Pope Francis has called for a synod to be held in Rome, starting in October 2023 with another session in October 2024. Its theme is “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” In early 2021, listening sessions were held in dioceses around the world. In our diocese, those who attended were told that certain doctrinal topics such as birth control, married priests, and similar issues were off-limits. Aren’t these the topics that are especially interesting to the average parishioner? Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the synod? I’m simply trying to be honest here.
The theme of the 2021–24 synod sets the tone for this gathering. Pope Francis has indicated that this is not a parliament with winners and losers but rather an attempt to discern how the Church can better fulfill its mandate to preach the good news of Jesus in every place and culture for the benefit of all God’s people.
That cannot happen without honest discussion about present challenges and opportunities. Everyone will not have the same list of concerns or the same sense of what is working and what is not, what needs to change and what needs to stay the same.
In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, approximately 1,700 people attended 24 virtual or online listening sessions. I attended one of those sessions, hoping this would be an exercise in faith sharing and not a time for bitter complaints. After short introductions about the process, most of the time was spent in small-group discussions at round tables with eventual summaries for the sake of all the attendees. I was amazed at the level of deep respect among people who did not previously know each other and certainly had very different opinions on various issues.
Permanent Deacon John Homoelle led these discussions very well over a two-month period and helped draw up a synthesis of concerns expressed. He and I had served for several years on the board of directors for Roger Bacon High School here in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Topics such as the ones you listed were part of those discussions. Neither in our small group nor in the larger group did I hear simplistic thinking such as: “If only the Catholic Church would do ___ [fill in my solution for the issue that concerns me most], then everything would be fine.” What I heard were people ready and willing to grow in their faith, even if they were tempted to interrupt someone else “to set that person straight.”
I was reminded of the first major crisis to face Jesus’ Church: How much of the law of Moses must gentiles observe in order to follow Jesus Christ? Some of it certainly but not all. See Acts chapter 15 for a description of the intense discussion about this major issue. The Council of Jerusalem’s letter to the Church in Antioch includes the expression, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities . . .” (15:28). Four practices were then identified.
The “yardstick” used, so to speak, was not someone’s personal preference but what, before God, this community of faith sincerely believed God was now calling it to do. The Council of Jerusalem’s summary letter reflected more humility than belligerence.
In the United States, an estimated 700,000 people participated in 30,000 listening sessions, generating 22,000 individual reports and 290 summaries. The national synthesis is available through the resources link at usccb.com.
The synthesis for your diocese or archdiocese is probably available at its respective website. Also, other groups sent reports directly to the synod office at the Vatican. In previous synods, Pope Francis has urged participants to speak with parrhesia (boldness, Acts 4:31) and charity, eager to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the entire Church now.
The spirit that pervaded the Council of Jerusalem has been needed in every time and culture where the good news of Jesus has been proclaimed and still needs to be proclaimed by word and deed.
What Does a Synodal Church Look Like?
I’m having a hard time understanding what a synodal Church looks like. Can you help?
A February 23, 2023, lecture by Cardinal Robert McElroy at Fairfield University was centered on eight adjectives that Pope Francis has used to describe a synodal Church. The cardinal said that synodality or a synodal Church:
- points to the reality that the whole of the people of God are journeying together;
- demands a profound stance of authentic listening from every believer who seeks to participate in and contribute to the life of the Church;
- is continually rooted in listening to the word of God and celebrating the Eucharist that is the source and summit of the Christian life;
- is a humble and honest Church;
- seeks inclusion;
- demands a participative Church where co-responsibility flourishes;
- is a missionary Church; and
- is a discerning Church.
The lecture’s full text is available at CommonwealMagazine.org after a search for “Cardinal McElroy.”
Big C or Small C?
I recently noticed that the Apostles’ Creed talks about the “catholic” church with a small c, making it an adjective rather than a proper noun. Has it always been that way, and I just noticed it? Or is this a recent change?
It has always been that way in English because catholic means “universal.” When I first noticed the small c usage in the creed, I thought it was a mistake but soon learned otherwise. The same usage appears in the Nicene Creed, prayed by most Christians (East and West).