By Massimo Faggioli, La Croix, Oct 30, 2020
Preparing an assembly of the international Synod of Bishops is a complex operation.
That’s especially the case under Pope Francis, for whom such gatherings are not just for show. And it is proving particularly difficult to plan for the next general assembly, which is slated for October 2022 in Rome and will focus on the very theme of synodality.
Preparations for this assembly are crucial, especially because – in this case – the medium really is the message. But the planning is taking place in the midst of something like an institutional paralysis, if not in Rome, then at least in many local churches.
It is hard to imagine the world returning to its normal pattern of meetings and international travel before the second semester of 2021. Airlines executives even warn that it’s not likely to be until 2024 when we are back to some sort of pre-COVID situation.
This has created a paradox in the current pontificate – how to reconcile the pope’s idea of synodality as a people walking together in the Church with the anti-pandemic measures of mandatory distancing, quarantine and isolation.
During a speech in October 2015, which could be considered the “magna carta” of ecclesial synodality, Francis described the synodal Church as being “like a standard lifted up among the nations”.
A still-unfolding story in various phases
But it has become more difficult to imagine how to actually be a synodal Church, in the seven or so months since he announced the theme of the 2022 Synod assembly.
When he made the announcement in the first week of March, many countries were already entering the pandemic lockdown.
Synodality has become part of the Church’s vocabulary in a way that could hardly have been imagined before Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope.
Yet the Argentine pope’s emphasis on synodality is a still-unfolding story with distinct and clearly identifiable phases.
From back-to-back Synod assemblies to the intermezzo
Phase One came in the breakthrough years of 2013-2015. It was marked by the two Synod assemblies on marriage and the family – first in 2014 and then in 2015. Francis announced these unprecedented back-to-back gatherings just a few months after his election in 2013.
Phase Two was the intermezzo between 2016-2018. This was characterized by a number of episodes.
First, there was the traditionalists’ backlash to Amoris Laetitia, the pope’s 2016 post-synodal exhortation on marriage and family life. Then there was the publication in September 2018 of Episcopalis Communio, an apostolic constitution to reform the Synod of Bishops.
A few weeks later an Instruction on the Celebration of the Synodwas issued, followed almost immediately by the Synod of Bishops’ assembly on young people (Oct. 3-28).
Phase Three is currently taking shape and can be identified with the growing concerns Francis has expressed since the beginning in 2019 about the risks of synodality and the need to distinguish it from parliamentary functionalism.
He articulated his apprehensions in a letter to the Church in Germany (June 2019), in speeches he gave during the so-called Amazon Synod (October 2019) and even in the post-synodal exhortation, Querida Amazonia.
Synodality does not function like a parliament
Finally, the pope has also expressed his concerns about faulty understandings of the Synod and synodality in a never-before published note that was revealed by Antonio Spadaro SJ in an article this past September in La Civiltà Cattolica.
In the last two years, Francis has been more and more persistent in warning against the danger of allowing synodality to fall in the hands of ecclesial elites who are pushing for idiosyncratic policy or canonical changes.
He has also been adamant that that synodal proceedings must not be turned into anything at all similar to parliamentary-style debates.
What does this mean between now and 2022, as the pope’s unfolding vision for a synodal Church moves towards Phase Four?
The “synodal path” in Germany
The next two years should reveal whether the pope’s new emphasis on synodality is merely a change in vocabulary and something to aspire or whether it takes roots at the institutional level and in magisterial documents.
There are a few synodal processes that have started already. Two of them are at the national level and they should be completed between now and the beginning of the next assembly of the Synod of Bishop in 2022.
The first one is Germany, where the “synodal path” which started in 2019 has already captured the attention of many and caused anxiety in Rome.
In the last few months there has been something like a procession of German church leaders lining up for audiences with the pope and Roman Curia officials.
Germany’s national synod is a momentous event for all Catholics in the country, but is not separable from other local processes.
For example, the Diocese of Trier has been working to restructuring the parish system, not only by reducing the number of parishes, but also by re-envisioning the role of the clergy in “parish teams” made of lay people.
Earlier this year, officials in Rome rejected the draft submitted by the Trier’s bishop, which was actually the fruit of a 2016 diocesan synod.
Other dioceses in Germany are currently planning similar reforms. Pope Francis has urged his Church to pursue a “healthy decentralization” and foster greater synodality. But what this means for local Churches, and how much room Rome will allow them to maneuver, is still not clear.
A Plenary Council “down under”
The second place where synodality is being tested at the national level is Australia.
The Catholic Church there began planning a Plenary Council in 2018 by holding small, local gatherings. The process represents one of the most interesting examples of trying to seize “the Francis moment” – even though the first proposals for a synod in Australia preceded the current pope’s election.
In the Australian case, the preparation of the Plenary Council has been shaped by a strong role of lay people, including at the level of leadership in the executive committee and facilitation team.
A key feature of the preparations is a 208-page report, titled The Light from the Southern Cross. Promoting Co-Responsible Governance in the Catholic Church in Australia.
It was compiled by 18 Catholic men and women – one bishop, three priests and 14 laypersons representing a broad and varied field of expertise. (Full disclosure: I was a member of this task force that worked on the report.)
The Australian Bishops’ Conference and Catholic Religious Australia asked the group to base its report on the recommendations that the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse (2013-2017) made concerning local Church governance – but, obviously, in a way compatible with Catholic ecclesiology.
This report could become a model of how a Church can proceed in reforming its governing structure in response to the abuse crisis. No Church in global Catholicism is exempt from this task.
An example and a challenge
It is no exaggeration to say that the road to the Synod of Bishops’ 2022 assembly in Rome goes through the synodal processes in Germany and Australia.
These two processes also stand as an example and challenge to other countries, such as Italy and the United States, whose hierarchies are in denial about synodality or are simply ignoring it.
But it is not just the future of synodality in local Churches, and it’s not about one particular aspect of Francis’ pontificate separable from the whole.
Both the German and the Australian synodal processes are a direct response to the tragic history of sexual abuse in the Church. A failure of these ecclesial events would be catastrophic, because it would be yet another failure in the institutional response of the church to the abuse crisis.
Mixed messages from Rome
In the next two years there is much at stake for Francis’ pontificate, especially since the Vatican has been sending mixed messages over the last several months.
For all the pope’s great input on synodality, the Roman Curia is still speaking a very different language.
For example, the Congregation for the Clergy this past July issued a new instruction on “the pastoral conversion of the parish community”. Among other eye-raising omissions, it never once mentions the abuse crisis.
And it simply re-proposes the traditional model of parish governance, centered on a monocratic priesthood. This is simply unrealistic in many Catholic churches today.
Contrast that with the pope’s appointment of Cardinal-designate Mario Grech as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, which came into effect in October.
It is a crucial appointment and sends a clear signal that synodality can revive the evangelizing and missionary potential of local churches.
It is decidedly not another way to perpetuate a clerical way of governing the Church, which is clearly unsustainable from both a theological and sheer practical point of view.
The risk of dashing synodal hopes
There can be no viable synodality in the Catholic Church that continues to ignore or postpone the fundamental questions of ecclesial ministries and the role of women in Church leadership.
Latin American theologians and Church leaders have been greatly disappointed by the way the pope interpreted the Amazon Synod in his apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia. But they have mostly expressed their disappointment in private.
The Latin Americans are aware that they cannot let down their own pope, a native son.
But if synodal hopes are dashed in Germany and Australia, leaving Catholics in these two countries deeply disappointed, it could be a whole different story.
It’s too risky to expect that these two local Churches, which are among the hardest hit by the abuse crisis, would react in such genteel ways as their sisters and brothers in Latin America.
This time a variation on the theme “la synodalitè – c’est moi” (I am synodality) will not do.
Follow me on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli