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Gerard O’ConnellOctober 25, 2023
iStock

As the synod entered the home stretch of a four-week marathon, a sense of relief began to be felt among participants. They could see the finish line on the horizon: Sunday, Oct. 29.

Since there is no prize at the end—in terms of concrete results on controversial issues—many have begun asking themselves: “What are we taking home?”

Is it just the memory of an experience? That for sure, but not only. There is also a letter to the people of God and, it seems at the time of writing, a more than 20-page synthesis document. The letter informs all the baptized that their task over the next 11 months is to reflect on and discuss the synod’s synthesis document at the national and local church levels, and then provide input for discernment at the final session of the synod in October 2024.

The synod members will be asked to approve the synthesis document on Oct. 28, and the pope is expected to authorize its publication without delay.

That synthesis document will contain not only the substantial points of “convergence” reached by the assembly but also, for the first time in the history of synod documents it seems, the substantial points of “divergence.” It will also indicate “questions” that need to be deepened and present “proposals” that may require additional work from both theologians and canon lawyers.

I believe that the recognition of the “divergences” is one of the original elements of this synod. “Recognizing the divergences is unitive,” a bishop member of the synod told me. “It can provide healing.”

It is certainly an important step toward overcoming the polarization that so bedevils our church and indeed the world. Recognizing that we are not all on the same page on many questions, and yet accepting this without animosity or breaking communion, can help renew church life in a significant way. It can also, perhaps, open the way to the acceptance of a richer diversity in the church, while maintaining unity.

This whole synodal journey reminded me of the approach advocated by Pope John XXIII in his first encyclical, “Ad Petri Cathedram,” on “truth, unity, and peace, in a spirit of charity.” In the encyclical, written after he decided to hold the Second Vatican Council and published on June 29, 1959, he wrote:

The Catholic Church, of course, leaves many questions open to the discussion of theologians. She does this to the extent that matters are not absolutely certain. Far from jeopardizing the Church’s unity, controversies, as a noted English author, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has remarked, can actually pave the way for its attainment. For discussion can lead to fuller and deeper understanding of religious truths; when one idea strikes against another, there may be a spark. But the common saying, expressed in various ways and attributed to various authors, must be recalled with approval: in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

The recognition and acceptance of “divergences” is a key element of the methodology adopted at the synod; it opens a way forward that avoids polarization. It appears to be profoundly countercultural in today’s world and requires charity, and also humility, as many participants told me.

In the last of his profoundly spiritual and inspiring talks to the synod on Oct. 23, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., offered this warning to the synod’s participants as they prepared to return home: “The global culture of our time is often polarized, aggressive and dismissive of other people’s views. The cry is: Whose side are you on? When we go home, people will ask, ‘Did you fight for our side? Did you oppose those unenlightened other people?’”

He advised them:

We shall need to be profoundly prayerful to resist the temptation to succumb to this party-political way of thinking. That would be to fall back into the sterile, barren language of much of our society. It is not the synodal way. The synodal process is organic and ecological rather than competitive. It is more like planting a tree than winning a battle, and as such will be hard for many to understand, sometimes including ourselves! But if we keep our minds and hearts open to the people whom we have met here, vulnerable to their hopes and fears, their words will germinate in our lives, and ours in theirs. There will an abundant harvest, a fuller truth. Then the church will be renewed.

It will indeed be a challenge for the 365 members of the synod to sow the seeds of synodality in their local church communities when they return home. It is a tall order, but, as Pope Francis emphasized, “the Spirit is the protagonist” at the synod, and what is required is that all believers “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church” in the 21st century.

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