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Roman Catholicism Aims for a ‘Synodal Church’

In 2025, churches will mark the 1,700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, which promulgated the creed professed to this day by the vast majority of Christians worldwide. Such general councils have been comparatively rare, and churches differ greatly in the number they accept as truly ecumenical. It was not until 1965, during the Second Vatican Council, that a permanent synodal structure, the Synod of Bishops, was established “for the universal Church.”

Moved and inspired by the experience of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI wanted to create a structure that would allow the conciliar experience of close cooperation between pope and bishops to continue after the council concluded. The synod is permanent in the sense of having a permanent office and secretariat in Rome, but the membership varies from assembly to assembly, depending on the topic. Since 1967, 18 General Assemblies and 11 Special Assemblies have met.

The next General Assembly of the Synod will begin with the celebration of Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on October 4 and will continue for three weeks. Will it be different from previous General Assemblies? Yes, very much so. Perhaps the most important difference, one that informs many others, is that this synod is envisaged as a process more than an event. In fact, as a new kind of synod, this one is perhaps more about the process than about any one issue facing the Church. In fact, it is often spoken of as “the Synod on Synodality.”

In his speech to open the synod, Pope Francis urged Catholics to see it as a graced time, providing an opportunity to move “not occasionally but structurally towards a ‘synodal Church,’ an open square where all can feel at home and participate.” He further called for the synod to embody a “listening Church” and a “Church of closeness.”

During the two-year period leading up to this October’s General Assembly of the Synod, substantial time was devoted to engaging in the kind of listening the pope recommended. From October 2021 to April 2022, dioceses and other local churches were asked to engage in “listening and discerning.”

Extensive resources were provided to assist the local and national phases, explaining the purpose and suggesting methods for these meetings. Materials stressed that while this was a major consultation of the people of God, it was not simply a data-gathering exercise but an experience of communal — ecclesial — discernment.

The General Secretariat convened bishops, clergy, theologians, and other faithful to prepare a working document for the “continental” stage of the synod, which was published in October 2022. A series of seven continental assemblies met from January to March 2023. The General Secretariat eventually published the working document for the assembly — the Instrumentum Laboris — in June 2023.

Synod organizers, taking the pope’s lead, have been at pains to avoid hearing only from the usual suspects. They strived to include the young, the poor, the lapsed or disaffected, and others who could be considered at the margins. This intentionally inclusive impulse extended to those outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church.

In October 2021, cardinals Mario Grech and Kurt Koch wrote a joint letter to all episcopal conferences, asking for significant ecumenical involvement in the synod, pointing out that both synodality and ecumenism involve walking together. This point has a particular relevance in the context of dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans/Episcopalians.

The most striking ecumenical aspect of the synod is a prayer vigil scheduled for St. Peter’s Square on September 30. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the secretary general of the Anglican Communion plan to attend. It would be hard to overstate the uniqueness of this vigil. An ecumenical event with such high-level participation from so many different traditions, coming together to pray alongside the Bishop of Rome for God’s blessing on a Roman Catholic synod, is unprecedented.

The Mass to close the assembly on October 29 does not conclude the synod. Members will have a year to reflect on the experience, share their experiences in various local contexts, and (most important), listen to the responses they receive before returning to Rome for a second assembly in October 2024.

Much of Western media coverage of the synod concentrates, understandably, on key and potentially divisive topics that came up in various preparatory phases, such as women’s ordination and the Church’s ministry to LGBT people. Some conservative Catholics are fearful, lest the synod undermine or replace important Church teachings. Many more liberal Catholics seem to expect a similar outcome, but with relish rather than horror.

Radical upheaval is most unlikely. This is a synod, not a Third Vatican Council, and discernment is not the same as making doctrine by poll. Issues that featured strongly in the preparatory phases will be discussed. While they will attract attention, they are not the heart of the agenda for change behind this multi-year synodal journey.

The kind of difference that Pope Francis is trying to enact in this synod is not doctrinal change, but the embodiment of ecclesial synodality. Time will tell if the process over these three years has been sufficiently robust to send that message into the hearts and minds of Catholics around the world.

The Rev. Martin Browne, OSB, is responsible for Anglican relations at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

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