How the Synod will change the Church
The current model of the Church is fading fast. What comes next will look very different. In spite of the immense diversity of viewpoint and culture and experiences within Catholicism, the synodal process is how we will get there.
When he stood up in the Paul VI audience hall on 18 October to give one of his series of spiritual reflections to the synod assembly, Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP recalled the first time the Church had met like this. It was in Jerusalem about 20 years after the death and rising of Christ. The young community, fractured and bewildered by Gentile conversions, was in the throes of its first major crisis of identity and direction. Yet when the faithful assembled to speak their minds and listen deeply to reports of what was happening, they realised that God was doing an unexpected thing. That first gathering of God’s people with their leaders – the Council of Jerusalem, Synod 1.0 – would be decisive, opening a new universal horizon of missionary possibility that freed the Church to reform itself in order to evangelise a new era.
The point Fr Radcliffe wanted us to see was that those early Christians weren’t flying in the dark. They “saw that God was already doing something new. God had gone before them. They had to catch up with the Holy Spirit.” It wasn’t easy for the “Jewish party” to accept Gentile conversions; where did that leave the Chosen People? Today, God is bringing into existence a Church that is no longer European or even western, but eastern, southern, African and Asian; a Church in which women are taking responsibility, and young people, citizens in tomorrow’s digital age, are taking Christianity into cultural frameworks bewildering to older generations. Today, Radcliffe suggested, just as at the Council of Jerusalem, there are two key questions for Christians: “What is God doing?” and, “Do we accept God’s gracious newness?”
The whole three-year synodal process has been about capturing this “gracious newness”, learning a new way of doing things by recovering a very old way of doing things and reconfiguring it for a new era. Like every stage in the process, from parish meetings at the grassroots to diocesan, national and continental-stage assemblies, the assembly of the Synod of Bishops held over four weeks in October was unprecedented in its composition, its method and its fruit – fresh wineskins to hold the new wine. The story of the new composition is best told in the pictures of 35 round tables across the Paul VI audience hall. At those tables, separated by language (English, Italian, Spanish, French and Portuguese), sat not just bishops but Religious and lay men and women, as well as priest and deacons. There have always been non-bishops at synods of bishops, and a handful – the heads of male religious orders – have even had a vote. But this time just shy of a quarter of the synod’s 364 voting members were clergy, lay people and Religious, including about 50 women.
The members “not endowed with the episcopal munus”, as the Vatican put it with a certain juridical brutality, were described as “witnesses of the synodal journey”. Their authority to be there came – just as at the Council of Jerusalem, which called together all the “apostles and elders” – from their baptismal dignity and their experience of what the Spirit was doing. Significantly they were delegates, not of national conferences but of the seven continental assemblies held between February and March last year. Ecclesiologically this was a major move, bolstering the place in the Church’s discernment process of the supranational ecclesial bodies which organised the assemblies. Each part of the world – Africa, Asia, Middle East, North America, Latin America, Europe and Oceania – was asked to send a 10-strong team of men and women, clergy and Religious, making sure to include young people (the youngest at the assembly was a 19-year-old young man from the US, followed by a 22-year-old Polish woman).
Adding to the mix at the tables were ex officio members: superiors general of religious congregations (10), heads of curial dicasteries (20), and around 50 papal picks. These ex nomine pontificia members balanced out a bishops’ conference delegation and allowed particular voices from the margins to be heard in the hall. From the UK, for example, Francis chose Westminster auxiliary Nicholas Hudson – a synodality early adopter – to accompany the England and Wales delegates Marcus Stock of Leeds and John Wilson of Southwark, and Scottish delegate Brian McGee of Argyll. Similarly Francis chose his synodal allies in the US, Cardinals McElroy, Gregory, Cupich and O’Malley, to supplement the US conference’s elected delegates.
Many of the Pope’s picks were not bishops, such as Fr Jim Martin SJ of America magazine, known for his outreach to gay people, the Spanish lay theologian Cristina Inogés Sanz, who works with migrants; and the “Twitter nun”, Sr Xiskya Valladares, a pioneering “digital missionary”. There were also two groups with a voice but no vote: a dozen “fraternal delegates” (including the Anglican bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner) and nine “special guests” from bodies such as Focolare, Catholic Action and Taizé.
When he was there for the plenary sessions, Pope Francis sat at the presidents’ table, slightly raised above the rest at the head of the room. After greeting us at the start to remind us this wasn’t a parliament but “something else”, he invited us to explain that “something else” to journalists, but otherwise to refrain from interviews. (The day-to-day proceedings were anyway subject to confidentiality, to give people freedom to speak honestly.) He spoke twice more in the assembly, the first time to express his concern about seminaries, the second to lament clericalism. He also arranged for us to have some reading material: an essay and speech of his on the theme of worldliness (the source of clericalism), and some quotes of St Basil of Caesarea on the Holy Spirit. He usually arrived, in his wheelchair, 20 minutes early, so there was a chance to greet him, give him a hug or a gift, or, in the case of the 19-year-old Wyatt Olivias, to ask him, half-jokingly, to sign a request to the University of Wyoming that Wyatt be excused from classes while recovering from the synod. (Naturally, Francis obliged.)
Also at the top table were the synod’s architects and maintenance team, including Maltese cardinal Mario Grech (synod general secretary), Luxembourg Jesuit cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich (the rapporteur), who introduced each stage of the assembly, and Italian Jesuit Fr Giacomo Costa SJ, who coordinated the group facilitation process. Also at the table, sitting to the Pope’s left, was that day’s “delegate president”, the person who would be chairing the plenary session. Two of the eight delegate presidents were women.
The day a young Japanese laywoman sitting next to the Pope chaired the assembly, it hit me just how different was this modus procedendi. Most bishops said it was enriching to enlarge the synod in this way, even if a few found it existentially displacing. When, towards the end, some raised questions about the authority of the synod, given its composition, Cardinal Grech was categoric.
Synods in the Catholic Church are consultative, called by the Pope to counsel him. According to the revised 2018 regulations, the Pope was free to invite, if he wished, non-bishops to synod assemblies and to give them the right to speak and vote. Their presence was justified by the “logic of witness”, Grech added, reminding everyone that this was part of a discernment process beginning in the local church and the consultation of the people of God. As such, it was still a synod of bishops, but with its authority enhanced by being widened in this way to root it in the sensus fidei. On the same day, 25 October, came the Pope’s second intervention, reminding us that Jesus refused to be part of any of the closed religious elites of his time, in order to restore God’s direct relationship with his people. Francis used a phrase from his first address as Jesuit provincial in Argentina, back in 1974: that God’s holy faithful people had a way of seeing, a consciousness, and that unless the Church remained that people, it became some kind of worldly corporation or service-provider.
He left us with two powerful images: of the ordinary faithful with sticks in their hands waiting for the bishops at the Council of Ephesus to proclaim Mary as Mother of God, and of God’s holy faithful people “bearing the contempt, mistreatment, marginalisation of institutionalised clericalism”. It was another kind of reply to those who questioned the legitimacy of a synod that included the People of God. The second new wineskin was the method the assembly used. Traditionally, synods have involved listening to long speeches in the theatre-style aula del sinodo – “like a trans-atlantic flight without the movies”, one cardinal recalled – and reworking a draft text in groups.
This time the synod’s starting text, the instrumentum laboris, was a series of questions set out in four modules that the assembly worked through in their circoli minori, whose composition changed at the start of each module. Each group had an expert facilitator (who was not a synod member) appointed by the synod secretariat to ensure the method was followed, keep everyone to time, and to intervene (“Excuse me, cardinal, she hasn’t quite finished”) when needed. Two members of the group meanwhile acted as secretary and rapporteur, to draft and deliver the fruits of their conversation to the rest of the assembly. They got there by using “Conversation in the Spirit” (CiS). It proved a triumph, confirming its place of pride in a synodal church. The CiS worked like this. After introductions came silent prayer. Then each of the 10 or 11 in each circolo spoke in turn for a maximum of three minutes in response to the question in that part of the module, offering their reflections as a gift to be shared rather than a bid to persuade others. No discussion was allowed at this point. Then there was more silent prayer, in which members pondered the “resonances” in their hearts and minds to what they had heard. Then a second round, for each to share those resonances, to see where the Spirit might be moving; again, no discussion.
After more silent prayer, in the third round a freer exchange allowed the group to talk freely together, and to agree on where there were convergences, divergences and questions or next steps. (There was no attempt to force a false consensus or negotiate compromises.) Each group’s report, summarising the fruits of the CiS, was then read out by its rapporteur to the plenary. Individuals could then ask to address the assembly on the different topics of that module (if they weren’t chosen, they could make their submission in writing). The following day, in the light of what they had heard, the circoli minori hunkered back down to revise and finalise their submissions, and after voting to approve them, sent them in.
I was one of the 20 “expert theologians” – like the facilitators, we were not assembly members, so did not vote or speak – whose job was to read these reports and synthesise them for the sake of the team drafting the final “synthesis report”. Because we were at our own tables at the edge of the hall, listening into the plenaries, we weren’t in a circolo minore, but over breaks and lunches I heard dozens of stories. People described moments of polarisation and exasperation, and the occasional deadlock; there were little power-plays, push-backs, even stand-offs. Such amazing diversity of culture and experience of Church could hardly fail to raise tensions and sometimes passionate disagreements, and the group dynamics were complex. But as Cardinal Hollerich told the assembly on 9 October, “We are not afraid of tensions. Tensions are part of the process, as long as we consider ourselves to be brothers and sisters, walking together.”
Moving to that “we” was the point of the CiS, and judging by my conversations the alchemy worked. People shifted in their understanding and respect for the other’s experience and sincerity, even if not their conclusions. The CiS method meant they could not move too quickly into a “debate” mode, reiterating their own positions, without first listening to the reasoning that supported the positions of others. It allowed people to be vulnerable and hesitant. It’s why confidentiality mattered, and why the process needed time and patience. The result was that, even when they passionately disagreed, the “other” was seen no longer as an adversary or a source of scandal but as a fellow believer in search of the same truth in Jesus Christ. Many said the experience was transformative and revelatory, and became excited about how CiS could be used more widely. Outside, as Israel-Gaza exploded in terrifying violence, it felt to many in the hall as if they were doing something prophetic, something the world badly needed to learn.
The assembly’s fruits were macerated into a three-part, 40-page “synthesis report” of astonishing openness. It has 81 proposals, and some 20 calls for theological, canonical and pastoral commissions to clarify and propose solutions to various knotty questions. In the meantime, it asks us all to get stuck into talking about them. “A Synodal Church in Mission” charts the path to the concluding assembly in October 2024. It decides nothing, and holds it all in tension. Yet the consensus behind it is remarkable: that the Church needs to face and discuss all these questions, together, under the guidance of the Spirit, with the Pope as final discerner-in-chief. The numbers in favour of each paragraph – the whole thing was read out, in a final three-and-a-half-hour marathon – were seldom less than 90-95 per cent, and only on three paragraphs (women deacons) did the “No” votes come even close to 20 per cent.
Given the immense diversity of viewpoint and culture and experiences within the assembly, this was a consoling sign that CiS had done its thing, allowing the Spirit to form a “we”. You could sense it that final day in the joy, the sense of unity, the feeling we had been part of something sacred. Among the many dimensions of the Church’s future the document looks to, I’ll focus on two where I saw a shift within the assembly. The first is in its re-imagining of the Church’s internal culture. The second is in re-thinking ministries fit for mission. It was striking how, in all parts of the world, whether for lack of vocations or lack of resources, the emergent Church now looks in many ways like the early missionary era of Christianity, when faith was transmitted more by witness and encounter than through culture and law and strong institutions. An African bishop ministering to his poor, vast, fast-growing rural diocese with a tiny band of clergy, or a European bishop recalling how, since taking over his diocese 13 years earlier, he has buried 300 priests and ordained just 15, were both saying much the same thing: the old clerical European-US model, with a priest in every parish, is fading fast.
What comes now will look very different. And synodality is how we get there. The synthesis looks to a Church imagined by the Second Vatican Council’s People of God ecclesiology: God’s home and family, missionary and humble, not bureaucratic and corporate but relational, dialogical and participatory, in which “co-responsibility for mission” is the key idea. It means we have to learn to listen, dialogue and discern, invest time in CiS and lectio divina, involve all in consultation, and move via consensus. The synthesis points to many structures, many of which already exist, such as mandatory parish and diocesan pastoral councils, to enable this. And it calls for all meetings to begin with the Word of God and use methods such as CiS to mark them off from business meetings. As the synod report notes, resistance to this new culture is often rooted in a fear of loss of power and privilege. (The resistance is greatest where the Church is wealthy, its institutions seem successful, and corporate culture reigns.) But the transition requires of us all a kenotic de-centering, a willingness to create space for the other’s viewpoint, and to recognise the partiality of our own, especially in an ever more global Church.
It happened in the assembly itself, when the term “LGBTQ” used in the instrumentum laboris was not used in the synthesis report. This was a shock for many in North America and Western Europe, who use the term which gay people themselves use. Members from Africa, eastern Europe and much of the Latin Catholic world said the acronym was freighted with ideologies of gender fluidity and identity politics imposed on them by international agencies: often indignant in their denunciation of these “ideologies”, these members in turn listened to moving personal stories of sacrificial love between gay people badly treated by church communities. Did the conversation in this area get very far? No. But it began by making room for other perspectives: the justice and equality lens is only one way of looking at these issues. This felt like the synod where the global Church asserted itself, telling the West: your priorities are not our priorities; our challenges are not your challenges. It was striking how, while parts of the document address questions of sexuality, it is over polygamous unions – largely an Africa-specific issue – that the document calls for an Amoris Laetitia-style theological and pastoral accompaniment.
The second dimension was that of ministries for mission. Here the synthesis document makes real progress, imagining a Church in which the charisms of the faithful are discerned, and ministries instituted to express them. The need to invest in formation, both in faith understanding and in specific skills (listening, discernment, facilitation), is key to the People of God living out its vocation in the world. But it is also needed within the Church’ own structures, where many lay faithful, especially women, carry out their mission. The report stresses the need to remove barriers to women exercising leadership and decision-making at every level, and to recognise more explicitly where that leadership is happening. Two moments in the assembly felt to me like breakthroughs in this area. One was accepting that, because the Church exists for mission, it has the Christ-given authority and freedom to rethink or create ministries where the needs of a mission to a particular place or age demand it. The second was the recognition that the diaconate needs to be restored to its original purpose, a ministry that is distinct from priesthood. This could be achieved, the report suggests, by stripping away the transitional diaconate as a stage on the way to ordination to the priesthood. In this way permanent deacons could focus less on liturgy – where they are often seen as “poundshop priests” – and more on service to the community and as ministers of Christ’s mercy, teaching, healing and helping.
The discussion about the accession of women to the diaconate – about which there were divergent views, reflected in the votes on those paragraphs – looks different in the light of this re-examination. A reformed diaconate runs less risk of “clericalising” women’s distinctive ministerial contributions, a fear expressed by a number of women in the assembly. Perhaps the most concrete fruit in this second area was the assembly’s embrace of the “digital mission”, to which the whole of Section 17 is dedicated. The way it landed in the assembly felt like a prompt from on high. It came out of a synod project backed by the Vatican’s communications dicastery, which brought together dozens of “Catholic influencers” to engage 150,000 people in conversations about the Church, later synthesised for the synod secretariat. An unexpected fruit of that project was the realisation that these “digital missionaries” – people with a presence in social media, who feel a calling to listen and dialogue about faith – existed largely in isolation, both from each other and the apostolic mission of the Church, yet were in reality evangelists on the new frontier, experts in listening and accompanying and teaching through dialogue.
A second realisation, following testimonies by two of the missionaries, a young Mexican man in a baseball cap and Sister Xiskya, who has 700,000 followers on TikTok, was that the digital world is a place, a new frontier, with its own culture and mindset. If the first part of the synod process asked, “Where are the young people?” the digital mission answers, “We’ve found them!” Here is the new Galilee, where people seek God in the liquid, plural, parallel world where we now spend so much of our time. The synthesis says the missionaries who walk with them need accompaniment, formation, and recognition, and asks how this new mission can be integrated into the dioceses. The purpose of the synod was never to decide on doctrinal questions, but to learn a new way of engaging them. It set out to create a vessel that would take seriously what Jesus promised his disciples, that the Spirit would lead them.
It’s not yet clear where all this will end up: what will change, or what it will look like. But the process is worth trusting. In the last of his reflections, Fr Radcliffe likened the assembly’s fruit to a germinating seed. “The synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive,” he said. “It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle, and as such will be hard for many to understand, sometimes including ourselves.”
Austen Ivereigh is fellow in contemporary church history at Campion Hall, Oxford, and a biographer of Pope Francis, with whom he collaborated on Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. His latest book, First Belong to God: On Retreat with Pope Francis, will be published by Loyola Press in February 2024.