Synod of Bishops: Australian Synthesis August 2022
In May 2022, Australian dioceses published local reports on their consultation process. Based on those reports, and using content for the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia relevant to the Synod, the National Centre for Pastoral Research prepared the Australian synthesis. The synthesis will support the ongoing work of the Synod of Bishops’ General Secretariat in the lead-up to the gathering of bishops in Rome in October 2023. Here are the key themes that emerged from the meetings with the laity.
There was great support for synodal practices to be developed in all areas of diocesan life. It was noted that to be successful, this practice required buy-in and commitment from the leadership (lay and ordained alike) and the inclusion of all voices, especially those on the margins.
As one diocese noted, ‘We may not always get it right, but we believe this is the way of being Church that the Holy Spirit is leading us to’.
Journeying with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
Indigenous communities are growing, and people in these communities continue to have a great love for the Church despite many negative experiences. There is a continued need to acknowledge, accept and recognise past failings and the intergenerational trauma that exist, and to complement this with a deliberate welcoming into parish communities and practical support for people with health and wellbeing issues. There is also a need to consider new ways of being Christian and new forms of Church life better suited to First Nations cultures.
Fruits of synodality
Some dioceses noted that the fruits of synodality were already being seen, particularly through the Diocesan Pastoral Council and other diocesan assemblies. This brought great hope to people for the Church’s mission to spread the good news of Christ. Similarly, some parishes and communities are also growing in this practice through the Parish Pastoral Council and other assemblies.
In other dioceses, where the practice of synodality was still in its early stages, the renewal of the Diocesan Pastoral Council was seen to be particularly important, along with its impact of demonstrating the practice of working together. Other areas for improvement that were identified included a shared responsibility and openness in the management of parish and diocesan resources, an end to clericalism, and greater shared authority.
In a highly fractured society, religious communities demonstrate that it is possible and beneficial to live and minister together harmoniously, despite differences in age, culture and viewpoints.
Synodality needed at all levels in the diocese
The practice of synodality being ‘at the centre of everything we seek and do’ was reiterated throughout several submissions. Many proposals towards a more synodal Church community were received. Some were simple and practical, e.g. parish picnics, retreats and welcoming each other before Mass. Others required substantial planning, e.g. a diocesan synod.
Several dioceses indicated that new initiatives towards synodality had been established, for example: By creating an understanding of co-responsibility in mission among the leaders in the parish, Catholic schools, Catholic Care and social service agencies, and chaplaincy. By employing a synodal process to examine structures and practices that enable expressions of our shared Baptism, marked by inclusivity and participation.
Concrete actions must follow synodal processes
There was consensus that synodal consultations needed to be followed by action. A recommendation was made for the key themes that emerged from this formal synodal process to be followed by action. Given that syntheses documents naturally include divergent positions, it was noted that subsequent actions needed to include explanations of why some suggestions could be implemented, while others were not possible within the faith tradition. It was also noted that the bishops’ responses ought to be guided by Evangelii Gaudium, n.31 to promote authentic missionary communion in every diocese.
5 Key Themes on Communion
Love for the Church
There was a recognition that many people have a great love for the Church. Many people provided stories of deep connection to the Church and strong relations with priests, religious and other members. They valued past experiences and look back fondly on them. Some yearned for a return to the ‘old days’, though most recognised that this was not possible, and therefore they looked forward in hope to the Church of the future.
Deepening community life
People were concerned about community life, especially in parishes, where this has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. There was particular need voiced for a deeper sense of community to be developed, stronger relationships to be built between the parish school and worshipping communities, and for families to be supported so that they, in turn, could reshape their parishes. Many dioceses provided a range of examples of programs, initiatives and activities that helped deepen community.
Although the Catholic community in Australia, especially in urban settings, is increasingly multicultural, in some parishes with multi-ethnic groups, reaching out to and engaging with migrants in each of these groups was particularly important, as was the need to promote mutual acceptance, ongoing dialogue and integration into the local Church.
There was concern voiced about the difficulty of finding ways to engage with and listen to those who are disconnected and alienated. Many expected ‘the Church’ to do this but did not recognise that, as baptised members, all are called to be missionary disciples, to reach out to, and be inclusive of those on the margin. Some people had difficulty in accepting people who were different from them, while others were frustrated by what they perceived as the rigidity of Church teachings.
More faith formation and spirituality
There was a desire expressed to grow in the faith more deeply. People voiced their fears about feeling, at times, unequal to the task of communicating their beliefs to others and being vulnerable in the face of criticism and contested values in the public square. Many people felt the need for greater direction in faith formation and spiritual development, especially through training, resources and support for all ages.
One recommendation made was for adult formation to become a priority in the Church, focusing on what the Church believes, why it believes it, and how these beliefs interface with a pluralistic society.
Another need was for catechesis for young people that was vibrant, family-based and relevant to the current society, while acknowledging that this formation needed to primarily take place within the family. Some acknowledged that while young people wrestled with certain aspects of Church teaching and practice, there was a general love for the faith that needed to be supported.
Importance of liturgy to faith
There was widespread acceptance of the importance of liturgy to faith and the need for unity in the community to be fostered through the proclamation of the Gospel in beautiful and meaningful liturgy. It was widely acknowledged that creative, inclusive and welcoming liturgy that highlighted the sense of the sacred and reflected the community’s diversity strengthens the communion of the faithful in their mission.
In dioceses with a greater presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a yearning was expressed for greater recognition and use of Indigenous spirituality in liturgy and Church life – both in the diocese and the wider Church in Australia.
Greater listening and speaking
Dioceses recognised that clergy have a key role to play in listening to the laity, especially where they have been engaged in ongoing consultation and have expressed their voices on key concerns. However, in contrast, some Eastern dioceses recognised the need for laity to speak up and be more proactive, especially in matters where they had sufficient knowledge and experience, and the ability to participate actively in the Church.
Many recognised that the voices of the faithful were being disregarded in the passing of parliamentary bills on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, and felt the need for more Christians to get involved in the public sphere to influence policy decisions wherever possible, especially social media.
7 Key Themes on Participation
Welcoming and inclusive
There was a particular sense that synodality is about welcoming and including all, particularly those on the fringes of the Church and on the margins of society. Such groups include Indigenous Australians, migrants and refugees, women, those of different sexual orientations, and the poor and vulnerable. In some instances, the Church was seen as placing barriers of exclusion by its teachings and the application of those teachings. On the other hand, some called for the Church to be more compassionate while remaining authentic to its teachings.
More inclusiveness was also called for to welcome back to the Eucharistic community those who had left the Church, those who felt discriminated against and those who felt unwelcome because of seemingly restrictive Church teachings.
Leadership, formation and governance
There was strong emphasis that lay and ordained need to be involved in all levels of leadership, and that Gospel-inspired models of servant leadership should be pursued. Leadership should foster synodality by encouraging involvement to ensure a diversity of gifts enriched the Church. Clergy, religious and laity, collectively journeying together in mission, could foster vibrant, life-giving and synodal parishes.
There was an appetite for forming seminarians and new clergy to work synodally in their parishes, which would contribute to reducing issues of clericalism, widely regarded as a barrier to synodality.
There was a desire for pathways to pastoral ministry for lay people to be clear, accessible and encouraged. Spiritual and pastoral formation of lay people was seen as a priority as more and more lay people took up leadership roles.
There was also a desire for ongoing discussion about the ordination of women and a need for greater clarity around the consideration of women for diaconate roles.
There was a call to address the shortage of parish priests, particularly Australian-born priests. Further discussion was sought around ordination, including priestly celibacy, vocations to ordained ministry and consecrated life, the recruitment of clergy from overseas and the assistance of priests from other Australian dioceses.
Involvement of diverse groups in decision-making
While the hierarchical model of decision-making in the Catholic Church can be beneficial, it is recognised that it can also have negative implications which can be the antithesis of synodality.
In all areas of the Church, there was a desire for greater confidence that decision-making processes would be inclusive, transparent, responsible and accountable. The actions of those making the decisions needed to reflect synodal values, which would lead to greater synodality. There was a need to ensure all voices were heard and respected in decision-making.
9 Key Themes on Mission
Commitment to social justice and care of the Earth
In many dioceses, there was a call for missional activities at all levels of the Church to include discussion and engagement in social justice, political and environmental initiatives.
People voiced an urgent need for commitments from the Church to care for the environment alongside affirmative action to care for the most vulnerable affected by climate change.
All Catholics were urged to become involved in political action and play a greater role in influencing policymakers at all levels of governments to make appropriate moral decisions.
There was a strong need for accompaniment of specific groups, such as children, families, young people and immigrants.
A significant call was made from many areas for greater involvement and support of young people and families in the life of the Church.
There was also a need for acknowledgement, encouragement and development of a culture in which all the baptised are called to be missionary disciples.
Welfare, education and those on the edge
There was a need for the Church in Australia to continue to work and support these agencies and schools to bring about a more equitable and compassionate society.
A call was made for more rigorous and effective Catholic education through schools, particularly in the area of religious education, and for more encouragement for Catholics, both within and beyond the parish communities, to engage in service to those on the margins.
Ecumenism and interfaith relations
There was a strong sense that the Catholic Church needed to reach out to those from the other Christian traditions to further their own understanding of synodality.
There needs to be ongoing cooperation with other Christian churches, particularly those in the same area, to identify opportunities for greater collaboration.
Evangelisation is the responsibility and call of all the baptised. There was a strong call for a culture of evangelisation to be encouraged in traditional ministries and new and emerging areas of mission. An acknowledgement was made of new ecclesial communities who provide formation for individuals and families in the work of evangelisation.
Religious communities noted that in the current context of a secularised society, without much appreciation for consecrated life, they continued to persist in mission—to pray, love, speak and serve. In synodal terms, they continued to ‘walk the path’ together and to give life to others.
It was widely considered that the mission of the Church is the responsibility of all Catholics. There was a need expressed for greater collaboration between all levels of the Church as well as greater opportunities for and empowerment of the laity. This collaboration was seen as a synodal process, one which needed to be inclusive of all the baptised, fostered by parish and diocesan leadership.
The Synod consultation highlighted many ‘lights and shadows’ present in people’s experience of the Church today and respondents voiced a strong need for the Church to be a missionary and Eucharistic community, inclusive of all, especially those on the margins. In the aftermath of COVID-19 and being strongly aware of being a ‘Church on the margins’ in Australian society, this new context calls the People of God to grow ‘our Church’ in unprecedented times. Some recommendations for this include communicating the Word of God to future generations in language that they can use in the Australian community, continuing to work for a more just, compassionate and equal world, and being ever welcoming to people of different age-groups and backgrounds who are searching for relevance and inclusion and, in the end, are searching for Christ.
The bishops have decided that each diocese will conduct a diocesan synod within five years of the Plenary Council concluding, and this decision was endorsed by the Plenary Council. What therefore began as a synodal journey of national significance will be enhanced by the fruits of the forthcoming Synod of Bishops and enriched by diocesan synods to be held in the years ahead.
This is an edited for space version of the full document but stays true to the original.