The path towards a synodal Catholic Church has taken a huge step forward. However, work remains to be done on known issues that have now become part of the official lexicon. A peaceful, not euphoric view that puts the Synod's 'epochal step' in its rightful perspective.
The one that ended was an important step in the synodal journey of the universal Church desired by Pope Francis. Moreover, it was not one of the usual synods of bishops, but an enlarged Synod of Bishops, expanded into an original ecclesial assembly: a Synod of the People of God, in which not only the bishops, but also all the baptised, women and men, had a place and a voice. This alone can encourage those local Churches that, like Germany, wish to have a kind of permanent 'ecclesial parliament' and thus an institutionalized synodality.
In the four weeks of this Synod, an important part of the worldwide Catholic Church has become more synodal by experience. Some of us may smile at this: but that in the synod hall there were many tables for small groups it was a leap forward, at which women and men sat with bishops and cardinals while consulting each other.
Some bishops, said Cardinal Mario Grech at the press conference after the conclusion of the sessions, approached these tables icily, gradually melting away as a result of the experience. It was real listening training for some bishops, said a German bishop. It is possible that some of those bishops will return home changed in their local Church leadership. That would also be a great success.
It is good that the report has left behind the harsh opposition between synod and parliament: the Spirit is at work not only in the synod, but also in parliaments that work for the common good. The work of the Spirit and democratic rules, therefore, went hand in hand. The report was voted on step by step, and in its current form, all paragraphs received a two-thirds majority.
Listening to the Spirit up to the end
The work of the synod was experienced in listening to the Spirit and discerning spirits. This 'conversation in the Spirit' gave rise to valuable experiences: one learnt to listen, to respect diversity of opinion, to tolerate dissent. Of course, there was no persuasion to be done either.
However, this method of 'conversation in the Spirit' also showed its limitations. Spiritualization resulted in a kind of unproductive spin-off of conflict; there were more questions than answers. Long outstanding reform issues were not pursued; and, compared to the Second Vatican Council, theological experts did not sit at the tables of the synod assembly. This is also evident from the final report. For this reason, the work of theologians and other knowledge is now called for, precisely in order to "deepen" the questions that remained open.
The high level of acceptance of this text was also made possible by the fact that many questions were not resolved, but indicated as still open: this alone must be considered a great success. This means a lot of work for the coming year. The women’s diaconate, celibacy, sexual culture, gender question, blessing of same-sex couples questions, all remained open.
On the one hand, this may disappoint those who were already expecting decisions. However, it also worries those who wanted these issues removed from the synod table. According to the voting figures on these sensitive issues, these are not so few, about one third.
The synthesis text explicitly states that it is a mistake to consider women in the Church as an issue or even a problem. However, this criterion can also be applied to some of the first session formulations of the final synthesis itself. There are many women who have long been concerned with women’s issues in the Church and who have reflected on them from a theological perspective. It would have been more useful to invite these prominent women theologians and listen to them in the Spirit.
Not only Church
With the synodal assembly dealing with synodality, there were fears that it was mainly about internal reforms within the Church. That is how to involve the baptised in the Gospel and how to form them properly so that they can assume their responsibilities; how, at the same time, ordained ministers can develop a new synodal ministerial culture, even before ordination; or how to find suitable candidates for the next bishopric appointments capable of synodality.
Fortunately, the synthesis document does not stop at these questions within the Church.
The staggering world is well present, not least through the people who came from the places of crisis: from Ukraine to Russia, from Israel to Palestine. Great attention was paid to migration; the cry of the earth and the poor was heard. The challenges of computerization were also given ample space, because the Internet and social media can be a place for the Gospel’s influencers among young people, but also the ground for a dark hatred to the Church.
In the process of making the Church synodal, according to the summary text, deacons and priests should participate more in the future. Perhaps many have been discouraged by the 'club of clericalism' wielded by the Pope. Spiritual director Fr. Timothy Radcliffe then called for a positive vision for priests in a synodal Church. Priests, and even more so bishops, through synodality should be helped and supported in their office exercise. They could also be relieved of their loneliness because others support and carry them.
The passages on ecumenism give hope. It is not only possible to learn from other Churches. It is clear that there is already a rich diversity within the worldwide Catholic Church, which could increase even more by moving decisions to the level of continents or local Churches. Such an ecumenism within the Catholic Church would give a boost to the ecumenism of the Christian Church. Making the papal office synodal could also make it more acceptable to other Churches.
For a spread of the synodal spirit
The question remains open as to whether and how the synodal ecclesial feeling gained in these four weeks will spread throughout the entire world Church. The report expresses this hope. It links it to the theme of enculturation hoping that in the coming year there will be new impulses on the open questions, especially from the continental assemblies, but also from the local Churches.
This would be a prelude to the probably revolutionary success of the Synodal Assembly in 2024, when these levels of the continents and bishops' conferences could be provided with new decision-making spaces.
At that point, the African Churches would no longer have to acquiesce in the exemption of celibacy in the Amazon, and Eastern European Church areas would not have to accept the blessing of same-sex couples. Africa could develop a new pastoral ministry in view of polygamy, which the report explicitly calls for, which is surely historic. The backlog of reform in the Catholic Church could finally be cleared.
Therefore, there is still some exciting synodal work to be done in the Catholic Church worldwide.