive moment in his personal mission to witness to the unchanging truth that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church in every age.