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Gerard O’ConnellSeptember 21, 2022
Pope Francis greets Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, during a consistory for the creation of 13 new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Nov. 28, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Even though the first phase of the Catholic Church’s two-year-long Synod on Synodality convened by Pope Francis only ended in mid-August, “We can already see the fruits of the synodal process,” Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the synod, told America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, in an exclusive interview conducted for America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast at the Jesuit Curia in Rome on Sept. 14.

Cardinal Grech gave the interview before leaving Rome for two weeks starting today, Sept. 21, with a team of 35 people “summoned from all continents” to study and analyze the feedback from the first phase, also known as the consultation phase, of the synodal process.

In the interview, Cardinal Grech spoke about what has been already achieved in this process and his hopes for both the synod’s second phase—the “continental assemblies” that will take place from January to March 2023—and its third phase, the “assembly of bishops” that will be held in the Vatican in October 2023. He spoke, too, about the role his office plays in the synodal process, and the substantial changes introduced by Pope Francis regarding the aim and work of that office, not least of which include its name change from the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops to, simply, the General Secretariat of the Synod.

A synod without an end

Since we met on the eve of the second anniversary of his succeeding Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri as general secretary on Sept. 15, 2020, I began by asking him to describe the situation at the secretariat when he took over. He responded by first paying tribute to “my predecessor and his team,” saying that thanks to their work, Pope Francis was able to promulgate the Apostolic Constitution, “Episcopal Communion” (Episcopalis Communio) on Sept. 15, 2018, the 53rd anniversary of the institution of the synod of bishops by Pope Paul VI.

He emphasized that the constitution is of fundamental importance in explaining “the nature of the synod and the mandate of our secretariat” and said, “It is not a dead letter, and it’s our duty to continue, with the help of the Holy Father, to interpret and put into practice this document.” Moreover, he said, “it is thanks to Episcopalis Communio if we today…see [that] the synod is not an event celebrated once every three years but is a process: a process that has a beginning but, believe me, I don’t think will have an end, even the present synod that we are celebrating.”

"The synod is not an event celebrated once every three years but is a process: a process that has a beginning but, believe me, I don’t think will have an end."

When he took over as general secretary, the secretariat had 14 staff members, but that has since been reduced to 12 because two retired. To cope with an expanding workload, the cardinal created a “coordinating team” of “people who are not at the office but are always on call and meet to discuss the vision and the implementation of Episcopalis Communio.” He also created four commissions: “the Theological Commission, because we need a sound theological backup; the Spiritual Commission, because synodality is first and foremost a spiritual experience; the Methodological Commission, because we need a method; and the Communications Commission.” In these four commissions, “there are around 80 people, coming from different nations and different continents, working in their own countries.” There is ongoing interchange between them and the secretariat, and, through them, “what is discussed or planned in the central office goes back to the particular churches [that is, dioceses] or Episcopal Conferences.”

A synod not only for bishops

Cardinal Grech underlined that “the pope is the head of our secretariat, we respond directly to him, and that’s why I’m called general secretary.” I noted that he was originally referred to as general secretary of the Synod of Bishops but, in the pope’s new constitution for the Roman Curia, the central offices of the Vatican, that went into effect June 5, the term “bishops” appears to have disappeared from his title and that of the secretariat. Asked to explain the significance of this, the cardinal said, “The word ‘Bishops’ has disappeared from the title, but they are still a major partner in the process.” He said the reason for the change is that “this particular synod that we are celebrating, which was inaugurated in October 2021 and will have an important phase, the Assembly for Bishops, in October 2023, is not exactly a synod for bishops but is a synod for the whole church.”

As such, he said, “the first phase, which we have just concluded in mid-August, used to be called a ‘preparatory phase,’ but it is not a preparatory phase [for a meeting of bishops], it is part of this synodal process.” Likewise, the process of discernment “is not limited to the assembly for bishops, what used to be called the Synod of Bishops. No, this discernment started from the particular churches where all the people of God, all the baptized, were invited to contribute. Furthermore, because the church has no limits, even those who are not baptized but are of good will can also be listened to.”

Referring to the interreligious dimension of the synod, he revealed that one episcopal conference, in its synthesis that was submitted to the Vatican, reported that “in our country, we have a large community of Muslims, but a group of them call themselves ‘Christ,’” and so the conference invited them to participate. Cardinal Grech remarked, “They admire Jesus so much that although they are Muslims, they have this interest in Jesus, so what should keep us from listening to them as well?”

A ‘discernment,’ not a synthesis

“This first phase is [made up of] a consultation and a discernment,” the Maltese cardinal said. He explained, “The local bishop who is responsible for the community has this task: to listen to all, then to make an ecclesial discernment, and then to pass on the conclusions to the Episcopal Conference. There the bishops together are invited to make a further discernment,” and then “we have the results of this consultation phase.”

He said he prefers to call the results of this first phase “a discernment” rather than a synthesis, “because a synthesis is not a theological concept …. Discernment is not carried out with sociological criteria.”

Cardinal Grech hailed the feedback from the first phase as “historic,” because “already 111 out of the 114 bishops’ conferences have sent the results of the consultation to the secretariat.” He noted that “in past synods there was not this high percentage of contribution.” Conflicts or turmoil in their countries prevented the other three conferences from submitting responses, he stated.

“Already 111 out of the 114 bishops’ conferences have sent the results of the consultation to the secretariat."

“Considering this is the first time that we carried out this wide consultation, the results are very positive,” he said. “We are not after numbers. But what really is interesting is the way that, if not all, at least the majority drafted this report. It shows they took this process very seriously. They really tried to engage not only themselves, but also the communities. I think that someday when they look back, they would like to have had more time so that they could include others,” the cardinal said.

“There were instances initially when there were bishops and communities who had doubts, or were calling for more explanation, so they took [more] time to start. Again, that was a negative factor because then they found themselves out of time,” he said. He said that time limitations, along with the pandemic and other concerns, led some bishops to request an extension to the consultation phase, which was originally set to end in April 2022. With Pope Francis’ approval, it was extended to August.

Cardinal Grech also said he was impressed with the results from places where communication is difficult. “One of the members at the synod council is from Africa, and when we had the last meeting, he told us ‘I had to get a generator,’ because it was an online meeting,” the cardinal remarked. “This says a lot. Nonetheless, they have managed to reach out to a good number of people.”

The cardinal is particularly struck by the African participants’ “enthusiasm” and “the way they speak about this experience. They speak with passion, with enthusiasm. They would like to go on. I mean, although formally this first phase was concluded by mid-August, it does not mean that the process that started in October 2021 has stopped. And this is something that people are asking for as well; there is this claim from the people of God. They’re saying, ‘Listen, it has been such a very interesting ecclesial experience, we would like to proceed, to go forth.’”

In Frascati, drafting the first global synthesis

The next task facing Cardinal Grech’s office is to analyze the reports that have come in from around the world. Cardinal Grech revealed that to do this, he and “a group of 35 people” will go to Frascati, a town about an hour’s drive southeast of Rome, for the next two weeks starting today, Sept. 21.

“We are going to convene in a house in Frascati to read all these reports and make a synodal discernment so that we can draft the first document that then will go to the continental phase,” the cardinal said. He underlined that “It is the first time that we are holding this [kind of] communal discernment. In the past, the synthesis was carried out by one or by two [people] at most, but we took this new initiative.”

“It is the first time that we are holding this [kind of] communal discernment. In the past, the synthesis was carried out by one or by two [people] at most, but we took this new initiative.”

The group of 35 is “a mix” of religious and laypeople, men and women, with only two bishops, “coming from the different continents, because I believe that it’s one thing to read the text with the lens of a European and another thing to read the same text from the point of view of an African or an Asian or Latin American. So we are going to be together for two weeks and hopefully, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will manage to make a report.” He said the team will draft the report, and “for the last two days of the meeting, the [roughly 15] members of the synod council will join us.” The synod council is a group of bishops elected during the last ordinary synod, which in this case was the 2018 Synod on Young People.

A ‘circularity’ of listening and discerning

The council will then approve the document, which will be sent to Pope Francis for his approval before the text is published. After that, the cardinal said, the document will be sent to every diocesan bishop. “We are inviting every bishop to convene his church, and in particular, his consulting bodies, namely, the presbyterate council, the diocesan pastoral council, the synodal equipe of his diocese to read this document,” the cardinal said. He gave two reasons for this: “First of all, to see whether his church is present, to see if the document reflects his church,” and second, “so that every local church can be aware [of] what other churches are saying.”

Explaining the reasoning behind this process, the cardinal said, “Even here we are trying to put into place this concept of circularity” or feedback, to emphasize that “this is not a document coming from Rome; it is the document coming from the particular churches.”

He described this as “a second listening, but not a fresh one.” After that, each bishop will communicate to his episcopal conference whether his local church approves the document or has things to add. These will then be sent from the bishops’ conference to the continental synodal assemblies.

Cardinal Grech said he hopes that “by the end of October the document will be published,” and that he will be able “to communicate it to all bishops.” That way, the bishops will have some months to study and discuss it before they participate in the continental assemblies, in the first three months of 2023.

Part II explains the continental assemblies in fuller depth. It will be published tomorrow, Sept. 22.

Update 09/26/2022 11:19 a.m.: This article has been edited to fix a transcription error ("vision" rather than "division") and to clarify a quote.

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