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Colleen DulleOctober 14, 2022
Representatives from all over the world working on global synthesis report for the next phase of the synod walk together while visiting Castel Gandolfo in Lazio, Italy in Sept. 2022. (Photo supplied by Austen Ivereigh)

Cathy Harmon-Christian’s SUV has been getting a lot of attention lately. Last year, after a nun and priest friend asked her to work full-time holding listening sessions for the global Synod on Synodality with people who Catholic parishes might have a hard time reaching, she printed a massive decal of Pope Francis extending his hand in blessing. Above the image, this message appeared: “Pope Francis wants to hear from you!” and below, an email address was given: synodality@gmail.com.

“It was bigger than my window, unfortunately,” Dr. Harmon-Christian said, “so I did have to do some maneuvering.” The sign covers the back window of her Subaru and extends onto the door below.

And her idea worked: Dr. Harmon-Christian has received emails from people who have seen her driving around Atlanta. She has been stopped at the gas station and asked questions. She even had a listening session with her mechanic, who left the Catholic Church for the evangelical church.

Dr. Harmon-Christian’s listening work has not been limited to those she encounters on the road. She has held listening sessions on Zoom, in cafés, outdoors with people experiencing homelessness, and even received a long letter from a prison inmate in Texas. Although she has not received confirmation that the fruit of her listening sessions were accepted by either her diocese or the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—her 600-page report far exceeds the 10-page limit that the U.S.C.C.B required from each diocese—she has received messages of support from officials at the Vatican’s synod office (officially called the General Secretariat of the Synod), who have all encouraged her to continue her work.

But why is the Vatican gathering all of this feedback from people around the world?

In a new deep dive episode of “Inside the Vatican,” America Media’s weekly Vatican news podcast, we interviewed top officials in the Vatican’s synod office along with Catholics like Dr. Harmon-Christian—who are holding listening sessions around the world—and someone who is more critical of the synod, to help explain the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality; what its puzzling name means, what has happened so far and what it expects to accomplish.

What is synodality?

When the Vatican announced the “Synod on Synodality,” many people were confused about what it would entail. Synodality is not an easy word to define, and a synod on synodality left Catholics, ordained and not, even more perplexed. When I asked one priest about his parish’s plans, he asked me, “Isn’t this just a meeting about having meetings?”

Stephen P. White, the director of the Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America, who has written critically about the synod, gives voice to this confusion. “My initial hesitation about the synod on synodality is just that I didn’t know what it was,” he told me in an interview for the latest “Inside the Vatican” deep dive episode. “The idea of a synod is an ancient idea in the church, but it was clear, fairly early on in this pontificate, that Francis was using it in a novel way.”

Mr. White continued, “The more I looked at it, the more it made sense to me.” He defines synodality, succinctly, as “‘Lumen Gentium’ in action.” “Lumen Gentium” refers to the Second Vatican Council’s foundational document that outlines the central role the laity—or the “people of God,” as the document notes—plays in the church’s mission of evangelization and growing in holiness.

The idea of synodality, as outlined in the synodal process, takes that idea of lay people as protagonists in evangelization and asks what practical application this should have when considering how the laity and hierarchy work together. It is a broad question, with broad implications: What does “working together” look like in the context of the liturgy, for example, or in church governance?

The new process underway for this synod aims to answer that question by bringing together lay people with priests, religious, bishops, cardinals and so on, for discussions about—as the synod theme puts it—“communion, participation, and mission.” It takes place over three phases: First, there is the local consultation phase that started in the fall of 2021—the one Dr. Harmon-Christian was gathering responses for—which aimed to gather as many people as possible, especially those on the margins of the church, for small group conversations about how the church is fostering communion, participation, and a sense of mission, and how it can do better.

The second phase, the continental phase, will gather bishops and lay people to talk about the findings from the first phase and find common threads, and start coming up with ideas for how to move forward.

The third and final phase will happen in Rome in October 2023 and will involve bishops and probably lay people, who will work together to draft proposals for the pope. The pope is then expected to make decisions based on the deliberations and proposals, which would likely be published in an apostolic exhortation, a type of official document that the pope publishes after most synods.

This is a very different way of “being church” than the top-down hierarchical model the Catholic Church has had for centuries, which presents some challenges both in communicating the concept and in getting people on board.

Thierry Bonaventura, the communications director for the Vatican’s synod office, has the thankless task of trying to communicate this complex concept in an accessible way.

“I am quite hardly using the word ‘synodality,’” Mr. Bonaventura told me. “I prefer to talk about a ‘listening church,’ [or] ‘walking together.’”

Phase One: The biggest consultation in human history

Early on in Mr. Bonaventura’s tenure at the secretariat, his office had to quickly change course. When the Vatican announced the synod in March 2021, some dioceses, especially those that had previously held local synods and thus had some familiarity with synodality, got straight to planning listening sessions. Other dioceses were more hesitant; they wanted step-by-step guidelines before they started planning.

The synod office produced those guidelines in September, just a month before the synods were supposed to open. So when the guidelines came out, explaining the process and how to hold listening sessions, some dioceses complained to the Vatican that they didn’t have enough time and hadn’t allocated any resources in their budgets to accomplish the work, while others objected to the method and were strongly resistant to the changes proposed by the pope. When the synod opened in October 2021 only about half of U.S. dioceses had taken the first step of appointing a local synod coordinator.

[Read: We contacted every diocese in the U.S. about their synod plans. Here’s what we found.]

The Vatican’s synod office adjusted course. Rather than having dioceses turn in their listening session summaries to their national or regional bishops’ conference in time for the bishops’ conference to then send a report to the Vatican by April 2022, they extended the deadline for the bishops’ conferences’ reports to August. The revised timeline gave dioceses nearly 10 months to plan and hold listening sessions and send them to the bishops’ conference to be synthesized.

And despite the shaky start, Mr. Bonaventura confirmed with America that, by early October this year, 112 of the world’s 114 bishops’ conferences had sent their reports to the Vatican.

Creative approaches from around the world

“My impression is really that people have been listened to,” said Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J., a consecrated religious woman who is one of two undersecretaries in the Vatican’s synod office. “There have been listening sessions, listening groups, [with] different ways to do the process according to the methodology we suggested in the preparatory document, but also with a lot of creativity.”

That creativity, she said, was aimed at reaching people who might not ordinarily be included in church conversations.

Sister Becquart listed some of the more creative attempts at synodality. “I often say that synodality begins with a coffee,” she told me. The idea of synodal conversations over a cup of coffee comes from a diocese in the United States.

The Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, launched its “58,000 Cups of Coffee” initiative, which meant it would distribute 58,000 coasters—three for each Mass-going Catholic in the diocese—and challenge its faithful to start synodal conversations with three people: someone who goes to church, someone who has not been back in church since the pandemic and someone who has never been Catholic or left the faith long ago.

Two dioceses straddling the U.S.-Mexico border also took a more creative approach to the synod, holding a cross-border listening session with participants from the dioceses of Brownsville, Tex., and Metamoros, Mexico. Deacon Luis Zuñiga of Brownsville told me that the listening sessions raised discussion about his community’s material struggles: inflation on both sides of the border, poverty, drug use and immigration. He said it also gave people a place to talk about how they had been hurt by the church.

“People are angry with the church—and it’s O.K.—we need to hear people that are hurt,” Mr. Zuñiga said. “Maybe a priest ignored someone or didn’t want to celebrate a baptism or a wedding or a quinceañera, you know, whatever it is…We need to listen to people that are hurt so that we can help them to heal.”

I asked if any of the feedback surprised him, but he said it hadn’t, because he has been working on synodal listening processes for more than 20 years, first organizing a diocesan synod in Brownsville starting in 1999, and most recently working on the V Encuentro, a synodal process focused on Hispanic ministry, which was the largest synodal effort in the United States until the current global synod.

“What the Encuentro, if anything, told the bigger church is that we need to pay attention to the growing numbers or population of Hispanics in the U.S.,” Mr. Zuñiga said. He said he hoped that that extra attention would lead the U.S. church to invest more in lay leadership, the way that Latino churches do. “To me, lay ministry formation is a reminder of the role of the laity in the church, that you don’t have to be a bishop or a priest or a deacon or a religious to serve the church.”

For Marie-Hélène Dupré La Tour—a Xavière sister from the same congregation as Sister Becquart, but working in N’Djamena, Chad—bringing synod listening sessions to the marginalized has meant listening to the smallest voices in her parish.

Sister Dupré La Tour saw that her parish was hosting listening sessions for women, for men, and for young people, but there were still voices that went unheard. In response, she proposed hosting two listening sessions—one in French and another in Chadian Arabic—specifically with and for children. About 15 or 20 children aged 5 to 13 came. It was a good turnout for her small parish, and she made sure to include some of the orphans in the parish, who, she said, are not often treated well by their extended family members who take them in.

She was surprised by what the children said in the session. “We children want to go to the burials of older people,” she told me, repeating some of what she had heard in the sessions. “No one wants us to come, but it concerns us. We want to go, too. They continued, older people don’t listen to us very much. When we tell them the truth, they don’t like it. They don’t listen to us. Don’t we have a need to speak?”

She is not sure what effect her listening sessions will have within the parish, she said, much less in the wider church. But, she said, “it changed my relationship with these children.” Sister Dupré La Tour has resolved to listen more to the children and to help them speak up, and be heard, in the community.

This is the intangible goal of the synodal listening sessions, which Pope Francis frequently points to: the transformative power of encountering others and engaging in conversation; or, as he often puts it: “the culture of encounter.”

The question that remains is just how such transformative conversations will filter up through several rounds of synthesis, and what decisions Pope Francis might take at the end of the process.

Criticisms of the synod

In Stephen White’s view the process has focused too much on internal church issues and not enough on the church’s mission of evangelization.

“I think a lot of people in a lot of places have promoted the synod as a kind of referendum or political activity within the church,” he told me in an interview for the deep dive. “The idea that this is the Catholic Church becoming a democracy where everyone gets to have their voice heard,” he said. “It’s not true.” He added that with feedback passing through several rounds of synthesis, “at some point the idea that this is Rome hearing my voice is just silly almost to the point of being insulting.”

Mr. White is also concerned that the percentage of Catholics participating in the synod has been as low as “1 percent,” he said. (The Vatican’s synod office was not able to confirm that statistic because the reports it has received have not all included statistics on how many people participated.)

Cardinal Grech, the general secretary of the Secretariat of the Synod, responded to this criticism by drawing attention to the depth of the responses and their geographic spread: Reports arrived from 112 out of 114 bishops’ conferences; and in the case of the two outstanding regions that is because these are countries where there is war or civil unrest.

“We are not after numbers,” the cardinal added.

For Mr. White, “in a sense, the numbers matter tremendously,” he said, immediately adding that “in another sense, they don’t, particularly.” The problem, he said, is that “there’s a tendency to play fast and loose with the difference between actual discernment and sociology.”

Synthesizing and discerning

The Vatican is expected to release a 30-page report on Oct. 18, synthesizing all the feedback from the 112 bishops’ conference reports, plus the countless reports that came in from “unofficial” efforts like those of Dr. Harmon-Christian.

For two weeks from late September to early October, a group of 35 experts from five continents—around 50 percent laypeople and 50 percent clergy—gathered at a retreat house in Frascati, Italy, to pray, reflect upon, and synthesize the reports.

Little information has been published so far about what the Vatican’s report will include, though Sister Becquart did share a few of the main points that had emerged: “The question of young people, the question of women, is everywhere. The question of welcoming people who are more on the margins is also coming from everywhere. There is a very strong feedback that we need to get rid of clericalism.”

Although Sister Becquart sees synodality as the opposite of clericalism, some synod skeptics wonder whether a process that seemed at first to be one-directional—a round of listening to lay people followed by several rounds of synthesis and discernment by bishops and an ultimate decision by the pope—would actually incorporate lay people in decision-making in a meaningful way.

Cardinal Grech pushed back on that in an interview with America Vatican correspondent Gerard O’Connell for “Inside the Vatican.”

[Read: Exclusive: Cardinal Grech on drafting the first global synod synthesis—and what’s in store for phase 2]

The cardinal shared that the global report assembled in Frascati would be approved by a council of bishops, approved by the pope, and then immediately sent to local bishops, who are expected to gather their lay and ordained advisory groups, he said, and “to see whether the document reflects his church” and second, to be aware of the feedback coming from other parts of the world.

The responses to the report, along with any suggested changes, will then be made by early next year, in time for phase two: the continental assemblies.

Phases Two and Three: Continental Assemblies and Rome

The cardinal was unable to detail the plans for the continental phase. They are being planned by the bishops of those continents, he said, but he expects they will include regional meetings of lay people, priests and bishops and culminate in a continent-wide gathering in the spring of 2023. The continental meetings are expected to have two “moments,” he said, one for the entire group to discuss ideas together and another solely for the bishops to communicate their conclusions. “Obviously,” the cardinal stressed, [the bishops] will have to give a reason” for their decisions to the larger, lay-inclusive group.

Few details have been decided or published about the final Rome meeting. In previous synods it has been normal for lay people to be invited to participate, although voting on proposals is limited to bishops and heads of men’s religious orders. (There is some speculation this could change this year, along with the unconfirmed possibility that Sister Becquart could be given voting rights.)

The voted-on proposals are then passed along to the pope who accepts or rejects some of the suggestions and leaves others unanswered.

Ordinarily, the pope would release an official teaching document wrapping up the synod process. But Cardinal Grech said he does not believe this synodal process ends in Rome and rather with the local churches that will implement the synod and, hopefully, continue to offer a listening ear. “There’s this sort of circularity,” Cardinal Grech said. “What departs from, starts from, the people of God should arrive to the people of God.”

Where does all this leave us?

There are a lot of unknowns that come along with taking on such a new and open-ended process, and a lot of questions that remain about what will result from the synod and whether it can achieve its goals.

What is clear so far is that there has been a wide geographic spread in participation, and that many regions’ reports have revealed that their synod conversations are broaching difficult topics that they may never have discussed openly before, like women’s ordination, the experiences of L.G.B.T. people and clericalism.

People around the world, like Deacon Zuñiga, Dr. Harmon-Christian, and Sister Dupré La Tour, are coming up with creative ways to include marginalized people in the synodal journey, even if they are not sure where that journey will lead. Even Mr. White, who was more critical of the synod, has held listening sessions at the Catholic University of America.

Whenever I asked the people I interviewed why they have put so much effort into such an uncertain process, their answer has repeatedly been the same: The Holy Spirit is guiding the process.

Or, as Mr. Bonaventura plainly put it, “We are still satisfied because we have this proof that, really, the project is not in our hands. We are not alone.”

Gerard O'Connell contributed reporting.

Correction 10/17/2022: An earlier version of this article misidentified Deacon Luis Zuñiga as Deacon Luis Piñeda; it has been updated.

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