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seven young people sit around in chairs talking to each other in a courtyard area inside a buildingOne of the Synod listening sessions held at St. Andrew Newman Center in Riverside, California. The Diocese of San Bernardino continues its synodal process, with its diocesan synthesis and ongoing formation to live as a diocese walking together, centered on the Eucharist (Photo courtesy of the Diocese of San Bernardino).

With church leaders slated to meet in October for the next phase of the Synod on Synodality, the bishops conferences of the United States and Canada released a report this week summarizing a series of virtual meetings conducted with lay and ordained Catholics from each country earlier this year.

The 39-page report, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission,” says the more than 900 participants in the “continental phase” of the Synod on Synodality expressed appreciation for candid conversation about the joys and tensions that come with being Catholic today. Many of those tensions, the report states, flow from the church not welcoming the voices of women, L.G.B.T. people, youth, the poor and those still reeling from abuse scandals.

“What emerged from the assemblies was a recognition that there are strong tensions within the Church,” the report states.

The report compiles the input of participants in 12 virtual sessions, held in English, Spanish and French, conducted mostly in January. The participants were about evenly split between men and women and included in the sessions were 391 lay women, 235 lay men, 148 priests, 146 bishops and 77 women religious. Most bishops met in separate small groups, though some decided to participate in dialogues with lay Catholics.

The synod kicked off in 2021 with a meeting in Rome that launched the multi-year series of meetings that took place in parishes and dioceses, aimed, in part, at examining the state of the church and how its leaders can better respond to ongoing challenges.

“Synodality is not always easy to comprehend; it can also be seen to be a complicated process.”

Items from those meetings were collected in local, regional and national reports. Representatives from each continent met earlier this year to draft documents that will be used to set the agenda for meetings in Rome this October and in 2024. (The North American meetings included the United States and Canada. Catholics in Mexico met with counterparts from Latin and South America.)

The report was slightly critical of the synodal process overall, in part because relatively few Catholics were involved in the early meetings and because the concept seems not to have been easily understood by many.

“Synodality is not always easy to comprehend; it can also be seen to be a complicated process,” the report states.

Rather than a parliamentary body, the synod should be viewed as “an ecclesial moment” that is led by the Holy Spirit, Pope Francis said last year.

The report recognized that including women in the decision-making process was important to the meeting participants, even if that meant examining topics that remain taboo in some circles, such as women’s ordination.

In the North American report, the role of the laity in the church, especially when it comes to who makes decisions, featured prominently.

“There was the desire for greater co-responsibility among the laity and the clergy, including bishops,” the report said. Describing women as “a marginalized group in the church,” the report also recognized that including women in the decision-making process was important to the meeting participants, even if that meant examining topics that remain taboo in some circles, such as women’s ordination.

“There can be no true co-responsibility in the Church without fully honoring the inherent dignity of women,” the report states. “While clarity is still needed around exactly what a fully co-responsible Church looks like, delegates proposed the examination of a variety of aspects of Church life, including decision-making roles, leadership, and ordination.”

Participants also lamented that young people not only seem disinclined to participate in religion but also feel that their voices are not valued. “Empowering young people to more fully live out their baptismal dignity requires that we confront tensions within our communion as the Body of Christ,” the report states.

Trends in society also play out in the church, participants said, warning that it feels like the church is “almost to the breaking point” because of polarization. Additionally, the report noted that “more needs to be done to rebuild trust” between lay Catholics and ordained church leadership, especially in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse in the United States and revelations of abuse at residential schools in Canada.

The report states that among participants, “there was a deep desire for greater inclusivity and welcome within the Church.”

The document says that divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as Catholics attracted to the Latin Mass, experience a “profound sense of suffering of those prevented from receiving the Eucharist.”

It continues, “In fact, one of the major factors that was seen as breaking down communion was the experience of many that certain people or groups feel unwelcome in the Church.” Those groups include “women, young people, immigrants, racial or linguistic minorities, L.G.B.T.Q.+ persons, people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, and those with varying degrees of physical or mental abilities.”

The document also says that divorced and remarried Catholics, as well as Catholics attracted to the Latin Mass, experience a “profound sense of suffering of those prevented from receiving the Eucharist.”

One participant said that listening to people from marginalized communities could lead the church to greater understanding and many others “recognized that the Church is at its best when walking alongside those forced to the margins of our society.”

The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Raymond Poisson, said in a press release, “The Holy Spirit is truly at work in the Church in North America and we hope this Final Document will serve to strengthen our communion as sisters and brothers in Christ.” Bishop Daniel Flores, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops doctrine committee, who has led the synod process in the United States, called the document “an important step in our commitment to become a more synodal Church.”

But another member of the report drafting committee, Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M.Conv., said he was disappointed by the virtual nature of the continental discussion and by the “lukewarm” buy-in among U.S. bishops.

“Asia, Europe and Africa with their vast geographies and cultural diversity were able to conduct continental assemblies. Even the Middle East created such an assembly,” said Bishop Stowe, speaking on Tuesday at Loyola University Chicago’s Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage. “North America did not, citing economic and practical difficulties in coming together.”

Calling it “a challenge for the immediate future,” the document also says church leaders must focus on unity, lest polarization threaten the cohesiveness of the church.

While praising some dioceses “where the synod has been embraced and eagerly implemented,” the Lexington, Ky., bishop characterized the participation in the synod by U.S. bishops overall “as lukewarm at best.”

The North American report concludes by suggesting five “principal themes” from the discussions, offering them “for further consideration at the Synodal Assembly to be held in Rome in October 2023.”

First, participants said formation about the purpose and methodology of the synod would be helpful and suggested that “rethinking our diocesan and national ecclesial practices and/or structures in a way that truly prioritizes the synodal style” may be required for greater buy-in from priests and laity.

Next, while participants said they desired a more welcoming church, “many asked what is meant by ‘radical inclusion,’ and what are its pastoral and even doctrinal implications?”

Third, related to “co-responsibility,” participants said that there is a greater need for transparency about decision making, “which demands a better understanding of the roles of the laity in general, and of women and young people in particular.”

Calling it “a challenge for the immediate future,” the document also says church leaders must focus on unity, lest polarization threaten the cohesiveness of the church. Baptism and the Eucharist “must be seen as primary sources of our identity and unity as the People of God, and prior to any racial, ethnic, social, economic, political, or ideological differences,” the report states.

Finally, the document says that Catholics in the United States and Canada desire more formation when it comes to missionary activity. “On our continent there is always a danger of forgetfulness of, and indifference to, those who are poor and ostracized,” the report states.

Correction, April 17, 2023: A previous version of this article linked to a different Vatican document in the second paragraph. It has been edited to reflect this change.

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