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Austen IvereighOctober 27, 2022
Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of bishops' conferences from around the world at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2021. Also pictured is Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor's note: Following the listening phase of the Synod on Synodality, a mix of religious, clergy and lay people gathered in Frascati, Italy, to synthesize reports from around the world. Austen Ivereigh took part and gives this insider’s account. 

At the end of our first day in Frascati in late September, struck by the solemnity of the task that faced us, I messaged a friend to say that many of my fellow “experts” felt the hand of history and the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. “I hope you’re keeping a diary,” my friend pinged back.

I didn’t just mean the pressure to create, in two short weeks, a document that harvested the fruits of the greatest-ever exercise in listening and consultation the Catholic Church has ever carried out. It was more solemn than that. As Cardinal Mario Grech, the general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, had told us that morning, we were on res sacra, holy ground. The documents that the 26 members of the reading/writing group had been entrusted with had been written with tears and even sometimes with the blood of martyrs. To read them superficially, or to use them in the service of some agenda or other, would be disrespectful not just of the people but of the Holy Spirit acting through the sensus fidelium. “We are the heart and ears of the church, to hear the cry of the people of God,” Cardinal Grech, speaking in Italian, told us.

“We are the heart and ears of the church, to hear the cry of the people of God,” Cardinal Grech, speaking in Italian, told us.

Our task was to present, in a single document accessible to the whole church, the hopes and dreams of God’s people who had assembled in unprecedented numbers over many months across the globe for the first phase of the Synod on Synodality.

Reminding us of Pope Francis’ famous four principles (time is greater than space, realities are greater than ideas, unity prevails over conflict, and the whole is greater than the part), Cardinal Grech said the first phase was about allowing the voice of the Spirit to emerge above conflicts and divisions; about listening to experience rather than discussing ideas; and about capturing the bigger picture, “what the Spirit is saying to the whole church, not just to one part of it.” Many people, he reminded us, had not taken part in the synod or done so skeptically because of previous experiences in which they had spoken but what they said had not been heard or acted on. This time needed to be different.

To be the voice of God’s people, added Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., the synod’s relator, “you need not just your mind but your whole selves to be present.” It meant being attentive, for example, to the way in which in some synod reports filters had been applied to what the people were saying by bishops keen to embellish or groups with agendas.

“Be open to the overflow,” Giacomo Costa, S.J., told us. “Where is it? What are we being called to?” Father Costa, a veteran of the 2018 Synod on Youth and an expert in processes of group discernment, was the engineer of our process. But that first day, he was more like a retreat guide, urging us to open to the graces we needed: to be open, to trust the process and to work collaboratively—not just in writing a document together but to be at the service of the broader mission. In being faithful to what we had heard from the people, we were called to be attentive to what the Spirit had stirred in us, to capture the “new thing” God was offering his church in our time, which is what Pope Francis means by el desborde, the overflow.

The process and spirit of Frascati

Called by the synod secretariat to Frascati, a town on the outskirts of Rome, between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2, we came, it seemed, from every corner of the globe. A mix of religious, clergy and lay people of many places—among them Lebanon, France, Canada, Singapore, Hungary, Portugal, Peru, Kenya and Korea—we fell into three overlapping categories. Most were theologians, canon lawyers and Scripture scholars; some were facilitators of synodal processes and leadership programs; two of us were in church communications. Many were also members of the synod’s four commissions: theology, methodology, spirituality and communications. The only bishop in the invited readers/writers group was Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, S.D.B., of Perth, the president of the Australian plenary council.

Adding our 26 members of the reading/writing group to the three superiors of the synod secretariat and the four members of the coordinating group of the synod, 33 people were directly involved in the elaboration of the document, 12 of them women. Although the reports we read might be in any of the five languages allowed by the secretariat, in order to ease the Frascati process, we used only English and Italian in our deliberations.

Each member of the reading/writing group arrived having read some 15 to 20 of the 10-page “national synthesis reports” sent in to the secretariat by 112—that is, almost all—of the world’s bishops’ conferences and Oriental churches.

Called by the synod secretariat to Frascati, a town on the outskirts of Rome, between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2, we came, it seemed, from every corner of the globe.

These local church reports, each a synthesis of diocesan processes, were the main material we worked on. But we also kept in view the reports that the synod secretariat had sifted through already: syntheses from the superiors of religious orders across the world; a single submission from 150 associations of lay faithful; reports from 17 dicasteries of the Roman curia; and a report compiled by “influencers” in the digital world whose breakthrough online listening exercise drew in over 100,000 people. Finally, we heard a presentation on the submissions from more than 1,000 individuals or groups who had chosen, for different reasons, to write directly to the secretariat rather than through their local churches.

The fortnight was divided roughly into three periods. First came four “listening” days of working in small groups to identify core elements—whether reflecting consensus or minority, prophetic voices—that we summarized in presentations to the plenary sessions. Then came another four “writing” days of compiling a first draft. After a free day on a group visit to the papal palace and gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the final days were spent in reviewing and revising, with the help of the synod’s council of 16, mostly cardinals, who needed to approve the final draft. And we met Pope Francis.

The process was intense and tiring, and the task a race against time. But to participate in it was also a privilege. Spending a lot of time in each other’s delightful company—at meals, in liturgies and in spiritual conversation, working in small groups and occasionally walking to town for coffee and gelato—helped to form a discerning instrument. As we tuned up to each other, to the voices in the reports and finally to the Holy Spirit, what seemed impossible at first began to give way to the realization that something important was being born.

The process was intense and tiring, and the task a race against time. But to participate in it was also a privilege.

Father Costa constantly shifted the makeup of the groups: first by continent, then by gender and then by ecclesial status. So in the morning, for example, I was in Europe-Italian, in the afternoon in men-English and the following morning in lay people-Italian. All this was to ensure that our particular perspectives were not lost, while also producing content for the report in the form of paragraphs with supporting quotes from the documents. These quotes, catching not just what but also how people in the local churches expressed themselves, came to be known in Frascati as “the pearls of the people of God.”

The main tension I felt within the groups was that some seemed anxious to abandon these pearls in favor of abstract commentary. The temptation to theologize, as if what the people had said could not be allowed simply to stand, was ever present in Frascati, an understandable resistance among highly competent and educated people to the humility our synthesizing demanded of us.

In the groups, I experienced the temptation as a kind of dead weight of dullness and banality, and I found it frustrating. Just let the people speak! This became my prayer and my hope for the document. Cardinal Grech and Father Costa were aware of the temptation, too, and went out to meet it. “We have been summoned here with the task of listening to the people of God,” Cardinal Grech reminded us. “If in our synthesis we do not represent what the people of God are trying to say, then we have failed.”

The message landed. The final document stays rooted in the people. But having experienced the temptation in our groups, I became aware of how hard it is, in synodal processes, to really listen to the people, especially for those of us accustomed to analyzing and opining. It made me much more aware of the temptation in the synod reports, many of which had applied the anxious “filters” Cardinal Hollerich had warned about on the first day.

“We have been summoned here with the task of listening to the people of God. If in our synthesis we do not represent what the people of God are trying to say, then we have failed.”

I had two extreme cases in my own batch of national syntheses: In one, the filter was a clerical establishment that was obviously unused to the idea that the Spirit speaks through ordinary people. In another, the filter was applied by a lay establishment convinced it already possessed all the answers to the questions, such that listening to people in parishes would be useless. I reached the end of both reports with no idea what the people thought about anything, let alone what the Spirit might be saying through them.

But they were the exception. Most reports, whether or not written directly by bishops or by teams they had appointed, made great efforts to capture what the people had said, passing it on without judgment.

Finding the lost sheep

In Frascati, I also learned the importance of not just including everyone but also going in search of the missing. We were told to add an empty chair to our groups and to ask several questions: Where were the minority voices that were constant in the reports yet risked getting lost in the focus on the celebrity issues? Whose prophetic voice had not been heard? Which perspective has not yet come up? The plenary that followed was suddenly filled with voices that were in the reports yet had not yet been well heard by us.

The reports from across the world said it: The top-down structures and modus operandi of the church today are tired and do not fit the missionary context, whether the church be old or young. The existing containers are not adequate to hold the diversity of the church, nor to enable the participation of all in the mission. It was time to put flesh on the bones of the Second Vatican Council’s understanding of the church as people of God.

In Frascati, I also learned the importance of not just including everyone but also going in search of the missing.

Yet the voice that came through did not demand or hector; it was a more humble, loving voice, one that spoke directly and firmly, naming realities that needed to be faced yet that trusted in the wisdom of the synod process to discern the right responses. The call that had begun to find shape in Frascati was right there, in that hope for spaces of belonging in which all could express themselves without fear of exclusion, in which both commitment to Gospel truth and the radical inclusion of all could be better brought into fertile tension.

In what emerged, I began to grasp the truth of what Pope Francis says in “Evangelii Gaudium,” that “God furnishes the totality of the faithful with an instinct of faith—sensus fidei—which helps them to discern what is truly of God.” It is an instinct that comes, the pope goes on, with a certain kind of wisdom, “to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression.” What the Spirit was saying to the church was, after all, right there in the reports, in that “instinct of faith” in the voices pained by fragmentation and division, that longed for a maternal, embracing, patient, more capacious church, one that could gather in those left outside, one that was better capable of holding in tension difference and disagreement and that takes seriously the idea that all the baptized are called to mission and to sit at the table where decisions are discerned.

Despite our fatigue, we felt buoyed by this realization. The people of God were on the move. We needed to help the church move with it.

A big-tent church

It was a while into the meeting, at the end of the first week, that the idea arose among us that became the icon at the heart of the Frascati document. The tent of meeting in Isaiah 54:2 has the tabernacle at its center and is firmly anchored by sturdy pegs; yet it is capable of being enlarged and moved as the mission demands. It struck us as a perfect metaphor for what the people of God were calling for, which the document calls the “missionary synodal church.”

Some will be surprised that the document does not go more deeply into the issues that the synod raised but leaves them hanging, noting the disagreements where they exist and inviting them to be wrestled with. Most of the document is given over not to the issues but to “process.” Process, after all, is the point of a synod on synodality, and it is where the document breaks important new ground by harvesting and giving expression to the desire in the reports for a synodal way of proceeding. Hence the dream in the report from religious superiors of “a global and synodal church that lives unity in diversity” and that adds, “God is preparing something new, and we must collaborate.”

It was time to put flesh on the bones of the Second Vatican Council’s understanding of the church as people of God.

What is this something new, this big-tent church? Inspired by “Evangelii Gaudium,” paragraphs 30-33 of the continental document note the two spiritual temptations facing a diverse church: on the one hand, to become trapped in conflict and polarization; on the other, to ignore the tensions that diversity brings, pretending they do not exist in a kind of fragmented coexistence. No one can read the reports and not find the people lamenting both of these in our church: Both polarization and fragmentation in the church today show that the containers we have are inadequate. What the Frascati document offers is a hermeneutic tool for a new container, one that allows us to create that bigger-tent church more capable of holding together diversity and disagreement in a generative tension.

Drawing from suggestions in the reports, the document offers a broad variety of approaches for the next stages of the synod to take forward in regional assemblies in February next year. But what may be missed is what this means for the often thorny issues raised by the national synod reports. It means, first of all, that as a church we should not regard those issues as problems to be immediately “resolved” or “decided” but as dynamic tensions that—if we handle them in ways that are open to the Spirit—are life-giving. The invitation is “to articulate them in a process of constant continual discernment so as to harness them as a source of energy without them becoming destructive.”

Pope Francis has extended the synod process for this reason, so that it concludes not with a single assembly in Rome in October 2023 but a second one a year later. This will give time for the Spirit to enter into those tensions so that they become new possibilities rather than causes of deepening conflict.

It was through such processes that in its early, missionary era the church was able to grow so rapidly across boundaries of race, language and culture. Through the extraordinary assembling of the global faithful that began in 2021, what has emerged is the dream of a way of proceeding that regenerates that synodal tradition in ways appropriate for today’s global church of immense diversity.

The focus on synodal processes may be frustrating for those impatient to see particular changes that, viewed at least from Manhattan or Munich, seem self-evident. To others who suspect the whole synod process is a dilution or capitulation, it will sound dangerously vulnerable and open-ended. But no one can doubt, reading the local church reports as we did at Frascati, that the sensus fidelium has awoken and has spoken, and that we cannot possibly confront these tensions without first creating the capacity for a synodal church. If we have managed to bottle that call and share it so that others can grasp it, our mission in Frascati is accomplished.

Deep Dive: What's happening with the Synod on Synodality?

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