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Gerard O’ConnellJune 20, 2023
A printed copy of the "Instrumentum Laboris," or working document, for the world Synod of Bishops on synodality is seen in the Vatican press office June 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The secretariat for the synod has published the working document, known by its Latin title instrumentum laboris, for the first session of the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality that will be held in the Vatican, Oct. 4 to Oct. 29. The second session will be held in October 2024.

“A synodal church is founded on the recognition of a common dignity deriving from baptism, which makes all who receive it sons and daughters of God, members of the family of God, and therefore brothers and sisters in Christ, inhabited by the one Spirit and sent to fulfil a common mission,” said the document.

However, it said, many Catholics around the world report that too many baptized persons—particularly L.G.B.T. Catholics, the divorced and civilly remarried, the poor, women and people with disabilities—are excluded from active participation in the life of the church and, particularly, from its decision-making structures.

The 50-page text was presented at a press conference in the Vatican on June 20 by Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean Claude Hollerich S.J., secretary general and relator general of the upcoming synod, respectively, and Father Giacomo Costa, S.J., the consultor of the synod’s secretary general.

Cardinal Grech described the working document as “the fruit of a synodal process” that started on Oct. 10, 2021, and “involved the whole church” in an exercise of listening to the people of God.

Cardinal Grech described the working document as “the fruit of a synodal process” that started on Oct. 10, 2021, and “involved the whole church” in an exercise of listening to the people of God. The first phase was articulated in three stages: at the local churches with consultation of the people of God (clergy and laity); at the bishops’ conferences, which engaged in a discernment process about the input from the local churches; and at the continental levels, where input from around the world was synthesized.

“Where the bishops started and accompanied the consultation, the contribution has been very alive and profound,” the cardinal said, and the bishops were enriched with “a fruitful ministry.”

The document brings together “the fruits” of the synodal journey since October 2021. Unlike the working documents for past synods, which were intended to be amended, improved and voted upon, this document is designed as “a practical aid for the conduct” of the October assembly at which there will be more than 350 participants (including laymen and around 45 women, both lay and consecrated), not a text to be amended.

The document states that it “is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey; it does not offer the formulation of operational indications, goals and objectives, nor a full elaboration of a theological vision.” It is “part of an unfinished process.” It draws on but also goes beyond the insights of the first phase and articulates “some of the priorities that emerged from listening to the People of God, but avoids presenting them as assertions or stances. Instead, it expresses them as questions addressed to the synodal assembly,” which “will have the task of discerning the concrete steps which enable the continued growth of a synodal church, steps that it will then submit to the Holy Father.”

The document states that it “is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, nor is it the report of a sociological survey.”

Significantly, the working document does not offer a theoretical understanding of synodality but rather presents “a dynamic vision of the ways in which synodality has been experienced” in different church communities and cultures worldwide during the almost two-year synodal journey. It articulates “the insights and tensions that resonated most strongly with the experience of the church on each continent” and identifies “the priorities to be addressed in the first session of the synod.”

According to the working document, the synodal journey so far “has made it possible to identify and share the particular situations experienced by the church in different regions of the world.” These experiences include “too many wars,” “the threat represented by climate change,” “an economic system that produces exploitation, inequality and a throwaway culture” and “cultural colonialism that crushes minorities.”

It points to “situations of persecution to the point of martyrdom” and “emigration that progressively hollow out communities.” It mentions the situation of “Christian communities that represent scattered minorities within the countries in which they live” and “the aggressive secularization that seems to consider religious experience irrelevant, but where there remains a thirst for the Good News of the Gospel.”

In many regions, it says, “the churches are deeply affected by the crisis caused by various forms of abuse, including sexual abuse and the abuse of power, conscience and money.” It describes these as “open wounds, the consequences of which have yet to be fully addressed” and says the church must be “penitent” and intensify its commitment “to conversion and reform.”

It says the October synod takes place in a context that is “diverse but with common global features,” and participants will be asked “to listen deeply to the situations in which the church lives and carries out its mission.”

It says the synodal journey so far has revealed the existence of “shared questions” and “part of the challenge of synodality is to discern the level at which it is most appropriate to address each question.” That same journey also showed there are shared tensions in the church, but, the document says, “we should not be frightened of them, nor attempt at any cost to resolve them, but rather engage in ongoing synodal discernment” so that these tensions can “become sources of energy and not lapse into destructive polarizations.”

At the press conference, Cardinal Grech said “one of the discoveries” on the synodal journey that started on Oct. 10, 2021, was the method of “conversation in the Spirit,” which will now be used in the October synod.

Father Costa described this method as “shared prayer in view of a common discernment, by which participants prepare themselves through personal reflection and prayer” before the discussion. He said this method “opens ‘spaces’ in which to face together controversial subjects, around which in both society and in the church there are often clashes and confrontation, in person or through social media.”

Cardinal Hollerich said the working document “leads us to a matter of discernment, a discernment about the concretization of communion, mission and participation.

The consultation phase has shown how this method offers “a practical alternative to polarization in the church,” Father Costa said.

To enable this method to be used at the October 2023 synod, where there will be hundreds of participants, Father Costa revealed that the assembly will be held in the Paul VI Audience Hall of the Vatican and its members will be divided into small groups of 12 people. They will work in these groups, then gather in plenary sessions and share their input.

Part A of the working document, called “For a synodal church, An Integral Experience,” highlights “the characteristic signs” of a synodal church and emphasizes that “conversation in the Spirit” is the way forward for this kind of church.

Cardinal Hollerich said the working document “leads us to a matter of discernment, a discernment about the concretization of communion, mission and participation,” which Part B of the document lists as the three priority issues for the synodal church.

Cardinal Hollerich explained that “each of these three priorities is linked to five worksheets. These [are] five approaches [that] take into consideration the diversity of persons as well as the diversity of the different social, cultural and religious contexts we have experienced during the synodal process.”

Each of the worksheets contains many questions for discernment that cannot all be listed here, but reveal the wide-ranging and even radical nature of what it means to be a synodal church, a church that includes and is not judgmental. The many questions raised around the world that are recognized in the document relate to the role of women in the church (including the women’s diaconate), the ways of exercising authority in the church at all levels including the papacy, ecumenical and interreligious relations, the need for a new language in church communication, the need for renewal of the formation in the seminary, the question of the ordination of mature married men in some regions, the approach to the divorced and remarried Catholics and to L.G.B.T. people, the preferential option for the poor, the preferential option for young people, the care of our common home and much more.

As the two cardinals and Father Costa made clear at the press conference, the synod on synodality cannot be reduced to single issues.

As the two cardinals and Father Costa made clear at the press conference, the synod on synodality cannot be reduced to single issues; its mandate is much broader than any one issue. Indeed, to reduce it to one or other issue would be to radically distort what the synod is really about. As the working document states clearly, the synod has three main priorities—communion, participation and mission—and these require bringing about a profound conversion and cultural change in the way of being church in the 21st century. It is not about making another church but a different church, as Pope Francis, quoting Yves Congar O.P., one of the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council, said in his speech to the synod in October 2021.

Below are the five main questions for discernment linked to each of the three priorities. The full list of questions can be found here.


1. How does the service of charity and commitment to justice and care for our common home nourish communion in a synodal Church?

2. How can a synodal Church make credible the promise that “love and truth will meet” (Ps 85:11)?

3. How can a dynamic relationship of gift exchange between the Churches grow?

4. How can a synodal Church fulfill its mission through a renewed ecumenical commitment?

5. How can we recognise and gather the richness of cultures and develop dialogue amongst religions in the light of the Gospel?


1. How can we walk together towards a shared awareness of the meaning and content of mission?

2. What should be done so a synodal Church is also an ‘all ministerial’ missionary Church?

3. How can the Church of our time better fulfill its mission through greater recognition and promotion of the baptismal dignity of women?

4. How can we properly value ordained Ministry in its relationship with baptismal Ministries in a missionary perspective?

5. How can we renew and promote the Bishop’s ministry from a missionary synodal perspective?


1. How can we renew the service of authority and the exercise of responsibility in a missionary synodal Church?

2. How can we develop discernment practices and decision-making processes in an authentically synodal manner that respects the protagonism of the Spirit?

3. What structures can be developed to strengthen a missionary synodal Church?

4. How can we give structure to instances of synodality and collegiality that involve groupings of local Churches?

5. How can the institution of the Synod be strengthened so that it is an expression of episcopal collegiality within an all-synodal Church?

Material from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

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