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Colleen DulleJune 28, 2023
Bishops pray at the start of a session of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2018. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

After a two-year process of listening to Catholics around the world and then synthesizing the results of those listening sessions in continental assemblies, last week the Vatican’s synod secretariat finally released the working document that will guide the first of the two global meetings in Rome that comprise the synod’s final phase, in October 2023 and 2024.

The working document—instrumentum laboris in Latin—uses the feedback that has been gathered thus far to present questions for participants in the Roman meetings to reflect on before their arrival. They focus on the synod’s main themes of communion, participation and mission.

The 56-page document is wide-ranging, with sections on justice and care for creation, ecumenism, promoting “the baptismal dignity of women,” and renewing church decision-making processes and structures to better share responsibility for the church’s mission among all its members. News reports, to the chagrin of the synod office, have focused primarily on the questions of the ordination of married men and women deacons—questions on which it invites discussion but makes no recommendations.

News reports, to the chagrin of the synod office, have focused primarily on the questions of the ordination of married men and women deacons.

The real standout from the document, however, has little to do with controversial issues. The insight that emerges most clearly is the idea of “conversation in the Spirit,” a method of dialogue that, the synod document suggests, could become the model for co-responsible decision-making between bishops and the members of their flock.

The synod document reports that the conversations people have had in the synod’s listening and discernment sessions so far have been transformative, and the method of those conversations has coalesced around what the synod is calling “conversation in the Spirit,” which it defines as “a shared prayer with a view to communal discernment.”

This process entails participants first preparing themselves for the conversation through prayer and personal reflection on the topics to be discussed. It is that reflection that the synod document aims to guide, with its suggested topics for prayer and questions for reflection. It is unclear whether these questions will be the ones provided for discussion at the actual synod meeting in October, or if they are geared solely at the participants’ personal preparation.

Once in the meeting, each person in a small group—in October, these will be groups of 12—takes the floor and makes his or her contribution based on his or her preparatory prayer and reflection. A period of silent reflection on what has been heard follows, and then each person takes the floor again, responding to what they have heard.

The real standout from the document, however, has little to do with controversial issues. The insight that emerges most clearly is the idea of “conversation in the Spirit.”

The synod document specifies that this response is “not to react or counter what they have heard, reaffirming their own position, but to express what from their listening has touched them most deeply and what they feel challenged by most strongly.”

Finally, the group works together to identify the key points that have emerged in their conversation and work together to reach a consensus, without disregarding points of disagreement. Just like the rules for discernment that St. Ignatius Loyola famously outlined to help Jesuits identify whether they were being moved by the Holy Spirit or not, there are key signs for communal discernment that the synod document outlines. For example, the document says, “It is not conversation in the Spirit if there is not a step forward in a precise, often unexpected direction that points to concrete action” (No. 33).

The synod document says that because this type of conversation has been fruitful so far in the synodal process’ meetings, the meeting in Rome will continue to use this method. The document begins by outlining some characteristics of a synodal church and points out that “a synodal Church is also marked by a particular way of proceeding. According to the outcome of the first phase, conversation in the Spirit is this way of proceeding,” it concludes emphatically.

It also anticipates, in what could be a major development in church governance, that “conversation in the Spirit” could be used regularly in future church operations, saying that “conversation in the Spirit is identified as a way of managing decision-making and consensus building that builds trust and fosters an exercise of authority appropriate to a synodal Church” and recommending that facilitators be trained in it. It describes this formation as “a priority at all levels of ecclesial life for all the Baptized, starting with ordained ministers in a spirit of co-responsibility and openness to different ecclesial vocations.”

“How can conversation in the Spirit, which opens up the dynamism of community discernment, contribute to the renewal of decision-making processes in the Church?” the document asks. “How can it be drawn more centrally into the formal life of the Church and so become an ordinary practice?”

It continues, in a nod to the extent to which this method could affect church governance, “What changes in canon law are needed to facilitate this?”

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