Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
October 10, 2023 // National

After Years of Preparation, Synod on Synodality Begins in Rome

Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis began the work of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops by asking members to meditate on ancient theological texts about the Holy Spirit, have the courage to be honest about their disagreements, and focus much more on listening than on sharing their opinions.

Cardinals and bishops process to the altar to concelebrate with Pope Francis the opening Mass of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The synodal process “is not easy, but it’s beautiful, very beautiful,” Pope Francis told some 364 other synod members, including Bishop Rhoades (see sidebar on page 9), and 85 non-voting experts, ecumenical delegates, and facilitators the afternoon of Wednesday, October 4, as the synod work began in the Vatican audience hall.

The Swiss Guards stand at the entrance of the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall during the assembly of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 6, 2023. Synod members are greeted each day by a replica of the the San Damiano cross, in front of which St. Francis of Assisi said he heard Jesus tell him to “rebuild my church.” (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“A certain asceticism” is needed for the synod, the pope said. He asked forgiveness from journalists trying to cover the monthlong meeting but insisted “a certain fasting from public words” would be needed to ensure the proper spiritual atmosphere for the synod members.

And, in fact, the synod rules distributed that evening said, “In order to guarantee the freedom of expression of each and all regarding their thoughts and to ensure the serenity of the discernment in common, which is the main task entrusted to the assembly, each of the participants is bound to confidentiality and discretion regarding both their own interventions and the interventions of other participants.”

Pope Francis also repeated what he has said many times: “The synod is not a parliament” where the ideas of opposing parties will be debated and voted up or down along party lines. Neither, he said, is it “a meeting of friends” getting together to exchange opinions and try to solve problems they see around them.

“The synod is a journey that the Holy Spirit makes,” he said, so constant prayer and listening are necessary to follow the path the Spirit indicates.

Pope Francis gives his homily at the Mass opening the assembly of the Synod of Bishops in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

“The Holy Spirit triggers a deep and varied dynamism in the Christian community, the confusion of Pentecost,” when people from every nation heard the disciples speaking in their own languages, the pope said. From the experience, the Spirit creates not uniformity but harmony.

Differences of opinion will surface, he said. “If you don’t agree with what that bishop or that nun or that layperson says, say it to their face. That’s what the synod is for. To tell the truth, not the chatter under the table.”

Pope Francis also acknowledged how people outside the synod members are offering “hypotheses about this synod – ‘But what will they do there?’ ‘The priesthood for women?’ – these are the things that are being said outside.”

Pope Francis is seen on a monitor as he speaks to participants in the assembly of the Synod of Bishops during their first working session in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican Oct 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

But what is happening, he said, is that the universal Church has gathered in Rome to pause and to listen.

“The Church has stopped, as the apostles stopped after Good Friday, on that Holy Saturday,” closed in the Upper Room, he said. “But they were afraid; we are not. … It is a pause for the whole Church to listen.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary-General of the synod, told the members, “Today the Church is at a crossroads, and the urgent challenge, strictly speaking, is not of a theological or ecclesiological nature, but how at this moment in history the Church can become a sign and instrument of God’s love for every man and woman.”

“God’s love is the medicine that can heal today’s wounded humanity, and as the Church our mission is to be a sign of this love,” he said.

In discerning the best ways to do that, Cardinal Grech said, participants should remember the assembly is not “an isolated act” but part of a process that began two years ago with local, diocesan, national, and continental listening sessions.

Los participantes en la asamblea del Sínodo de los Obispos se reúnen en el Aula de Audiencias Pablo VI del Vaticano antes de la primera sesión de trabajo de la asamblea del Sínodo de los Obispos el 4 de octubre de 2023. (Foto CNS/Lola Gomez)

The presence of members who are not bishops – some 70 priests, religious, lay men and women – is not meant to represent “the totality of the People of God,” he said, but to “remind us with their presence” of the whole synod process and its invitation for all Catholics to participate, sharing their experiences of things that help or hinder their sense of communion, participation, and mission.

At the session on Monday, October 9, a theologian told the group that the Church is called to be an instrument of communion with God and unity among all people, but it requires grace and “learning to ‘bear with’ reality, gently, generously, lovingly and courageously for the peace and salvation of the whole world.”

“Communion is the beauty of diversity in unity. In a modern world that tends toward both homogenizing and fracturing, communion is a language of beauty, a harmony of unity and plurality,” said Anna Rowlands, a professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in England.

Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, organized into 35 groups based on language, begin their small-group discussions Oct. 5, 2023, in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

As synod participants began work on the second section or module of the assembly’s working document, their discussions about promoting communion with God and with others were preceded by reflections offered by Rowlands and by Dominican Father Timothy Radcliffe, a theologian and former master of the Dominican order.

While still seated at round tables according to language, many of the 364 synod members were at different tables than the week before. The new groupings were organized by the themes members indicated they wanted to work on; the topics including promoting unity through works of charity and justice; ecumenism; being more welcoming to people who feel excluded from the Church, such as members of the LGBTQ community; and valuing the cultural, linguistic, and racial diversity of the Church.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, Relator General of the synod, introduced the module by telling participants that a key question from the synod’s preparatory process – which included listening sessions on the parish, diocesan, national, and continental levels – was, “How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?”

God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is “the basis of all communions,” he said, and “this God, who is love, loves the whole of creation, every single creature and every human being in a special way.”

Pope Francis shares a laugh with some of the women members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops, including Spanish theologian Cristina Inogés Sanz, left, at the assembly’s session Oct. 6, 2023, in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“All are invited to be part of the Church,” the cardinal said. “In deep communion with his father through the Holy Spirit, Jesus extended this communion to all the sinners. Are we ready to do the same? Are we ready to do this with groups which might irritate us because their way of being might seem to threaten our identity?”

Bishop Rhoades: Pre-Synod Work is Spiritually ‘Enriching’

(OSV News) – Bishop Rhoades, a delegate to the Synod of Bishops on synodality, said that going into a pre-synod retreat, he thought it was a “good idea,” but added that he was pleasantly surprised by the number of meaningful personal interactions he has had with other participants in the world Synod of Bishops.

“This is really a spiritual exercise that I’ve found very enriching,” he told OSV News on Monday, October 2. “This is really beginning with a strong spiritual focus.”

Speaking from Fraterna Domus retreat house 17 miles north of Rome in Sacrofano, Italy, Bishop Rhoades said the October 1-3 retreat did not include “the content” of the synod at the Vatican, but instead provided opportunities for “really, really good conversations” with people from around the world.

“I understand what the Holy Father is hoping for – that there will be spiritual conversations,” Bishop Rhoades said, “that we get to know each other, but that prayer is such an integral part of it.”

Bishop Rhoades is one of 14 U.S. bishops participating in the synod’s Oct. 4-29 general assembly meeting. Ten other voting nonbishop delegates appointed by Pope Francis also are attending from the United States and Canada, including four U.S. laypeople.

The synod, which is formally themed “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission,” includes more than 450 participants – 363 of whom are voting delegates – with leaders from the Vatican Curia and episcopal conferences. More than a quarter of synod members are nonbishops, including laypeople, who for the first time will have a vote during synod deliberations. The synod general assembly has been divided into two sessions, with a second meeting planned for October of 2024. According to a synod preparatory document, the synod is guided by questions of how the Church can “journey together” to evangelize and how to grow to be more “synodal,” sometimes described as a “listening Church.”

Servers lead a procession into the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall at the start of prayer during the first working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops Oct. 4, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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