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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 18, 2023
Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University in California, speaks during a briefing about the assembly of the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican Oct. 17, 2023. Sheila Leocádia Pires, secretary of the synod's information commission, looks on. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

As I write on Oct. 18, we are now halfway through the synod’s first session, which several of its 365 members have described to me as “a marathon.” It demands energy, concentration and the will to keep going to its conclusion on Oct. 29.

Some had to drop out of the marathon, including Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had to return to Jerusalem following the attack on Israel by Hamas and Israel’s declaration of war. Likewise, the two bishops from mainland China departed from the synod early this week because of “pastoral needs” in their dioceses.

Each synod member can address the plenary assembly briefly, and I understand that already more than half of them have availed of that possibility in the first two weeks. Commenting on these public interventions, one member characterized them this way: Several gave in-depth interventions, while others sought to firmly reassert the church’s teaching on doctrine, especially on moral questions, when they sensed this was being challenged in some way in their group.

But I learned that the speakers who had the greatest impact on the assembly were those who spoke “from experience.” I was told that there was “a shocked silence” when one member gave a heartrending testimony. Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., referred to that same testimony this morning when, seeking to remind the synod members that “we are called to embrace a deeper sense of who we are as the improbable friends of the Lord, whose scandalous friendship reaches across every boundary,” he said, “Many of us wept when we heard of that young woman who committed suicide because she was bisexual and did not feel welcomed.”

“The work of the synod will begin when the gatherings here end. This will be tested in the years to come.”

“I hope it changed us,” he added.

In my first synod diary, I reported that one speaker reminded the assembly, “We discern experiences, not ideas.” In fact, the synod itself is an original experience for the participants and a totally different one from previous synods. The Nigerian theologian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., put it this way at a press briefing: “This is a privileged moment because we’re part of an experience and process of the church making and remaking itself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that calls on theologians to deepen the process and bring out something new in how we live.”

Father Orobator is convinced that “the process is more important than the outcome.” He added, “There has been no shortage of divergence and differences. The process has allowed these to exist. And it has allowed the conversation not to devolve into animosity.”

Father Orobator explained that “[f]ocusing on the mechanisms and frameworks of listening and dialogue—these are the things that will lead us to a new way of being, where people, no matter who they are, are able to be heard and contribute to our discernment.” Looking ahead, he said: “The work of the synod will begin when the gatherings here end. This will be tested in the years to come.”

While the synod experience, and especially the methodology, was new for many participants, the Irish Loreto sister Patricia Murray, I.B.V.M., remarked at a briefing that “as a member of a congregation, I feel we’ve been putting synodality into practice over 20 years…. It’s a joy to see it unfold in the universal church.”

She rejoiced that “this discernment journey is not just this month. I’m happy there are two stages because as things come up from different perspectives, we’re holding our unity in diversity. We’re allowing it all to nourish us through voices and differences of opinion. But we need to go deeper in the months ahead.”

She said each synod member is “called to do personal preparation before we engage. You’re asked to speak deeply about your voice. And you can feel your own position being broadened, widened because of the diversity of opinions, ecclesiologies, etc. Naming the tensions is important in this process. Time is a gift, and we have to use it together, but also the time between our synodal assemblies for further prayer, reflection and discernment.”

The synod is now in the second half of the marathon. Only 12 more days to go. Then, as Father Orobator said, the work begins again.

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