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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 07, 2023
Pope Francis greets visitors from the popemobile as he rides around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before his weekly general audience June 7, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The Synod on Synodality is officially the 16th ordinary assembly of the synod of bishops, but it promises to be radically different from any of its predecessors. Having reported on all the synods since 1985, I have come to believe that this synod—articulated in two sessions—could well be the most transformative event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Today, the Vatican published the list of synod participants. What does it tell us about Pope Francis’ goals for the synod? First, Pope Francis has sought to ensure a balance in the membership of those who will participate with a vote in the plenary assembly, which will be held in the Vatican in two nearly months-long sessions in October 2023 and October 2024.

Pope Francis wanted to ensure that different views are truly represented in this synod, not only in terms of theological, cultural and geographical perspectives but also with regard to age, gender and different roles exercised in the church. He wanted to promote harmony and unity and avoid polarization in the synod, as one risks if the synod is approached as a parliament, and to ensure it is a truly spiritual event in the history of the church in the 21st century.

The Synod on Synodality is officially the 16th ordinary assembly of the synod of bishops, but it promises to be radically different from any of its predecessors. 

The names of the roughly 400 participants were released today by the synod secretariat. Its secretary general, Cardinal Mario Grech, together with the secretariat’s two undersecretaries, Luis Marín de San Martín, O.S.A., and Nathalie Becquart, X.M.C.J, presented a general overview and answered journalists' questions at a Vatican press briefing on July 7.

The “members” of the synod—the 363 participants with the right to vote—have been designated in three different ways, as the synod dossier given to the press explains.

First, by reason of the function they hold (“ex officio”) as heads of Vatican dicasteries (the term used for “departments”) or the six patriarchates: There are 20 heads of dicasteries.

Second, those elected to the synod (“ex electione”) by the episcopal conferences or by the synods or councils of the 23 Oriental (Eastern Rite) Catholic churches “sui juris” and then ratified by the pope. Those elected by the Latin Rite bishops’ conferences were as follows: Africa 43, America 47, Asia 25, Europe 48, Oceania 5. Those elected by the Oriental churches total 20.

Pope Francis also decreed that five men religious and five women religious were to be elected by the Unions of Superiors General that represent men and women religious. In the past, only men were elected.

Having reported on all the synods since 1985, I have come to believe that this synod could well be the most transformative event in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.

Third, a number of members were nominated by the pope (“ex nominatione pontificia”). He chose a total of 50. James Martin, S.J., editor at large for America and the founder of Outreach, was among those selected by Francis.

He has also chosen 70 members (35 men, 35 women) from a list of 140 names given to him by the bodies that organized the seven continental synods, which were held in the first quarter of this year.

The total number of members with the right to vote, 363, is the highest number ever to participate in a synod. It includes 54 women (both religious and lay), who for the first time ever will have the right to vote. The members come from all continents, and from countries with different social, cultural, religious and political situations, some of them are suffering from armed conflict or persecution. The members reflect the universality and the Catholicity of the church.

Cardinal Grech said there could still be some additions to that list of 363, as some names have yet to be received by the synod secretariat.

Thus, for example, though he did not mention it in the briefing, there is still no member from the Catholic Church in mainland China on the list. Two bishops from the mainland attended the Synod on Young People in 2018, and the Vatican hopes some may be allowed by Beijing to attend this synod. The Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference, which represents Taiwan, has elected one member, and Pope Francis has nominated Stephen Chow, S.J., the new bishop of Hong Kong, as a synod member.

Pope Francis’ effort to bring about a balance in the membership with his own picks stands out in a number of instances.

Pope Francis’ effort to bring about a balance in the membership with his own picks stands out in a number of instances. It is perhaps most prominent in the case of the churches in the United States and Germany.

As Michael O’Loughlin, America’s national correspondent, explained, Francis personally nominated three American cardinals—Blase Cupich of Chicago, Wilton Gregory of Washington, D.C., and Robert McElroy of San Diego—as well as Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle, all of whom publicly share and advocate his vision of a synodal church. It appears he did so to help balance the views of the bishops elected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, some of whom are considered to share more of a culture warrior mentality as opposed to the culture of encounter advocated by Francis.

Pope Francis also sought to strike a balance in the German representation at the synod, though in the opposite direction. The German bishops’ conference elected three bishops, two of whom are well known for their self-declared “progressive” positions: Georg Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg and president of the conference, and Franz-Josef Overbeck, the bishop of Essen. Francis added to the German representation two bishops who are widely considered to be more moderate: Felix Genn, the bishop of Münster, and Stefan Oster, S.D.B., the bishop of Passau.

[Every American going to the Synod on Synodality: Full list and analysis]

Even more striking, Francis has named the German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as one of his personal appointees to the synod. Cardinal Müller was openly critical of the Synod on Synodality in his book In Good Faith: Religion in the 21st Century, published last January. In it, and in subsequent interviews, he blasted the synod, alleging that it would lead to the Protestantization and destruction of the Catholic Church and saying it must be resisted. Francis’ decision to appoint him to the conference shows his genuine desire to ensure that different voices are heard at the synod, including at the theological level.

It is also worth noting that the pope named Cardinal Müller’s successor, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, S.J., as a member of the synod. Cardinal Ladaria’s successor, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, the new prefect of the doctrinal dicastery, is an “ex officio” member of the synod. The presence of the three heads of the doctrinal office under Francis’ pontificate brings important, though significantly different, theological contributions to the synodal discussion.

Another noteworthy papal appointment is that of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. He is one of at least 52 cardinals attending the synod, an important fact as it will enable them—and perhaps others present who may also receive the red hat in the next two years—to gain insight into how their fellow cardinals are thinking about a synodal church and the key elements of communion, participation and mission. This knowledge could be a significant factor when it comes to electing the successor to Francis at the next conclave.

Pope Francis has insisted since its initiation that the synod is meant to be a spiritual event, not a parliamentary-style gathering. 

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has sought to advance and promote the role of women in the church. He has given them a presence at the synod, both in terms of numbers (54) and diversity (lay married and single, consecrated women and women from different parts of the world), a presence that is without precedent in the history of the synod of bishops.

Also for the first time, he has appointed two women as “president delegates” of the assembly—Maria de los Dolores Palencia, C.S.J., from Mexico, and Momoko Nishimura, a consecrated lay woman from Japan. This is truly historic because, as the synod dossier explains, “The president delegates preside over the Assembly of the Synod in the name and with the authority of the Roman Pontiff when the latter is not present.” (There are eight president delegates in total, including Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Tex., and Archbishop Timothy Costelloe, S.D.B., of Perth, Australia).

In addition to the 363 voting members, more than 30 other participants will attend but without a right to vote. These include 12 “fraternal delegates,” who will represent the other Christian churches and communities, and eight “special invitees,” including Brother Alois, the prior of the Taize community. The full list of the names of the fraternal delegates will be published once the synod secretariat receives them.

There will be two other categories of participants without the right to vote, called “experts” (mostly theologians) and “facilitators.” They will assist the some 30 small linguistic groups into which the members will be divided in the conduct of their discussions with the methodology of “conversation in the Spirit.”

Pope Francis has insisted since its initiation that the synod is meant to be a spiritual event, not a parliamentary-style gathering. To emphasize this, he has decided that the synod will be preceded by a major ecumenical prayer service on Sept. 30 in St. Peter’s Square, in which the heads of many major Christian churches and communities will participate.

Then, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 3, all the 400 participants will go on a three-day retreat outside Rome, conducted jointly by Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master of the Dominicans, and Mother Maria Ignazia Angelini, O.S.B., abbess of a Benedictine abbey in Viboldone, near Milan. All participants are expected to be present at the retreat. Father Radcliffe and Mother Angelini will be present throughout the synod and, it seems, will give half-days of spiritual reflection throughout the synod gathering.

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