The Zoom chat facility was turned off on the third day of the European Continental Assembly of the Synod, a hybrid gathering of 200 delegates in Prague and 390 online contributors spread across Europe. The organising body – the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) – explained this was “to ensure that everyone feels welcome”.
In the chat a minority of neo-traditionalists had identified themselves as “true” Catholics, imputing the infidelity of others. Shutting down the chat was a reminder that the Synodal process’s methodology of “spiritual conversation” emphasises listening above talking (or typing), discernment above democracy.
It did, however, also shutdown fruitful sharing between the respectful majority of delegates from the continent’s 39 episcopal conferences who had been expressing their “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties”. People tend to communicate more bluntly from behind a keyboard than in person, but that didn’t mean the floor of Prague’s Pyramida Hotel was conflict-free. Far from it.
Divisions became clearer as each delegation and a selection of pan-European Christian movements relayed their responses to the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS), the Vatican text synthesising key points raised thus far in the worldwide 2021-24 Synodal Process.
Disagreements broadly existed between Eastern and Western Europe, the former generally more “conservative” in doctrinal and social matters and the latter more “progressive” (though such dualistic terms lack nuance, and some participants on either side defied stereotypes).
I took part from Yorkshire as one of ten online delegates appointed to the “home team” by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, liaising frequently via email and WhatsApp with the four delegates who had travelled to Prague under the leadership of Bishop Nicholas Hudson. While not representing particular constituencies, our conference’s delegates were invited with diversity and inclusion in mind.
Among us were women and men in lay leadership, women and men religious, priests, a deacon, people working in adult formation and youth ministry and myself from the LGBT+ community. As far as I’m aware, we were the only episcopal conference to invite a participant from the Anglican Communion and the Jewish community, taking to heart Pope Francis’ desire for the synodal process to engage ecumenically and with people of other faiths.
Sadly, our diversity was not reflected in the optics of the gathering. On the opening and closing days only men sat at the dais in Prague, and it was hours before a woman’s voice was heard, despite repeated calls in the DCS for the increased valuing of women in the Church. Notably sparse in the assembly were young people, identifiably disabled people, or people whose ethnic origins were outside Europe.
The European Union’s motto of Unity in Diversity was a recurring theme of the presentations and interventions. However, the assembly was clear demonstration that while Catholic culture is strong on unity (the synodal process tagline is Communion, Participation, Mission) we are not good at celebrating difference or knowing how to disagree well. This was confessed even within local Churches that have parallel Latin and Greek Catholic liturgical rites.
Though the theme of the Continental Stage of the Synod is a biblical call for the Church to “enlarge the space of your tent” (Isaiah 54:2), the European assembly displayed a Church that is largely inward-looking. Calls for a renewed missionary spirit lacked specificity of action. Apart from one reference on the floor to Europe’s colonial legacy and historic domination of the wider Church, the assembly largely failed to “check our privilege”.
Despite the fact that six other Continental Assemblies are taking place, hardly any mention was made to Europe’s relationship with the wider world (except predictable condemnations of “secular values”, or even to refugees dying on our shores).
Some delegates acknowledged with shame how little attention has been given in the synodal process to the plight of the poor and of the planet, despite the best efforts of various participating NGOs and ecclesial movements with a focus on justice, peace, and integrity of creation.
A reminder of the wider world was thrust on us by the earthquake in Syria-Turkey (a message of solidarity was sent) and there were repeated calls by Ukrainian delegates not to forget their plight.
The Russian delegation’s skirting over the war was perhaps understandable, given The Tablet’s report of the persecution Catholics are facing there. As various bishops and other delegates from Eastern Europe observed, trusting in the synodal process is difficult for countries still scarred by memories of Soviet oppression.
Eastern voices condemning those in “irregular relationships” were countered by Western voices asking fellow participants if they had really heard the pain of LGBT+ Catholics (a number of whom had gathered in Prague for prayer and dialogue) as well as the hurt of the divorced, re-married, and women.
Among the most impressive voices, both in plenary sessions and online discussion groups, were those of Irish delegates who regularly reminded us of the need to acknowledge with humility and repentance the agony of victims of abuse (sexual or psychological, individual or institutional).
The German delegation, speaking from its own controversial Synodal Way experience, articulated hopes for Church renewal and reform desired by many other (but by no means all) participants. Technical problems on the opening morning meant that simultaneous translation was literally that: English, German, French, Italian and Polish voices all transmitted in a Babel-like cacophony.
By the end of the assembly this had turned to a more Pentecostal experience of mutual understanding. On the final morning an initial draft was read aloud of the synthesis report that will be submitted to Rome alongside the other Continental Assembly summaries to prepare the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) for the Synod of Bishops being held this October.
The redaction committee is to be congratulated on capturing authentically the voices and themes of the assembly, striving for unanimity where possible while recognising the deep divisions that exist. As they explained, the final synthesis will be a summary of reflections, not a manifesto.
It contains many “Churchspeak” platitudes and one bishop opined that it fails to move us much beyond the DCS stage. Certainly, many will be frustrated that among the only concrete proposals are suggestions for a Europe-wide martyrology (not a bad idea for a continent with a long history of conflict), and another European assembly in 2025 to mark the jubilee year and sixtieth anniversary of the close of Vatican II.
However, I never expected this assembly suddenly to resolve all the doctrinal debates of the Churches in Europe (everyone’s love of the Church was evident, but also divergent ecclesiologies). Nor do I expect many concrete proposals to emerge from the meeting of Episcopal Conference presidents who are now meeting in closed session to discuss the implications of the event.
Synodality is an ancient practice that we are rediscovering within Western Catholicism (the greater experience of Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches was acknowledged, though more could have been made of the Reformed Churches) and while we have a destination in mind, it is the journey with Christ we must engage in.
While some are sceptical of the process, most are encouraged by it, and one of the points of unanimity was the need for better formation to help us walk together.
The Prague-hybrid assembly felt to me like a historic moment, the first such event for the Catholic Church in Europe, but the whole point of the synodal process is that this respectful listening must continue at every level and not be a one-off event.
While I leave the assembly hurt by some of the language used, dismayed at the neglect of certain people, and frustrated by the lack of solid outcomes, I’m also buoyed up by an experience of unity without uniformity, and the hope that comes from encountering fellow travellers passionate about sharing the good news of God’s love. Our tent is indeed a shelter that can move and enlarge, and to hold it up a certain tension is needed.