The experience of the synodal journey
The reports sent by Churches across the world give voice to the joys, hopes, sufferings and wounds of Christ’s disciples. In their words we hear resonate what lies at the heart of all humanity. They express the desire for a Church that walks with Christ under the guidance of the Spirit to fulfill its mission of evangelisation.
The fruits, the seeds, the weeds of synodality
Widespread appreciation was given to the method of spiritual conversation which allowed many to look honestly at the reality of Church life and name the lights and shadows. This honest appraisal bore immediate missionary fruits. Many emphasised that this was the first time the Church had asked for their opinion and they wish to continue this journey.
However, there has been no shortage of challenges, which the reports do not hide. Some are related to the coincidence of the consultative phase with the pandemic; others stem from the difficulty of understanding what synodality means, the need for a greater effort to translate and enculturate the materials, the failure to organize synodal gatherings in some local contexts, or resistance to the basic proposal.
Quite frequently, the fear has been expressed that the emphasis on synodality could push the Church toward adopting mechanisms and procedures that depend on a democratic-type majority principle. Among the difficulties a skepticism about the real efficacy or intent of the synodal process should be noted.
Numerous reports mention the fears and resistance on the part of the clergy, but also the passivity of the laity, their fear of expressing themselves freely, and the struggle to understand and articulate the priests’ and bishops’ role within the synodal dynamic. In many cases, the synodal process and materials reveal that there is a widespread perception of a separation between priests and the rest of the people of God.
An obstacle of particular relevance on the path of walking together is the scandal of abuse by members of the clergy or by people holding ecclesial office: first and foremost, abuse of minors and vulnerable persons, but also abuse of other kinds (spiritual, sexual, economic, of authority, of conscience). This is an open wound that continues to inflict pain on victims and survivors, on their families, and on their communities.
Careful and painful reflection on the legacy of abuse has led many synod groups to call for a cultural change in the Church with a view to greater transparency, accountability and co-responsibility.
Furthermore, in too many countries the synodal way has crossed paths with the wars that stain our world with blood. Particularly painful are those situations in which Christians, including Catholics, live in countries at war with each other. Even in these fragile situations which intensify an encounter with the Cross and Resurrection, Christian communities have been able to take up the invitation addressed to them to build experiences of synodality, to reflect on what it means to walk together, and express a desire to continue to do so.
Our common baptismal dignity
Practices of lived synodality have constituted “a pivotal and precious moment to realise how we all share a common dignity and vocation through our Baptism to participants in the life of the Church”.
A synodal process is incomplete without meeting brothers and sisters from other confessions, sharing and dialogue with them, and engaging in common actions. The reports express a desire for deeper ecumenical encounter, and the need for formation to support this work. The reports present the synod process as an experience of novelty and freshness there was a comparison drawn between the Synod offering an experience of liberation and new life.
Elsewhere, expressions emerge that evoke rather the idea of distance between family members and a desired return, the end of a collective alienation from one’s identity as a synodal Church. If the Church is not synodal, no one can really feel fully at home.
Listening to the Scriptures
It is to a people living the experience of exile that the prophet addresses words that help us today to focus on what the Lord is calling us to through the experience of lived synodality: “Enlarge the space of your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly, lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs”.
To the people in exile the prophet’s words evokes the experience of the exodus, when they dwelt in tents, and announces the promise of the return to the land, a sign of joy and hope.
Enlarging the tent requires welcoming others into it, making room for their diversity. It thus entails a willingness to die to self out of love, finding oneself again in and through relationship with Christ and one’s neighbor. It is under this condition that the members of the Church, each and all together, will be able to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in fulfilling the mission assigned by Jesus Christ to his Church.
Towards a missionary synodal Church
The biblical imagery of the tent relates to other images that appear in numerous reports: that of the family and that of home, the place to which people wish to belong, and to which they wish to return.
The submissions are encouraging because they avoid two of the main spiritual temptations facing the Church in responding to diversity and the tensions it generates. The first is to remain trapped in conflict, such that our horizons shrink and we lose our sense of the whole, and fracture into sub-identities.
The second is to become spiritually detached and disinterested in the tensions involved, continuing to go our own way without involving ourselves with those close to us on the journey. The vision of a Church capable of radical inclusion, shared belonging, and deep hospitality according to the teachings of Jesus is at the heart of the synodal process.
Listening that becomes welcoming
In this journey, the Churches have realised that the path to greater inclusion – the enlarged tent – is a gradual one. It begins with listening and requires a broader and deeper conversion of attitudes and structures, as well as new approaches to pastoral accompaniment; it begins in a readiness to recognise that the peripheries can be the place where a call to conversion resounds along with the call to put the Gospel more decisively into practice.
The synodal experience can be read as a path of recognition for those who do not feel sufficiently recognised in the Church. This is especially true for those lay men and women, deacons, consecrated men and women who previously had the feeling that the institutional Church was not interested in their faith experience or their opinions.
The reports also reflect on the difficulty of listening deeply and accepting being transformed by it. They highlight the lack of communal processes of listening and discernment, and call for more training in this area. Furthermore, they point to the persistence of structural obstacles, including: hierarchical structures that foster autocratic tendencies; a clerical and individualistic culture that isolates individuals and fragments relationships between priests and laity; sociocultural and economic disparities that benefit the wealthy and educated.
At the same time, the reports are sensitive to the loneliness and isolation of many members of the clergy, who do not feel listened to, supported and appreciated: perhaps one of the least evident voices in the reports is that of priests and bishops, speaking for themselves and of their experience of walking together.
A particularly attentive listening must be offered to enable ordained ministers to negotiate the many dimensions of their emotional and sexual life. The need to ensure appropriate forms of welcome and protection for the women and eventual children of priests who have broken the vow of celibacy, who are otherwise at risk of suffering serious injustice and discrimination, is also noted.
An option for young people, people with disabilities and the defence of life
There is universal concern regarding the meagre presence of the voice of young people in the synod process, as well as increasingly in the life of the Church. A renewed focus on young people, their formation and accompaniment is an urgent need.
Numerous reports point to the lack of appropriate structures and ways of accompanying persons with disabilities, and call for new ways of welcoming their contribution and promoting their participation: in spite of its own teachings, the Church is in danger of imitating the way society casts them aside.
Equally prominent is the commitment of the people of God to the defence of fragile and threatened life at all its stages, including the lives on the unborn and preventing abortion.
Listening to those who feel neglected and excluded
Within these groups, that among themselves are highly heterogeneous, many feel denigrated, neglected, misunderstood and their gifts and abilities not recognised. For many, the experience of being seriously listened to is transformative and a first step towards feeling included.
Among those who ask for a more meaningful dialogue and a more welcoming space we also find those who, for various reasons, feel a tension between belonging to the Church and their own loving relationships, such as: remarried divorcees, single parents, people living in a polygamous marriage, LGBTQ people, etc. Reports show how this demand for inclusion challenges many local churches.
Among the most frequently mentioned excluded groups are: the poorest, the lonely elderly, indigenous peoples, migrants without any affiliation and who lead a precarious existence, street children, alcoholics and drug addicts, those who have fallen into the plots of criminality and those for whom prostitution seems their only chance of survival, victims of trafficking, survivors of abuse (in the Church and beyond), prisoners, groups who suffer discrimination and violence because of race, ethnicity, gender, culture and sexuality. In the reports, all of them appear as people with faces and names, calling for solidarity, dialogue, accompaniment and welcome.
Sisters and brothers for mission
The Church is the bearer of a proclamation of fullness of life. The Church’s mission is to make Christ present in the midst of His People through reading the word, the celebration of the Sacraments and through all actions that care for the wounded and suffering.
‘Enlarging our tent’ is at the heart of our missionary activity. Therefore, a Church that practises synodality offers a potent Gospel witness to the world.
The Church’s mission in today’s world
Synodality is a call from God to walk together with the whole human family. In many places, Christians live in the midst of people of other faiths or non-believers and are engaged in a dialogue formed in the exchanges of everyday life and common living. However, the reports indicate that there is still a long way to go in terms of social, cultural, spiritual and intellectual exchange and collaboration.
The wounds of the Church are intimately connected to those of the world. The reports speak of the challenges of tribalism, sectarianism, racism, poverty, and gender inequality within the life of the Church, as well as the world. Other reports note the influence that ethnic discrimination and a culture based on tribalism has on the life of ecclesial communities
The people of God express a deep desire to hear the cry of the poor and that of the earth. In particular, the reports invite us to recognise the interconnectedness of social and environmental challenges and to respond to them by collaborating and forming alliances with other Christian confessions, believers of other religions and all people of good will.
This call for renewed ecumenism and interfaith engagement is particularly strong in regions marked by greater vulnerability to socio-environmental damage and more pronounced inequalities. A more united witness among Christians and between faith communities is expressed as an ardent desire.
Some reports also noted the importance of the role of the Church in the public sphere, particularly in relation to processes of peace-building and reconciliation. In heavily divided societies this is often seen as a crucial part of mission. Other reports called for the Church to be more confident in contributing to debate and action for justice in the public sphere. The desire was for greater formation in the Church’s social teaching.
Walking together with all Christians
Many reports emphasise that there is no complete synodality without unity among Christians. This begins with the call for closer communion between Churches of different rites.
However, many ecumenical issues related to synodal structures and ministries in the Church are still not well-articulated. The reports also note that there is an ‘ecumenism of martydom’ where persecution continues to unite Christians.
The reports request greater attention to divisive realities, for example the question of sharing the Eucharist, while also pointing to the sensitive phenomenon of the growth in the number of inter-church and interfaith families, with their specific needs in terms of accompaniment.
Numerous reports highlight the importance of recognizing that the Church fulfills its mission of proclaiming the Gospel within specific cultural contexts, and is influenced by profound and rapid social changes. Legacies of sectarianism, tribalism, ethnonationalisms – differently expressed and experienced in diverse places – share the same characteristic threat: to narrow the Church’s expression of its catholicity.
Many local Churches express concern about the impact of a lack of trust and credibility resulting from the abuse crises. Others point to individualism and consumerism as critical cultural factors.
Many reports underscore how historical entanglements between Church and political power continue to have an effect on the mission context. Many Churches feel they face all these cultural challenges simultaneously, but wish to grow more and more confident in proclaiming the Gospel in “a consumerist society that has failed to ensure sustainability, equity or life satisfaction”.
Many reports express particular regret and concern for the pressures experienced by families and the resulting impact on intergenerational relationships and faith transmission. Many Asian reports ask for better accompaniment and formation for families, as they negotiate changing cultural conditions.
In some contexts, the witness of the faith is lived to the point of martyrdom. There are countries where Christians, especially young people, face the challenge of systematic forced conversion to other religions. There are many reports that emphasise the insecurity and violence with which persecuted Christian minorities must contend.
Cultures, religions and dialogue
An essential element of a synodal Church, one which still needs significant deepening and better understanding, is the call to a more meaningful inter-cultural approach. This approach begins by walking together with others, appreciating cultural differences, understanding those particularities as elements which help us to grow.
However, even when we come to acceptance or even appreciation of the other, the journey is still incomplete. In the embrace of an enriching diversity, we can find our deeper unity and the opportunity to cooperate with God’s grace. This constitutes a witness within a world that struggles to see diversity in unity as a true vocation.
In a good number of reports, there is a call to better recognise, engage, integrate, and respond to the richness of local cultures, many of which have worldviews and styles of action that are synodal. People express a desire to promote (and in some cases recover and deepen) local culture, to integrate it with faith, and to incorporate it into the liturgy.
In many cases, the reports call especially for attention to the situation of indigenous peoples. Their spirituality, wisdom, and culture have much to teach. We need to reread history together with these peoples, to draw inspiration from those situations in which the Church’s action has been at the service of their integral human development, and to ask forgiveness for the times when it has instead been complicit in their oppression.
At the same time, some reports highlight the need to reconcile the apparent contradictions that exist between cultural practices or traditional beliefs and the teachings of the Church.
Communion, participation, and co-responsibility
The mission of the Church is realized through the lives of all the baptised. The reports express a deep desire to recognise and reaffirm this common dignity as the basis for the renewal of life and ministries in the Church. They affirm the value of all vocations in the Church, and above all, invite us to follow Jesus, returning to his style and way of exercising power and authority as a means of offering healing, reconciliation and liberation.
The tone of the reports is not anti-clerical. Many express deep appreciation and affection for faithful and dedicated priests, and concerns about the many demands that they face.
They also voice the desire for better formed, better accompanied and less isolated priests. They signal the importance of ridding the Church of clericalism so that all its members, including priests and laity, can fulfil a common mission.
Clericalism is seen as a form of spiritual impoverishment, a deprivation of the true goods of ordained ministry, and a culture that isolates clergy and harms the laity while exercising a form of authority that is power rather than service. Clericalism can be as much a temptation for lay people as clergy.
The reports express a deep and energetic desire for renewed forms of leadership – priestly, episcopal, religious and lay – that are relational and collaborative, and forms of authority capable of generating solidarity and co-responsibility.
Lay people, religious and clerics desire to put their talents and abilities at the disposal of the Church, and to do so they call for an exercise of leadership that enables them to be free.
Rethinking women’s participation
From all continents comes an appeal for Catholic women to be valued first and foremost as baptised and equal members of the people of God. There is almost unanimous affirmation that women love the Church deeply, but many feel sadness because their lives are often not well understood, and their contributions and charisms not always valued.
The Church faces two related challenges: women remain the majority of those who attend liturgy and participate in activities, men a minority; yet most decision-making and governance roles are held by men. It is clear that the Church must find ways to attract men to a more active membership in the Church and to enable women to participate more fully at all levels of Church life.
In every area of their lives, women ask the Church to be their ally. This includes addressing the social realities of impoverishment, violence and diminishment faced by women across the globe. They call for a Church at their side, and greater understanding and support in combating these forces of destruction and exclusion.
Women participating in the synodal processes desire both Church and society to be a place of flourishing, active participation and healthy belonging.
Almost all reports raise the issue of full and equal participation of women, however, the reports do not agree on a single or complete response to the question of the vocation, inclusion and flourishing of women in Church and society.
After careful listening, many reports ask that the Church continue its discernment in relation to a range of specific questions: the active role of women in the governing structures of Church bodies, the possibility for women with adequate training to preach in parish settings, and a female diaconate. Much greater diversity of opinion was expressed on the subject of priestly ordination for women, which some reports call for, while others consider a closed issue.
A key element of this process concerns the recognition of the ways in which women, especially women religious, are already at the forefront of synodal practices in some of the most challenging social situations we face.
In these contexts, women seek collaborators and can be teachers of synodality within wider Church processes.
Charisms, vocations and ministries
Many reports refer to practices for the recognition and promotion of ministries, which enable an effective entrustment by the community. In this way, each ministry becomes a structural and structuring element of community life.
In some contexts, there is a need to consider the variety of charisms and ministries that emerge in an organised form within associations, lay movements and new religious communities. Attention is needed to their specificities.
A great challenge of synodality that emerged during the first year is the harmonisation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit without pitting them against each other, under the guidance of the pastors, and thus without opposing the Church’s charismatic and institutional dimensions.
Synodality takes shape
The synodal journey has brought out a number of tensions, we should not be afraid of them, but articulate them in a process of constant communal discernment, so as to harness them as a source of energy without them becoming destructive. This is why the Church also needs to give a synodal form and way of proceeding to its own institutions and structures, particularly with regard to governance.
Canon law will need to accompany this process of structural renewal creating the necessary changes to the arrangements currently in place. However, to function in a truly synodal way, structures will need to be inhabited by people who are well-formed, in terms of vision and skills.
This new vision will need to be supported by a spirituality that will sustain the practice of synodality, avoiding reducing this reality to technical-organizational issues. For there to be successful synodality, the presence of the Spirit is necessary, and there is no Spirit without prayer.
Structures and institutions
Apart from a few regions characterised by a particular historical dynamic, so far the Church lacks established synodal practices at the continental level.
In the context of a world that is both globalised and fragmented, each continent, because of its common historical roots, its tendency towards socio-cultural commonality and the fact that it presents the same challenges for the mission of evangelisation, constitutes a privileged sphere for stirring up a synodal dynamic that strengthens links between the churches, encourages the sharing of experiences and the exchange of gifts, and helps to imagine new pastoral options.
Episcopal conferences and the Curia are also questioning what synodality means for them. During the Continental Stage, Episcopal Conferences will be able to experience a new role, related not only to the promotion of communion within themselves, but also of dialogue between Churches linked by geographical and cultural proximity.
In addition, the Continental Stage, through the proposed ecclesial and episcopal assemblies, will offer the opportunity to work out in grounded and practical terms how to articulate ecclesial synodality and episcopal collegiality. Revisiting the experience gained during the Continental Stage will help discern how to proceed more smoothly.
The dynamic of co-responsibility runs through all levels of Church life. At the local level, it calls into question the bodies of participation already envisaged at the various levels and with the specificities proper to the various rites, and those that may possibly be appropriate to set up in service to a strengthened synodal dynamic.
These are first and foremost in the form of pastoral councils, called to be increasingly institutional places of inclusion, dialogue, transparency, discernment, evaluation and empowerment of all. Economic, diocesan and parish councils should then be added, taking note also of the episcopal and presbyteral councils around the bishop.
Many reports show the need for these bodies to be not only consultative, but places where decisions are made on the basis of processes of communal discernment rather than on the majority principle used in democratic regimes. In different parts of the world, transparency is seen as an essential practice for a Church growing into a more authentic synodality.
In addition, many reports note the need to involve people with adequate professional competence in the management of economic and governance issues. A special case in point is represented by universities and academic institutions, which will be able to develop research addressing questions of synodality, helping to innovate in the design of educational and formation programmes. In particular, theological faculties will be able to deepen the ecclesiological, Christological and Pneumatological insights that synodal experiences and practices bring.
The overwhelming majority of reports indicate the need to provide for formation in synodality. This formation must articulate itself in relationship to the local context so as to facilitate synodal conversion in the way participation, authority and leadership are exercised in view of more effectively fulfilling the common mission. This training will have to be addressed to all members of the people of God.
In this way, the perspective of synodality will converge with catechesis and pastoral care, helping to keep them anchored in a mission perspective. However, the need for more specific formation in listening and dialogue is also emphasised, for example through the establishment of synodality agents and teams. Many reports point to the need to ensure formation in synodality for priests.
A synodal Church first of all needs to deal with the many tensions that emerge from encountering diversity. Therefore, a synodal spirituality can only be one that welcomes differences and promotes harmony, and draws from the tensions the energies to continue on the journey. To achieve this, it will have to move from accentuating the individual dimension to the collective dimension: a spirituality of “we,” which can enhance the contributions of each person.
This entails a greater effort to integrate the spiritual dimension within the ordinary life of ecclesial institutions and of their governance structures, articulating discernment within decision-making processes. Prayer and silence cannot remain extraneous to these processes.
Christian spirituality is expressed in different ways, related both to the multiplicity of traditions between East and West and to the variety of charisms in consecrated life and ecclesial movements. A synodal Church is built around diversity, and the encounter between different spiritual traditions can be a formative “gymnasium” insofar as it is capable of promoting communion and harmony, contributing to overcoming the polarisations that many Churches experience.
Synodal life and liturgy
The reports emphasise in many ways the deep link between synodality and liturgy and the general view that the Eucharist is already, in itself, the ‘source and summit’ of the Church’s synodal dynamism according to the people of God.
Managing tensions: renewal and reconciliation
Many reports strongly encourage the implementation of a synodal style of liturgical celebration that allows for the active participation of all the faithful in welcoming all differences, valuing all ministries, and recognising all charisms.
The synodal listening of the Churches records many issues to be addressed in this direction, including liturgies too concentrated on the celebrant.
The Eucharist, sacrament of unity in love in Christ, cannot become a reason for confrontation, ideology, rift or division. Moreover, with direct impact on the life of many Churches, there are elements of tension specific to the ecumenical sphere such as the sharing of the Eucharist.
The following liturgical shortcomings are emphasised: the liturgical protagonism of the priest and the risk of the passivity of the wider liturgical community; poor preaching, including the distance between the content of the sermon, the beauty of faith and the concreteness of life; and the separation between the liturgical life of the assembly and the family network of the community. The quality of homilies is almost unanimously reported as a problem.
A particular source of suffering are those situations in which access to the Eucharist and to the other sacraments is hindered or prevented by a variety of causes: there is a strong demand to find solutions to these forms of sacramental deprivation. For example, communities living in very remote areas are cited, or the use of charging fees for access to celebrations, which discriminates against the poorest.
Many summaries also give voice to the pain of not being able to access the sacraments experienced by remarried divorcees and those who have entered into polygamous marriages. There is no unanimity on how to deal with these situations.
A synodal style of celebrating
At the same time, the synod process represented an opportunity to experience anew the diversity in forms of prayer and celebration, increasing the desire to make it more accessible in the ordinary life of communities. Some regions raise the question of the reform of the liturgy, even in the Oriental churches where it is profoundly linked to the identity of the Church.
The next steps
Looking to the future of the synodal process requires considering two very different time horizons. The first is the longterm horizon, in which synodality takes the form of a perennial call to personal conversion and reform of the Church. The second, clearly at the service of the first, is the one that focuses our attention on the events of the Continental Stage that we experiencing.
A journey of conversion and reform
In the reports, the people of God express a desire to be less a Church of maintenance and conservation and more a Church that goes out in mission. A connection emerges between deepening communion through synodality on the one hand and strengthening mission on the other.
The people of God have found joy in walking together and express the desire to continue doing so. How to do this as a truly global Catholic community is something that still needs to be fully discovered. We are a learning Church, and to be so we need continuous discernment to help us read the Word of God and the signs of the times together, so as to move forward in the direction the Spirit is pointing us.