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Anna RowlandsJune 29, 2023
pope francis sits in his white chair in front of a group of italian bishops and leadersPope Francis speaks to members of the Italian bishops’ conference and diocesan leaders involved in Italy’s national synod process on May 25 in the Vatican audience hall. The pope addressed questions and concerns members of the group submitted about his notion of fostering a “synodal church.” (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

It has been a little more than a year since I started brushing up on my Italian. An unlikely invitation had landed in my Whatsapp messages, and yet again, my plans to spend a few months writing a new book were interrupted. This time the invitation was to help with the work toward the Synod on Synodality. It is difficult to think of an ecclesial process more important to me, so I gladly set aside the pile of books.

I have since learned more about the church than I could ever have imagined, and the synod process has come to seem even more urgent and fruitful. Much of what I have learned has been surprising.

In the early months of my involvement, several journalists said that the synod process would inevitably reveal a church divided culturally between Europe and Africa, divided between clergy and laity, and at war with itself over moral issues. I was told that participation was so low as to make the process meaningless, that the reports had probably all been pre-written, and that the process would be either a sell-out or a stitch-up. These were fairly dispiriting statements to take into the process I was preparing for: reading the episcopal conference reports as well as the reflections produced by religious congregations, lay movements and associations, plus the many individual submissions made to the synod.

If I were to talk to the same journalists now, I would tell them that their preconceptions were wrong. I came away from the process with a deeper sense of the profound and vulnerable questions raised by synod participants. For some people, this was the first time they had spoken publicly about their hopes and fears for the church. They felt a profound sense of dignity in contributing but worried about whether they would really make any difference. In a culture that prizes certainty and opposition in political discourse, many people gave voice to their uncertainty and their desire for guidance and accompaniment, and for the communal spaces that would make reflecting together possible.

Many of the most significant tensions and cleavages lie between neighbors, whose histories shape much of their ecclesial experience.

One bishop compared the synod’s method of spiritual conversation to a disarmament process, and another told me his diocese would never be the same again (a good thing!). Many who participated in the synod spoke honestly about the difficulty of genuinely listening to someone you disagree with, or with whom you feel you have little in common beyond a baptismal identity.

But it also became evident to me that the church is not divided in a culture war between continents. Many of the most significant tensions and cleavages lie between neighbors, whose histories shape much of their ecclesial experience. The innovation of meeting at the level of the continent (something with which Latin America now has long experience) is one of the least mentioned but one of the most important aspects of the synod.

Another discovery: The questions of the status and participation of women, increased transparency in the church, and how to hold together love, mercy and truth in extending a welcome were not solely the concerns of the global North. These echoed from every corner of the Catholic world.

It is true that some individuals and groups remain skeptical and even hostile toward the process; others now wish they had had more chances to become involved. It is also true, I think, that the most silent group in the process so far is priests and bishops. This process will not be properly synodal unless they find a way to share their own experiences, with trust, with the wider people of God, and we need to understand more about why they have not done so already.

As we head into the next stage of this process, I remain hopeful and curious. The challenge of this next phase will be for those who participate in the assembly meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome this October to remain as closely connected as possible to those vital local expressions of love, uncertainty, hope and lament; to find ways to draw others into its dynamic pathway; and in doing both, to open new ways of walking together into the future.

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