Synod synthesis shows agreement, divergences, including on ‘synodality’

Pope Francis prays while holding a crosier during Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Oct. 29, 2023, marking the conclusion of the first session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

[Vatican City – CNS] –  A report summarizing discussions at the assembly of the Synod of Bishops said the church may need more welcoming pastoral approaches, especially to people who feel excluded, but also acknowledged fears of betraying traditional church teachings and practices.

Among the topics addressed in the report were clerical sexual abuse, women’s roles in the church, outreach to poor and the concept of “synodality” itself.

The assembly, with 364 voting members — 365 counting Pope Francis — met in working sessions six days a week Oct. 4-28 after a three-day retreat outside of Rome. They were scheduled to join the pope Oct. 29 for the assembly’s closing Mass.

Synod Synthesis REPORT (Link to PDF)

After the voting on the synthesis concluded, the pope said he wanted to remind everyone that “the protagonist of the synod is the Holy Spirit.” He briefly thanked the Synod officers and joined members of the assembly in giving thanks to God.

The assembly’s discussions set the stage for a year-long period of reflection that will culminate in the second and final synod assembly in late 2024 on the same topic.

The 41-page synthesis report, voted on paragraph-by-paragraph Oct. 28, described its purpose as presenting “convergences, matters for consideration and proposals that emerged from the dialogue” on issues discussed under the headings of synodality, communion, mission and participation.

Every item in the report was approved by at least two-thirds of the members present and voting, synod officials said. They published a complete list of the votes.

Within the Synod topics, members looked at the role of women in the church, including in decision making, and at the possibility of ordaining women deacons. The report asked for more “theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate,” including a review of the conclusions of commissions Pope Francis set up in 2016 and 2020.

The paragraph, one of several on the theme of women deacons, was approved 279-67, which was more than the needed two-thirds support but still garnered among the highest negative votes.

Among members of the assembly, the report said, some thought the idea of women deacons would be a break with tradition, while others insisted it would “restore the practice of the Early Church,” including at the time of the New Testament, which mentions women deacons.

“Others still, discern it as an appropriate and necessary response to the signs of the times, faithful to the Tradition, and one that would find an echo in the hearts of many who seek new energy and vitality in the Church,” it said. But, the report added, some members thought that would “marry the Church to the spirit of the age.”

The paragraph on how different members explained their support of – or opposition to – women deacons also was approved by more than two-thirds of the voting members, but it received more negative votes than any other item, passing 277 to 69.

Assembly members also discussed pastoral approaches to welcoming and including in the life of parishes people who have felt excluded, including the poor, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ Catholics and Catholics whose marriages are not recognized by the church.

The synthesis report did not use the term “LGBTQ+” or even “homosexuality” and spoke only generally of issues related to “matters of identity and sexuality.”

Jesuit Father James Martin, a Synod member involved in outreach to LGBTQ+ Catholics, told Catholic News Service, “From what I understand, there was too much pushback to make using the term ‘LGBTQ’ viable, even though it was contained in the ‘Instrumentum Laboris,'” or Synod working document.

“This opposition came up often in the plenary sessions, along with others who argued from the other side, that is, for greater inclusion and for seeing LGBTQ people as people and not an ideology,” he said.

The synthesis said that “to develop authentic ecclesial discernment in these and other areas, it is necessary to approach these questions in the light of the Word of God and Church teaching, properly informed and reflected upon.”

“In order to avoid repeating vacuous formulas, we need to provide an opportunity for a dialogue involving the human and social sciences, as well as philosophical and theological reflection,” it added.

The divergences in the assembly, it said, reflected opposing concerns: that “if we use doctrine harshly and with a judgmental attitude, we betray the Gospel; if we practice mercy ‘on the cheap,’ we do not convey God’s love.”

Still, it said, “in different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marriage status, identity or sexuality, also ask to be heard and accompanied. There was a deep sense of love, mercy and compassion felt in the Assembly for those who are or feel hurt or neglected by the Church, who want a place to call ‘home’ where they can feel safe, be heard and respected, without fear of feeling judged.”

The report emphasized the “listening” that took place on the local, national and continental levels before the assembly and the “conversations in the Spirit” that took place during it, which involved each person speaking in his or her small group, other participants at first commenting only on what struck them, silent reflection and then discussion.

In several places throughout the report, assembly members insisted that greater efforts must be made to listen to the survivors of clerical sexual abuse and those who have endured spiritual or psychological abuse.

“Openness to listening and accompanying all, including those who have suffered abuse and hurt in the Church, has made visible many who have long felt invisible,” it said. “The long journey toward reconciliation and justice, including addressing the structural conditions that abetted such abuse, remains before us, and requires concrete gestures of penitence.”

Members of the assembly said the process helped them experience the church as “God’s home and family, a Church that is closer to the lives of her people, less bureaucratic and more relational.”

However, it said, the terms “synodal” and “synodality,” which “have been associated with this experience and desire,” need further clarification, including theological clarification and, perhaps, in canon law.

Some participants, it said, questioned how an assembly where about 21 per cent of participants were lay women, lay men, religious and priests could be termed a Synod of Bishops.

The report also acknowledged fears, including that “the teaching of the Church will be changed, causing us to depart from the Apostolic faith of our forebears and, in doing so, betraying the expectations of those who hunger and thirst for God today.”

In response, though, assembly members said, “We are confident that synodality is an expression of the dynamic and living Tradition.”

“It is clear that some people are afraid that they will be forced to change; 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,” the report said.

“Also,” it added, “perplexity and opposition can sometimes conceal a fear of losing power and the privileges that derive from it.”

Members of the assembly described the synodal process as being “rooted in the Tradition of the Church” and taking place in light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its emphasis on “the Church as Mystery and People of God, called to holiness.”

Synodality, they said, “values the contribution all the baptized make, according to their respective vocations,” and thus “constitutes a true act of further reception of the Council.”

The report also insisted the purpose of synodality is mission.

“As disciples of Jesus, we cannot shirk the responsibility of demonstrating and transmitting the love and tenderness of God to a wounded humanity,” the report said.

Throughout the Synod process, the report said, “many women expressed deep gratitude for the work of priests and bishops. They also spoke of a Church that wounds. Clericalism, a chauvinist mentality and inappropriate expressions of authority continue to scar the face of the Church and damage its communion.”

“A profound spiritual conversion is needed as the foundation for any effective structural change,” it said. “Sexual abuse and the abuse of power and authority continue to cry out for justice, healing and reconciliation.”


© OSV News / Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. 2023 – from CNS Vatican bureau, used with permission


Pope Francis gives his blessing at the conclusion of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops’ last working session Oct. 28, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Synod members asked, ‘What would Jesus do?’ panel says

By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service

[Vatican City – CNS] – The month-long experience of synodality with cardinals, bishops, religious and laypeople from all over the world created new and wider “spaces” for everyone to feel welcome, to listen and discern God’s will together, several Synod members said at the conclusion of the Synod assembly’s first session in October 2023.

This new way of experiencing the church as “outgoing” and “creating spaces for everyone” has come about “because we are trying to live the Gospel,” Cardinal Mario Grech, synod secretary-general, said at a Vatican news conference Oct. 28.

“This is the attitude, the approach of Jesus: to create spaces for everybody and nobody can feel excluded, not accepted in his house,” he said.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the assembly, said at the news conference that the “conversation in the Spirit” in small groups whose membership changed each week “had the effect that we were a big community, that we were really disciples of Jesus together.”

“As disciples of Jesus, we have to look what would Jesus do? How would his behaviour be? How would he welcome people? And I think that’s what the Synod participants did,” he said.

Related: Synod Synthesis REPORT (Link to PDF)

Jesuit Father Giacomo Costa, a consultant to the Synod secretariat, said the synodal approach showed it is possible for different people with different perspectives and cultures “to talk to each other, listen to each other, to be not in agreement and then to come together, embrace each other and journey together; therefore, it’s a little seed of hope.”

Grech said a Synod member told him watching people let go of their fear, difficulty or reluctance to communicate was like seeing ice “melt.” Barriers came down because of each member’s “generosity” in creating the “space” needed to be open and willing to listen to the other.

While the first session is over, ending with a 41-page synthesis report, he said, “the synod did not end.”

Between now and the second assembly in October 2024, the report, detailing many different topics and degrees of agreement, will go back to the local churches and others for further study and discussion, Grech said. Each paragraph of the document was approved with the necessary two-thirds vote, but in many places it also “confirms that these are open topics, that the discussion, the reflection, the follow-up is ongoing.”

There was “extraordinary harmony” in the way the members worked together, he said. “We’re a family, a unique family, and we have to respect everyone’s pace.”

“We can’t rush the pace or go backward. We walk together, this is the concept of synodality,” he said, where the “bigger voice” does not claim victory “over the other.”

Costa said, “I expect that not all the issues will even be resolved next year. But this synod gave us a new way to face them.”

Hollerich said it will be easier to speak about issues with a more synodal church versus “the church as it was structured in the past.”

That does not mean a “synodal church will just embrace everything,” he said. But it means when people have a difference of opinion, no one takes out a “knife” and starts a fight.

Having “this freedom and this openness will change the church. And I am sure the church will find answers, but perhaps not the exact answer this group or this group wants to have but answers which most people could feel well and listen to,” Hollerich said.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told Catholic News Service, Synod members had been “looking for how the church can learn to bring Jesus Christ better to our unjust, war-filled and imperiled world: by being more open, more welcoming, closer to those who suffer, accompanying those in need.”

The most important lesson “we have learned about being followers of Jesus, and therefore missionaries of justice, peace, and care of our common home, is to listen, and to keep on listening, and then to listen until it hurts, and finally to listen all over again,” he said in a written statement Oct. 28.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg and president of the German bishops’ conference, said at a news conference in Rome Oct. 29 that the synod “placed the questions of God’s people on the table.”

“The Synod was very honest, and I’m grateful for that and am going home satisfied,” he said, according to DPA, the German press agency.

But he said the fear of change was also present at the synod and he called for the courage “to identify evident questions and to bring to them a clarity that changes the church for the sake of the people” when it next year, the German press agency reported.


© OSV News / Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. 2023 – from CNS Vatican bureau, used with permission