Synodal Notes: Thoughts from Garry O’Sullivan

The ongoing discussions between theologians and experts at Frascati must be about engagement over outcome – getting people talking is what is most important, writes Garry O’Sullivan.

Sweet or Sour Grapes

When you hear the name ‘Frascati’ perhaps the first thought is Italian wine, and not a meeting of 23 experts and theologians from all over the world gathered to discuss synodality. They are there for a distilling of sorts; their job is to take, over 10 days, the 114 national bishops’ conferences synthesis which were sent to Rome, and further synthesise them. So it’s a bit more like a Ripasso, the grapes are used again and again until a fine wine emerges. At least that’s the plan.

How do you compress the wide variety of issues raised by Catholics all over the world? Also how do you deal with the fact that only 1% or 2% of Catholics participated in the synodal process. Added to that is the fact that many Catholics, especially traditional young Catholics, chose not to participate in the synodal process out of fear or distrust and some feel, like the Irish bishop of Waterford and Lismore, that the process was rushed.

The text is due to be published in mid-October and will be sent to all the world’s bishops’ conferences. Their reactions to it will be used as discussion points for the Continental Phase of the Synodal Process which begin in January.

The Vatican has said that continental assemblies must last at least five days and lay people must be present. The Europeans have announced that they will open their work on February 5, 2023 in Prague in the Czech Republic. The Africans will begin their continental session on March 1 in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, while the Latin Americans will start on March 20 in Bogota in Colombia.

What will come out of Frascati and how true can it be to everyone who contributed across such a vast spectrum of national churches? There are three possible outcomes: dry, sweet or sparking. Let’s hope for bubbles.

What God expects is synodality

Rafael Luciani is a Venezuelan theologian and an expert adviser to the bishops and religious of South America and a real authority on synodality and indeed Pope Francis’ vision around it. The Pope said during the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops— that “the path of synodality is the path that God expects from the Church of the third millennium”.

This is a huge challenge to those who have turned their face away from Synodality especially younger Catholics. Perhaps it hasn’t been communicated sufficiently by their leaders that this is not some fad to be ignored. As Luciani writes: “Perhaps this is the most important event of the current phase of reception of the Second Vatican Council under the pontificate of Pope Francis.

It involves approximately 114 episcopal conferences of the Latin rite, the Council of Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, six patriarchal synods of Eastern Churches, four major archiepiscopal synods and five international episcopal councils”. At some point, young Catholics who haven’t participated need to ask themselves are they for the Church or against it in this? It’s not like it’s a new invention.

Luciani again: “It is worth recalling the golden rule of Bishop St. Cyprian, which can be seen as the synodal form of the first millennium and offers the most appropriate interpretative framework for thinking about today’s challenges: “Nihil sine consilio vestro et sine consensu plebis mea privatim sententia gerere” [What affects all must be treated and approved by all].

For this bishop of Carthage, taking advice from the presbyterate and building consensus with the people, were fundamental experiences throughout his episcopacy to maintain communion in the Church. To this end, he was able to devise methods based on dialogue and common discernment, which made possible the participation of all, and not only of the presbyters, in deliberation and decision-making. The first millennium offers examples of a form ecclesiae in which the exercise of power was understood as a shared responsibility.

“What affects all, must be treated and approved by all”

Synodality is primarily about participation and can only work if traditional/conservative Catholics or whatever label they use to describe themselves take a seat at the table. The abstaining from the process hasn’t worked, hence the complaint from the bishop in Waterford who is close to many conservative groups. He needs now to lead those young people to the table, to sit down with the document coming back from Frascati and have their voices heard. They shouldn’t be scared off by headlines in secular media which are not interested in Church unless there’s a far-fetched headline to be found.

 “Fewer but truer” might offer a comfortable cosy consensus but that is not Catholic Christianity as any reading of the early Church will show categorically. Also, to say the teaching of the Church is not static is not to say that the teaching needs to be changed or discarded as often is the kneejerk reaction which is symptomatic of a Church that has for too long disallowed any free discussion.

Teaching and language evolve and so must we. The Church is always reforming herself. The final word to Luciani: “Will we be able to conceive of synodal processes in which decisions are elaborated among all so that the competent authority, having participated as one of the faithful in all the stages of the process, and trusting that the Holy Spirit has spoken through the People of God, ratifies these decisions?

We believe that this is the spirit expressed by Cardinal Mario Grech when he affirms that “the Synod of Bishops is the point of convergence of the dynamism of reciprocal listening in the Holy Spirit (…). It is not just an event, but a process that involves in synergy the People of God, the College of Bishops and the Bishop of Rome, each according to his role” and in various phases (diocesan, national, continental, universal).

The great challenge, then, will be to create a culture of ecclesial consensus, capable of manifesting itself in synodal styles, events and structures that will give rise to a new ecclesial way of proceeding for the Church of the third millennium”.

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