Pope Francis at the Synod on Synodality’s closing Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 29, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media
Rome Newsroom, Oct 30, 2023 / 11:45 am (CNA).
The first part of the Synod on Synodality’s two-part assembly concluded Sunday leaving many unanswered questions about the next steps in the process.
The synod synthesis document published over the weekend calls for bishops’ conferences to “play an important role” in encouraging theological and pastoral reflection “on the most relevant and urgent issues and proposals” outlined in the document.
It says that the bishops’ conferences and hierarchical structures of the Eastern Catholic Churches are to “act as a link” between their local Catholic Churches and the general secretariat of the synod in this “development of the reflection” in the coming months.
Yet much remains unclear about what concretely will take place in the year leading up to the second and final synod assembly in October 2024.
According to the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document for the first synod assembly that took place Oct. 4–29 at the Vatican: “The main objective of the first session will be to outline paths of in-depth study to be carried out in a synodal style, indicating the relevant actors to be involved and ways to ensure a fruitful process in service to the discernment to be completed in the second session in October 2024.”
While the synthesis report published at the end of the assembly calls for further study on multiple issues, as well as the establishment of commissions of theologians and canonists, nowhere in the document is it specified how these new “commissions” would be composed, who would choose the members, or how or when they would meet.
Commissions for further study
In particular, the report calls for the establishment of a “special intercontinental commission of theologians and canonists” to examine the definition and conceptual understanding of the “idea and practice of synodality” and its canonical implications.
The proposals also include the formation of “a joint commission of Eastern and Latin theologians, historians, and canonists to study the issues that require further study and make proposals for pursuing the path.”
In addition to these commissions, the document also defines the 75 different items listed as “matters of consideration” in the synthesis report as “points on which we have recognized that it is necessary to continue theological, pastoral, and canonical deepening.”
Among these “matters of consideration,” which could not find a consensus in the first synod assembly, are women’s access to diaconal ministry, priestly celibacy, “Eucharistic hospitality” for interfaith couples, ways to make the sacrament of confirmation “more fruitful,” and assigning the handling of abuse cases to another body instead of the bishops.
New synod participants?
The 365 synod delegates who participated in this year’s assembly have been told that they are invited back to Rome for the 2024 assembly, but the synthesis document also calls for the inclusion of more new participants in 2024.
The majority of synod delegates voted in favor of a proposal “to involve Christians of other denominations in the synodical Catholic processes at all levels and to invite more fraternal delegates to the next session of the assembly in 2024” with 25 delegates objecting to the proposal in Saturday’s vote.
The document also calls for “ways to be developed” to achieve “a more active involvement of deacons, priests, and bishops in the synod process during the coming year.”
“A synodal Church cannot do without their voices, experiences, and contributions. We need to understand the reasons for the resistance to synodality by some of them,” it adds.
A call to ‘bear witness’ to the synod
Rather than focusing on concrete steps, synod organizers in the last days of the assembly encouraged synod participants to “bear witness” to their experience at the synod assembly after leaving Rome.
“After a month of work, now the Lord is calling us to return to our Churches to pass on to all of you the fruits of our work and to continue the journey together,” the synthesis document says.
“Our personal accounts will enrich this synthesis with the tone of lived experience, which no page can restore. We will thus be able to bear witness to how rich the moments of silence and listening, of sharing and prayer have been,” it adds.
Father Timothy Radcliffe, the spiritual adviser for the synod assembly, told delegates in the last week of the assembly that “the most fertile time” of the Synod on Synodality will be the months of “active waiting” leading up to the final 2024 synod assembly.
Radcliffe also warned delegates not to speak negatively or sow conflict when they return home from Rome, quoting St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “‘Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths’” (Eph 4:29).
More synod documents to come
Synod organizers have said that the synthesis report voted on at the end of this month’s assembly will not serve as the working document for the 2024 synod assembly. Instead, a second Instrumentum Laboris will be written and released next year to guide the second assembly’s discussions.
It is expected that the synod assembly in October 2024 will produce and vote on a final document to advise the pope on the topic of the synod’s official theme, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, explained in prepared remarks for a press conference on Oct. 28 that the current synod synthesis report had already been delivered to Pope Francis and will now be “entrusted to the bishops’ conferences so that they may promote its return to the people of God living in the local Churches.”
“The process starts, really starts, at the end of the [whole] synod,” Hollerich told journalists. “So even next year, I hope there will be a document that is a real document, where also some theological questions of synodality get considered and so on.”