Here we go: this Wednesday, October 4, the Synod of Bishops gets to work at the Vatican. For four weeks, some two hundred and seventy bishops from five continents will share their views and analyses, and propose reforms so that the announcement of the Gospel is audible in today’s world. What can Catholics hope for from this new mini-council (which will include a second session in the fall of 2024)? Since the establishment of the Synod of Bishops following the Second Vatican Council in 1965, fifteen plenary assemblies of this type have prolonged the conciliar debates, without visible effect on the plummeting audience of the Catholic Church in Western societies.
However, this sixteenth edition could hold surprises, as Pope Francis wanted to develop the synodal spirit. What is it about? Centuries of monarchical exercise of power in the Catholic Church have erased an essential dimension: fraternal communion between the baptized, their equal dignity, their responsible participation in the mission. This synodal reality, however, continued to be expressed in the various parish councils, chapters of religious communities or councils, articulated with the authority of abbots, bishops or popes.
The method of the Assembly gathered in Rome embodies this synodal reality, under the expression “conversation in the Spirit”: the work will be structured by times of listening to biblical texts, silence, prayer, far from pressure social networks and the press. “It is in confrontation, sharing, listening to the word of God that the Spirit works,” explains Luc Forestier, theology researcher at the Catholic Institute of Paris. In this logic, the pope invited to the Synod theologians known for their opposition to his project, for example Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as well as around sixty “experts facilitators”, without the right to vote, called upon to put oil in the wheels of debates in small groups.
But the great novelty of this Synod is the presence of around a hundred baptized “non-bishops” from all over the planet. Among which are around fifty women – finally! – who will participate in the debates and the vote on the texts of the final document submitted to the discernment of the Pope. Indeed, synod, a word derived from Greek, means “walking together”. This looks a little more like the Church described by the Second Vatican Council as “People of God”.
These witnesses will carry the voice of the participants in the global consultation of the faithful carried out in 2021-2022, which opened this synodal meeting. We remember that 150,000 faithful then spoke out in France, demanding in particular changes concerning the role of women in the Church, the governance of parishes and dioceses, the compulsory celibacy of priests, the integration of homosexual people, etc.
Another capital innovation, the program of the Synodal Assembly, presented in a sixty-four-page “Working Instrument”, takes up numerous subjects raised during the world consultation. Sensitive issues will be debated: the ordination of women to the diaconate and that of married men, the reception of LGBT + people – the acronym appears for the first time in a Roman document – as well as the themes of ecology , commitment to justice, communion within the Catholic Church and with other Christian Churches, etc.
A desire for dialogue
As soon as it was published on June 20, this working document targeted the traditionalist wing of the Church. But Pope Francis, who is celebrating his ten years of pontificate this year, wanted to take the risk of dialogue both within the Church and with today’s society, to make the gospel word heard. And this, in line with Pope John XXIII, initiator of the Second Vatican Council. “Synodality is a summary of the council, maintains Luc Forestier. It must make it possible to formulate a credible word of hope towards the most fragile in a world crossed by ruptures – ecological, anthropological (new relationship between men and women), geopolitical ( the global South becomes a major player).”
A strong idea drives François, already expressed in his first personal text, The joy of the Gospel (2013): the reason for the Church’s existence is the mission. During his visit to Marseille, he himself was able to address everyone, well beyond believers, to show that it was possible to find ways against violence, to announce fraternity, on condition of start again from “scandalously evangelical charity”. “Communion, participation, mission”, the theme of the Synod sums up this entire pontificate.
Some figures on the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops
- 54 women will participate in the debates and voting during this sixteenth edition, a first.
- 150,000 faithful in France had raised their concerns in 2021-2022.