Themes from the Church in France’s synodal process

The ins and outs of France’s meticulously conducted synodal process.

As per the latest demographics released for France in 2021, 47% of French society defines itself as Catholic, while conversely, Sunday Mass attendance has fallen to only 5%. Contending with stark figures and complications to the coherent transmission of the Faith due to the secular nature of the country’s culture, France’s synodal report provides for a sobering yet spirited read.

Drawing refreshment from the word of God

The diocesan phase of the synod has enabled many Christians to express the conviction that the word of God is a wellspring from which it is profoundly good to draw. Through this source, the life of the church is continually renewed. Many synodal teams have also placed meditation on the Bible at the heart of their meetings. Following Vatican II, which called on all the baptised to love the scriptures that contain the Word of God (Dei Verbum, § 24-25), the diocesan reports emphasised the importance of drawing refreshment from the word and called on the faithful to experience it more.

Furthermore, the missional aspect is notable: many informal Bible study groups manage to include people who do not feel comfortable in more formal services. On the other hand, there are strong feelings about homilies.

Many people are disappointed when the preaching does not sufficiently draw on the word of God and does not nourish the daily life of the congregation. A recurring demand is for an expansion of preaching at the Eucharist to include laypeople, specifically female voices. People would like better Biblical teaching for ordinary Catholics and proper training in homiletics for pastors; this would also be needed for all laypeople called to a preaching ministry. Finally, many of the reports asked for services of the word to be offered and encouraged.

Give credible signs of the goodness of God and the equal dignity of all the baptised

“The marginalised, that’s us. The pillars of the Church, that’s us!” – Disabled people in the Diocese of Rodez.

The marginalised show how much the Church needs to give credible signs that really translate the word of God and speak clearly to today’s society. These signs are not an end in themselves: they serve to build a more fraternal Church that honours the equal dignity of all the baptised.

Continuing the experience of synodality

“Walking alongside the most fragile and the most damaged is the best way to walk alongside everyone, but especially Christ” – Diaconate of the Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon.

Parishes generally admit that the most marginalised are absent from their communities and struggle to go beyond a few set prayers about the place of the poor and the most afflicted. However, when the contributions of the marginalised were sought out and accepted they often reminded us that they were indeed there and outlined a promise: if Christians take care to walk “alongside the most fragile” the will see the presence of Christ and hear his call more clearly. “Distrust is rooted in the past experience of broken promises – respondents in the Diocese of Rouen.

“Laypeople would like to be heard more and for there to be fewer hierarchical relationships between them and between laypeople and priests. In this way they will gain the freedom to suggest new ideas to the whole parish and expect that these ideas will be welcomed” – synodal report for the Diocese of Belfort-Montbéliard.

Allowing oneself to be converted “to be shaken up” is also absolutely essential – synodal report for the Diocese of Évreux.

Ministries in the service of meeting God and meeting people

The dioceses show a real recognition of the value of priests and their engagement in ministry and we read this as a precious sign. We sense that the difficulty of the priest’s mission is due to the many and contradictory expectations that are placed upon them. Specifically, the question of the burden placed upon parish priests makes people are sad that it is difficult for them to be available in expanding parishes. The baptised seem to be calling them back to their vocation: they are there to walk alongside people rather than to run a parish in the same way you might a company. Relationship problems were widely raised: authoritarianism; problems relating to women; an overbearing rather than a friendly attitude (to the point that many reports openly raised serious concerns for the wellbeing and health of priests) and the difficulties priests from other cultures had in finding their place in the Church as it exists in France.

The training of priests was often raised. This covered two aspects: On one hand, many people suggested a common formation for ordained ministry, licensed ministry and all baptised people. On the other hand, the reports suggested that future priest most needed improved formation in personal qualities such as relationships, mental health, leadership and communication skills. A frequent desire was for priestly celibacy to be left to the personal choice of the priest concerned, to the extent that priestly ordination and marriage are seen as compatible.

Men and women: living out the equal worth of the baptized

 “The Church must make its heart larger” – Shirelle, Catholic Chaplaincy to Travellers, Province du Nord.

Like others, those Travellers who contributed brought out the image of the Church as a place that opens the heart of its members (making it infinitely precious) but simultaneously as a place where many regrettable examples of narrow-mindedness can be found. This dichotomy is clearly also true in the case of the place of women. On the place of women in the Church, the reports detect an urgency as well as innumerable injuries.

 The injuries come from difficult relationships with priests and bishops and the blatant disproportion between the number of women involved in the Church and the number who are in a position to make decisions. Although the service women offer is appreciated, their voices seem to be ignored. The way women are treated in the Church is not conducive to its mission at a time when equality between men and women has become self-evident in wider society. The hurts are all the more serious because they come from a conviction that the Church is depriving itself of innumerable charisms and real opportunities to extract itself from clerical isolation.

We also read many requests for women to be ordained as deacons and that preaching by women should be allowed during Mass. Slightly less frequent, although still quite widespread, was the demand for women to be ordained as priests.

Governance: recognising and supporting charisms

 “What will help the Church? When I am accepted and can give. I like to bring something. It’s very simple, but I like to give” – Communauté du Sappel, Diocese of Chambéry.

 Threats to supporting charisms are the of abuse of power, pyramidal governance structures, a fear of conflict that leads people to hide problems rather than to address them, and the arrival of a new parish priest who imposes a new direction opposite to the one that was previously being taken in a parish. However, balancing these tensions were a number of aspirations, including for clear and explicit mission aims, for time-limited mandates, and for regular reviews of mission and community life that were taken seriously.

People did not expect all parishioners to do everything, but rather there to be a certain level of transparency in decision-making and finance. At diocesan level there were three types of request.

Firstly, for genuine new power structures – for example, councils made up of elected parishioners – because the synodal dimension of governance is currently dependent on the goodwill of the bishops.

Secondly, for real subsidiarity with delegated decision-making at the relevant level and not merely delegated tasks.

Thirdly, for laypeople called to responsible positions to be offered appropriate training, which could also benefit all Catholics. The issue here is reception of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the Church.

The Liturgy: expressing depth and fellowship

 Many of the reports mention how the Eucharistic liturgy is central to the living faith of Catholics. Some – such as those who are particularly attached to the Roman missal of 1962 (the old rite) – crave a celebration of the Mass that better meets their thirst for inward refreshment. The reports also highlight the fact that the Eucharist is essential to the very make up of communities. However, in many places the liturgy appears to be a source of tension between pastoral flexibility and attachment to ritual, and between respect for the treasures of liturgical symbolism and the questions raised by language that has become unintelligible to many. Many of the reports also note that the liturgy can be a good opportunity to draw people into into the community. This is borne out with respect to the most vulnerable, especially when accommodating disabilities (such as deafness) where the hope of being welcomed like a sister or brother is often disappointed. The same is true of children: they often want to be included in preparing for and celebrating the liturgy but feel left out by communities that are dominated by older generations.

“Why is church sad? Mass is too long, there are too many words. You spend all the time listening and you don’t understand. Prayer at KT is simpler, we sing, move, get things ready, it’s better. Jesus managed to celebrate, he prayed lots” – Children at catechism class, Diocese of Autun.

 There are so many comments conveying profound disagreement with the refusal to allow girls to serve at the altar, or women to enter the choir for liturgical services, that we are in no doubt of the real suffering experienced and the pressing need to address this subject.

Offering fellowship

 The fear of welcoming, preaching the Gospel and meeting people can paralyse Christian communities. But the marginalised people who make up this group show how afraid other people are to approach the Church because they feel unworthy or undesirable. That both these things are true was widely expressed, and it inspires the Church to cultivate community.

Several rural dioceses sounded alarm bells as the recent history of the Church in those places has been experienced as a progressive withdrawal and this has caused real suffering. As a result, a thirst for community has generated a wide variety of suggestions for fellowship at levels other than the parish.

There is an appetite for fellowship groups within a village or neighbourhood that might meet for reflection on the Word of God to be created, or to support the vulnerable, or to meet with those who rarely find their place within the parish system.

On the other hand, the suffering that those who feel excluded from communities and/or the sacraments was also frequently heard. This included gay people, those who are divorced and remarried and those who witnessed such exclusions.

According to a great many of the reports, these judgements and exclusions are a serious counterwitness to the Gospel. Some teenagers or young adults expressed enthusiasm and confidence in the Church. Many others said they were hoping for a Church that was more accessible and friendly at all levels. They wanted language they could understand better and more open and welcoming communities that would be able to offer real spiritual refreshment.

Nurturing listening and dialogue

The problems of engaging in dialogue with those who do not recognise themselves within the Catholic church is recognised, but dialogue is just as difficult between Catholics. Many of the reports also highlighted the importance of ‘neutral ground’, places designed to allow dialogue with non-Christians, places where it would be possible to meet people who would not normally enter a Church.

This is all the more important since the language used by the Church and its pastors appears so disconnected from the experience of daily life as to be difficult for many people to understand. The diocesan reports did not question the secular nature of public institutions, but did note that French secular culture makes it difficult for Christians to witness openly to the Gospel, or even for them to talk about the fundamental spiritual challenges of life with others.

It is important to be open to the good things that the society in which we live can teach us. Thus we find several references to concern for the environment, which is shared by Catholics.

Ecumenism is rarely mentioned other than as an unsatisfied aspiration. However, wherever it is experienced, it is found to be joyful and mutually enriching, and constitutes a hopeful sign for the fragmented society in which we live.


We noticed two particularly stimulating aspirations in the reports that are closely linked: the Word of God (part I) and fellowship (part III). The word of God is recognised as a source of meaning, spiritual progression and communion that the Church is called on to make more accessible. Hearing the Word together creates a sense of fellowship that can be seen in various ways.

The reports insist that maximum effort should be put into enabling this to happen as close as possible to people’s homes. This sense of fellowship through listening and discussion, while seeking to faithfully respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit, is at the heart of the synodal experience.

To preach the Word of God through and in fellowship, the Church needs credible signs of the closeness of God (part II). These are not ends in themselves, but contribute to making the whole body of the church a ‘sacrament’ of the call that God makes on our humanity.

There are already many paths towards making this ‘dream’ a reality. They nourish our hope and now invite us to embark upon new transformations.

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